Lesson the Damage

The disastrous demise of Techworld raises questions about how we should navigate the uncharted waters of private-public education

The contract for that sister school was approved in June 1999 by the Miami-Dade school board. The Techworld school on Biscayne Boulevard opened that fall in an old storefront off 76th Street with less than 200 ninth-grade students. Again Strachan made big promises to parents of inner-city children: state-of-the-art technology, internships, uniforms, and community service. The school would prepare students for high-tech careers commanding salaries as high as $120,000 per year. "Techworld is the driving force for the next 50 years for economic survival as African Americans," Strachan bragged to the Miami Times that July, while revealing that his D.C. school had garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations. Months later Strachan was planning another Techworld charter in Las Vegas, Nevada. It opened just as officials in Miami were watching all the big Strachan promises start to unravel.

By the time Techworld started its second year in Miami, officials at the school district were seriously uneasy about the way in which the school was being run. Routine checks of the charter's records revealed possible discrepancies in the number of students, leading the district to begin an investigation. "They had 283 students in attendance according to their roster," says Miami-Dade Schools of Choice administrator Magaly Abrahante. "How many actual students there were, I don't know." The number is significant, because a school receives thousands of dollars for each student it purports to educate.

Techworld hardly was a stable learning environment; a revolving door of teachers, principals, and others came and left in a matter of weeks. The situation grew progressively worse as the school desperately hired questionable people to fill spaces. The school could produce no proof that some of the teachers were qualified or that new employees had undergone required criminal-background checks and drug screenings. "We would tell them, ďThis person will never be certified,'" asserts Abrahante. "They did also hire people with questionable criminal records. It just happened too many times." When Stanford Achievement Test results for the previous year came out, Techworld's scores were unsurprisingly abysmal in both reading and math.

Octavio Visiedo made his career as Miami-Dade schools' superintendent; now he's banking on the public's frustration with the current state of those same schools
Steve Satterwhite
Octavio Visiedo made his career as Miami-Dade schools' superintendent; now he's banking on the public's frustration with the current state of those same schools
Refugees from the Miami-Dade school system: Lead teacher B.J. Orfely and executive director Fred Damianos run a successful charter school in Miami Shores
Steve Satterwhite
Refugees from the Miami-Dade school system: Lead teacher B.J. Orfely and executive director Fred Damianos run a successful charter school in Miami Shores

Other concerns emerged after Techworld officials refused to submit required financial records, a school improvement plan or an annual report, and a host of other troubling discoveries about the school's shoddy management emerged. Finally the school district flatly told Techworld it would not receive any more state money until it turned over financial statements. The school had received more than $1.6 million in state and federal money in one year of operation, but the district withheld another $630,000. Meanwhile Strachan was busy working on a proposal for yet another school in Atlanta, Georgia.

In November 2000 the problems began to leak into public view. The dean of students at Techworld was charged with sexual battery for allegedly having sex with a sixteen-year-old student. This came on top of the incident in January 2000, when sixteen-year-old Techworld student Sonnfred Baptiste was arrested for shooting student Antonio Hill. According to the Miami police report, Baptiste had fired at a crowd of teenagers playing basketball in the schoolyard and Hill was struck.

The school district had had enough. Officials began the paperwork process necessary to terminate the charter contract, and Strachan was told the school board would likely end the contract in January 2001. Strachan beat them to the punch with a letter on January 5, stating the school was closing in five days. "Without the [student] funding, currently held by the Dade County Public Schools, it is not possible to continue operations," he complained.

School district officials immediately swooped down on the school, securing student records. They met with teachers and told them if they helped make the transition smooth for the children, the district would see what it could do about finding them jobs. As it turned out, only two or three of the dozen or so teachers were eligible to enter the school system. About half of the suddenly school-less students were sent to Northwestern Senior High. Most of the rest went to Central, Edison, or a handful of other high schools. Abrahante says the district hauled off furniture and equipment by the truckload to be stored until the asset liability could be determined. "We found skimpy records and credit problems," she remarks dryly. Judith Smith, coordinator of the state-run South Florida Resource Charter School Center, credits the school district for being on top of the situation. "These are the things you don't want to hear about," she sighs. "For some reason all of the things you don't want to hear about happened here. The rest of the charter schools would say, Good, if [Techworld is] not doing things the right way, then we don't want them around."

Daanen Strachan's troubles did not end with the closing of the Miami school. In January Clark County, Nevada, school officials revoked the charter for the Las Vegas school, which was plagued by questionable financial audits. And in D.C., the school board voted in February to start the process of revoking Techworld's charter after financial irregularities turned up in an audit report. In Florida investigations are continuing, according to George Balsa, the school district's chief auditor. "The State Attorney's Office, school police, and audit are involved," he divulges. "Maybe the FBI." Daanen Strachan did not return phone calls left at his office in Washington, D.C.

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