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Sheldon "Klassy" Klasfeld, beaver-toothed and round-spectacled with slicked curly locks, sits in his junk-clogged sliver of an office in the front of Academic High School. The principal and founder of the Boca Raton academy — and perennial candidate for the Florida House — is in full stall-and-divert mode, waxing at length about his hippie days in Pittsburgh, clearly reluctant to give a tour of his school, located in a nondescript strip mall.
Eventually, he exhausts his tale of hitchhiking to Woodstock and opens a door into maze-like halls of yellow wood panels, scrawled in places with black graffiti.
In two classrooms, high school kids sit in oppressive silence, plowing through workbooks. The teachers are at their own desks, saying nothing. This is not an exam day: Academic High students get credits, and eventually diplomas, by filling out answers in textbooks every day from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunch is not served, though kids can buy chips and soda from vending machines wedged in a corner.
The state is aware of Klasfeld's special brand of academia. In 2003, the Palm Beach County school board shuttered Academic High — which was then a charter school — for mismanaging its budget and cramming multiple classes into one room. Klasfeld appealed in person to the Florida Cabinet, where he was unanimously denied by a panel including Governor Bush and then-Education Commissioner Charlie Crist.
Within a year, Academic High re-opened as a private school and has received $138,000 in McKay cash, drawing the same milk from a different DOE teat.
Ask Klasfeld, though, and he's simply providing options to students, most of them with learning disabilities, who would never pass Florida's standardized tests required for graduation in public schools. "I used to be a big advocate against the FCAT," he remarks while sitting at a picnic table outside after the hasty tour. "Then I realized it was just bringing more kids to us."
After some consternation, Klasfeld pulls a student out of class to speak with a reporter. Seventeen-year-old Alex is pock-marked and slow-speaking. Until 2009, he attended Coral Springs' Academy High School — which received $3.7 million in McKay funds — before administrators there were caught forging parents' signatures, among other ploys, to continue receiving money after the disabled students were no longer enrolled.
Alex says it's not entirely just book work at his new alma mater. "We do reports too," he says. "About presidents, about Osama, stuff like that."
Klasfeld sits across the picnic table from Alex and often interjects nervously. Alex says he wants to enlist in the Army after he gets his diploma. "Ten-hut!" the principal hollers nonsensically. "Sir, yes, sir!"
As the program director of a Fort Lauderdale tutoring and after-school nonprofit called HANDY — Helping Abused, Neglected, Disadvantaged Youth — dealing mostly with poor and African-American children, Kirk Brown is depressingly familiar with the scourge of two-bit McKay schools "preying" on South Florida's inner cities.
Twenty-eight percent of the scholarship fund's students are African-American, and 45 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ghettos tend to attract the huckster portion of the McKay schools. In neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Sistrunk, it seems, you can't swing an FCAT without hitting a dubious educator setting up a fly-by-night school designed to lure kids who might otherwise struggle with standardized testing.
Any combination of the words preparatory, Christian, hope, academy, and perhaps Zion usually appear in the name. The administrators make their arrival to a neighborhood known by leafleting and billboarding housing projects. Or they show up at Sunday services and prowl for old ladies wearing church hats and toting children. "They look for kids who don't have traditional parents," Brown says. "Grandmothers, aunts, uncles — anybody who's not necessarily going to do their homework and may be swayed by the religious angle."
The inevitable morning comes when those students show up for class to find only an empty store for rent, or they attempt to transfer to another high school or matriculate to college and are informed their credits are worthless.
"They have that look of somebody whose house just got robbed," Brown says of the children he's watched go through the experience. "These schools are run by the worst kind of parasites. All these kids have is their education, and that's what they're trying to steal."
But sometimes the parasites don't have to do that much work, because public school administrators do it for them.
Beginning a few school years ago, Carol City Senior High social studies teacher Paul Moore was mystified by a new, perennial exodus of his "problem" seniors — students who might fare badly on FCATs. They were kids he usually liked to have one last-ditch shot at improving their studies.
Eventually, he figured out where many of them had ended up: Parkway Academy in Miramar, a charter school and target in 2009 of the Florida High School Athletic Association's largest fine — $260,000; later reduced to $118,000 — for dozens of football recruiting violations. Other of Moore's missing seniors had scattered to private schools, most of them McKay-funded. "It's an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools," Moore says.