Rashaad Easterling was shooting hoops in the gymnasium at Goulds Park when a looming, sharply dressed man with a long scar under his left eye jogged over to him. "Come to my school," he told the 17-year-old matter-of-factly, referring to Choice Preparatory School, the outfit in a corner of the tiny park building. He promised Rashaad that after a stint at his private school, the kid could get a sports scholarship to any top college he wanted.
The man, Antron Wright, then made the same pitch to Rashaad's bone-thin mom, Roslyn, who lives in the projects across the street from the gym. He told her he'd get Rashaad a McKay Scholarship — a state-funded tuition voucher for students with disabilities — despite the fact that the kid, who earned good grades at Miami Southridge Senior High, didn't have a disability.
They didn't ask too many questions. To Rashaad, who wants to be either an NBA player or a veterinarian, the dapper sports recruiter offered a chance to escape Goulds's bombed-out environs for Bethune-Cookman University, his dream school.
But there was no happy ending for Rashaad — who left the school with a black eye and a semester of lost credits — or many of the school's former students who spoke with New Times and complained of transcripts held hostage and rejected diplomas. Even a former principal, Shauna Jones, who helmed the school in 2010, declared, "Choice Prep is a diploma mill. I wish I had known what Wright was about before I got involved."
Since this past spring, Wright has been evicted from a Coconut Grove office and his Brickell Avenue apartment, court records show. Photocopier-leasing company Precision Copier Service sued him and his school for allegedly not paying a $4,800 bill. Even Key Biscayne's Rusty Pelican claims Choice Prep fleeced the restaurant with $1,600 in worthless checks for a May 12 graduation dinner.
In an interview five months ago — before the school was barred from competing and investigated by the NCAA, before he cleared out the building and disconnected his cell phone — Wright, a 36-year-old former substitute teacher, insisted to New Times: "This is no sports factory. I'm just trying to give these kids a better chance to succeed."
And he has done it mostly on your dime. Since 2007, the Florida Department of Education has doled out $1.74 million in vouchers for students to attend Choice Prep. The bulk of that — $1.62 million — was in McKay checks. Mismanagement and an egregious lack of oversight in the program, which cost taxpayers $149 million last year, is the target of a continuing New Times investigation ("Rotten to the Core," June 23). In this case, the state tossed cash at a school run by a murky figure with a documented history of bogus education, illegal sports recruiting, and defrauding the very fund he was allowed to continue drawing from.
As a teenage football player in Miami at the turn of the '90s, Antron Dematrius Wright was the sort of talent he is known for unearthing today: from the streets but destined for the big lights. In a brief March interview, before escorting a reporter from the Goulds Park building, he told New Times that his father and brother were murdered when he was a child and that another brother spent years in prison. Dusty Miami Herald clips show a Goulds-raised All-Dade and All-State linebacker. Transferring from Southridge to Palmetto his senior year, Wright saw his local star rise as he filled out a solid six-foot-one, 240-pound frame. "All during the storm, I was thinking about college because college is my dream," he told a reporter when he was 17, referring to Hurricane Andrew, which virtually destroyed Goulds in 1992. "For a lot of us here, sports is our only ticket out." He has lived by that credo.
Without the grades for a Division I school, Wright instead earned an associate's degree from Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville before enrolling at Daytona Beach's Bethune-Cookman.
But even as he studied sociology and set the school record for total sacks, Wright was already showing a distaste for paying bills. Beginning in 1997, he has been declared "delinquent" in court multiple times for failing to pay child support to two women in Levy County.
In April 1999, at age 23, Wright signed with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. He was released only five months later, after minimal playing time. His pro-playing career's last gasps were on sub-NFL teams such as the Chicago Enforcers and Florida Bobcats.
Ceremoniously dumped from football, Wright found another way to infiltrate the sport: by recruiting inner-city athletes and connecting them — by any means possible — to top college scouts.
On paper, Wright was a $6.44-per-hour substitute teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools who spent one year as an assistant football coach at South Miami High in 2002.
But unofficially, as the New York Times exposed in December 2005, Wright was the recruiter for University High, an outfit awarding high school diplomas to academically struggling football players. Southridge's principal had banned Wright from campus for luring athletes from his alma mater.
There were no classrooms or tests at University High. The low, low price for a degree that gained so-called graduates entry to top football universities such as Auburn, Florida State, Florida, Tennessee, and Temple: $399.
Wright's partner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for running a private school with a criminal record. Wright — who, the Times also exposed, had bought his teacher certification from a criminal operation offering no classes — was never charged with a crime.
Two years later, he went into business for himself. This time, a chronically underregulated state scholarship fund provided the financial bounty. In the fall of 2007, Wright's Choice Preparatory School registered with the Florida Department of Education (DOE) to receive McKay vouchers. The nomadic academy bounced from churches to storefronts before landing in the tiny orange building in Goulds, which the school paid the county a total of $26,000 to rent for a little more than a year.
In 2008, the DOE followed a tip from Choice Prep's disgruntled office manager and discovered the school had accepted $9,500 in McKay payments for students who had long ago dropped out or been incarcerated. In order to accomplish the caper, parents' signatures had apparently been forged. Wright was ordered only to repay the money and was allowed to continue accepting McKay cash — a common procedure for the fund, as New Times has revealed.
Choice Prep was not exactly a rigorous educational institution. Students in third through 12th grade were crammed into a couple of classrooms for two hours of courses in the morning. Then, after lunch — almost always hot dogs, chips, and juice drinks — the girls gabbed in the gym while the football team practiced.
"It felt like day-care center with elementary classes," recalls Sakia Duperme, who spent two years at Choice before graduating this spring; her tuition was paid by the DOE-run Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. "I wasn't learning nothing."
Those minimal classes appear to have been Wright's means to his real end: his football squad, which, according to a high-level source close to the investigation, is the target of an NCAA probe.
Wright filed paperwork entering Choice Prep's football team for competition in 2009. He hired a string of high-profile local coaches, such as former Florida State University star and NFL player Lamont Green and current Hialeah-Miami Lakes High head coach Jerry Hughes, neither of whom responded to requests for comment for this story.
The team traveled to Key West and Orlando for tournaments. Choice Prep finished with losing records both seasons it played, but Wright's true goal, according to the person close to the NCAA investigation, was getting his players seen by Division I coaches.
Agrees 17-year-old cornerback Israel Smith: "That was all he cared about. He told the whole football team he would get us scholarships to any colleges we wanted."
NCAA investigators are studying Choice Prep's football rosters to see which players ended up in university ball.
On March 25, Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) investigators visited the Goulds school building — something the DOE never did. The sports honchos weren't impressed. Says investigator Seth Polansky: "We saw some kids around a table and a TV in the gym, and that apparently was a class."
They also discovered the school was not accredited by any of the 14 agencies required by the FHSAA. Choice was suspended from competition.
But the DOE doesn't require schools to be accredited in order to receive McKay checks. Choice Prep remains on the state's list of schools eligible to receive scholarships.
It's unclear whether Wright plans to re-open Choice Prep in another location this fall. He'll contend with a burgeoning angry mob of former students if he does. That crowd will include Sakia Duperme, who says her Choice Prep diploma was rejected by Miami Dade College. At 17, the aspiring doctor will have to return to the 10th grade, which was when she transferred from Southridge.
"He's preying on his own people," says Sakia's mother, Simone, who adds the real blame lies with the state. "It's kind of strange, because they give away all this money but they never wonder, Why is this school inside of a gym?"
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As for Rashaad Easterling, the aspiring NBA player/veterinarian, his tenure at Choice Prep lasted only a few months. His mom says she yanked him after his left eye got punched by a gangbanging classmate with a grudge against Rashaad's housing project. Wright didn't call the police because the aggressor was on the football team, she says. When Rashaad transferred back to Southridge, Wright refused to send the young man's transcript. "Them kids been going faithfully to that school," she says of Choice Prep. "It's a crime."
Notes left on the doors of Wright's two Miami-Dade properties — a $200,000 Homestead house and a $123,000 townhouse in Southwest Miami-Dade — went unanswered. But he apparently threatened Sakia and Simone Duperme with litigation for speaking to New Times.
He denied any allegations of McKay fraud, says Simone. "I have money," Wright scoffed. "Why would I need to steal from the government?"