Lesson the Damage

When Sonnfred Baptiste emptied a round of bullets into the playground of an Upper Eastside charter school in January 2000, he opened more than just a hole in fourteen-year-old Antonio Hill's leg. Those shots were the first to pierce the fragile bubble of a dream that had spawned the high school for Miami's inner-city kids -- Techworld, where every laptop-toting student would be trained for lucrative technology jobs. It seemed all was not right with the vision that had captivated parents and convinced the public school district to help fund it.

One year later Techworld suddenly shut its doors, shortly before authorities were ready to do it for them. Facing federal, state, and local investigations into its financial dealings and employment practices in at least three states, not to mention sex charges against a former dean of students, Techworld would become the nightmare tale other charter-school operators fear. Its demise meant about 280 students had to be hastily reabsorbed into already crowded area high schools in the middle of the school year. It would cause the Miami-Dade County Public School system to re-examine the way it authorizes and monitors charter schools. The district also would instruct its lobbyists to try to convince Tallahassee lawmakers to tighten controls on the publicly funded, independently operated schools.

What the Techworld disaster will not do is slow the explosion of charter schools approved to open in Miami-Dade over the next few years. There are thirteen schools currently operating in the county, with five more set to debut in the fall and another twenty approved for the future. The number of students in these schools will jump from about 3300 this year to an estimated 26,000 in the next five years. It follows a Florida trend that is expected to add about 100 new charter schools next year to the 149 existing statewide. The main reason is simple: Parents, teachers, community groups, and municipalities across the county are being hooked by the idea they can do better than the traditional school system. That's what's driving cities such as Miami Shores to seriously consider running their own schools, says the city's chamber of commerce president, Jim McCoy, Jr. "In general there's a dissatisfaction with the system, and people are looking for more control," he suggests.

But is this headlong rush being thoroughly planned? How fast is too fast? And how are we going to make sure we don't end up with too many Techworlds? Octavio Visiedo, a former Miami-Dade schools superintendent who now heads a charter-school management company, acknowledges that with less than five years of experience behind it in Florida, the new movement has yet to prove it can deliver better-educated students on a wide scale. "The jury is still out on any definitive declaration of success for charter schools," he admits. "There are good schools and bad schools, and there have been some horror stories."

Still they are proving increasingly popular. An entire new industry led by multimillion-dollar companies is quickly developing to feed the trend and test the yet uncertain idea that there is money to be made in public education. Even the teachers union is getting involved, if only to better control a reform movement that threatens to dilute the power it has vested in the public school system. As more and more charter schools open, Techworld serves as the ultimate example of how the dream can go wrong. It is a warning to everyone who cares about education and taxpayer dollars that we should not enter this new era blindly.

At Techworld everything that could go wrong did. Its spectacular demise and the many unanswered questions left in its wake are reasons why the school district is hoping lawmakers will tighten controls on charter schools.

Techworld was the brainchild of Daanen Trevor Strachan, a Miami boy who left town soon after graduating from Miami Sunset High in 1984. He became an administrator at Howard University, a prestigious black college in Washington, D.C., and in 1994, at the age of 27, ran unsuccessfully for the D.C. school board. Strachan opened his first charter school four years later, riding the wave of charter-school mania sweeping the capital city in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with public schools.

It was a high school that emphasized technology education and promised laptop computers for every student, bought with corporate donations. It was called Techworld Public Charter School, the flagship of what Strachan hoped would eventually be an international franchise. But just two months after opening with 148 students in the fall of 1998, Techworld already had hit its first snag. The D.C. school board threatened to revoke Techworld's charter unless it resolved a money dispute with one of its trustees that had resulted in a lawsuit. And in early 1999, Strachan had to admit to the Washington Times that almost half the students had failed the first semester.

Around the same time the school's financial consultant and the founder's cousin, Kenneth Strachan, was quietly let go after news reports revealed he had recently pleaded guilty to a host of criminal-conspiracy charges related to his former accounting position with a program that bilked taxpayers of millions in false Medicaid claims. It was just the start of the financial mess that would eventually sink Techworld. The D.C. school board would later order an audit of Techworld to determine whether Daanen Strachan had illegally used almost $20,000 in D.C. public money to start up a sister school in Miami. He later paid the money back to the D.C. schools.

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, “This 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.

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.

Found in the rubble of Techworld is a clear message to parents, legislators, and regulators on the issue of charter schools: caveat emptor. This will be increasingly true as the charter movement grows from a relative blip on the radar to a significant part of the local educational landscape.

The laws that govern charter schools are designed to free them from many of the bureaucratic constraints of the traditional public schools, a notion with double-edged possibilities. On one hand it means that teachers like Juliet King and Lucy Golden can realize a dream to explore creative teaching methods in a way they believe they could not in a one-size-fits-all educational bureaucracy. The pair of former Miami-Dade teachers opened Coral Reef Montessori Academy three years ago in the kitchen of a South Miami-Dade church. The school currently has 175 students and a list of more than 300 waiting to get in. It also is widely acknowledged to be among the best elementary schools in the county, measured by standardized test scores and the unabashed enthusiasm of parents. "It's a lot of work," King allows. "We're here usually Christmas break, spring break, and weekends, but I wouldn't change it."

Testimonials like that were what legislators were thinking about in 1996, when they crafted the law permitting almost anyone who could write up a proposal and form a governing board to open a charter school. The law has some basic requirements such as the health, safety, and civil rights of students and personnel, adherence to open-government laws, and provision of an accounting of finances and student achievement. But most of the specifics regarding financial and academic accountability are left up to the individual school to negotiate with the school district that approves and monitors it. That's where details such as class size, teacher contracts, and educational goals are sketched out. The two entities sign a contract that outlines what the school promises to do, what the district will do, and what happens if one side or the other doesn't hold up its end.

The danger, of course, is that schools like Techworld are possible under such a deliberately broad law. As the pitfalls have emerged, the law often has been amended to add or subtract certain rights, responsibilities, and funding sources. The school district currently is lobbying legislators for more controls designed to protect public assets and school district liability, especially in the event that a charter goes under. At the same time charter-school advocates are lobbying for money to build their own schools and retain their precious autonomy from the school district. "This is a moving target, because what may be true today may be different in July," sighs Magaly Abrahante, the Schools of Choice administrator.

It hasn't been a cakewalk for the charter schools that have opened in Miami-Dade County. Some of them are barely making it and would go under if they were not backed by private organizations. Finding affordable space to lease or build a school, stretching a limited budget, and hiring and keeping competent teachers are challenges. In the early days, few school operators really knew what it took to get a good school up and running. "The biggest problem is, you have a lot of business people who are not strong on education, or they are strong on education but don't have a clue as to how to run a business," notes Coconut Grove-based Chancellor Academies chairman Octavio Visiedo. "One of the things that has evolved is the importance of negotiating -- and enforcing -- good contracts. I think the first ones left a lot to be desired, and school boards are getting better at it."

The Liberty City Charter School was one of those first schools that has had a rough ride. It was thrown together a couple of weeks after the charter-school law was passed in 1996 to gain political points for gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. As a result its successes and failures were followed closely by the media (see "Schoolhouse Knocks," August 24, 2000). But Liberty City certainly is not the only school that has had to juggle -- with varying degrees of competence -- the economic, political, and academic realities of being an independent business with public obligations.

Jonathan Hage was one of the local businessmen who helped Bush start the school in Liberty City; he then went on to found and head his own charter-school management company. Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA manages Ryder Elementary Charter School in the Doral area. Even ebullient promoter Hage estimates that it takes three to five years before a charter school can say it produces better students. "Anybody who tells you that a charter school opens up and immediately the kids shoot right to the top is either using a magic book they aren't sharing or they aren't telling the truth," Hage contends. But, he adds, it's almost time for an overall assessment of the academic accountability of these schools and, as he puts it, "let the chips fall where they may." Hage is betting his economic future that charter schools will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to public education.

All over Miami-Dade County the teachers union is quietly wooing parents and teachers with promises that it will open its own high-performing charter schools. In making this intriguing and controversial move, the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) leadership is not so much visionary as it is practical.

They see who's in control in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C. The Republican agenda has steadily pushed toward decentralization and privatization of many public services, especially education. In Florida this has meant private-school vouchers for the parents of children in failing public schools -- a direct threat to the power of the union since private schools rarely hire union members and are not held to the same standards of accountability. "Charters are our answer to that," explains Tom Gammon, UTD's point man on its charter-school initiatives.

UTD got the go-ahead from the school board last December to open nine large charter schools in the next couple of years, through a partnership with Edison Schools, Inc., the 800-pound gorilla of management companies. But why stop there? The union signed a separate agreement with Chancellor Academies to attempt to convert up to ten public schools to charter schools. Under state law this can be done if more than half the parents and teachers at those schools vote for it.

Assuming all these plans come to fruition, in just a few years UTD could be running nineteen schools, with between 15,000 to 20,000 students. In effect it would look a lot like a mini-educational empire springing up within Miami-Dade County, a concept that bothers the hell out of some district insiders. "They are almost becoming a separate little school district," predicts one observer. "It's almost like a war brewing." Not war -- healthy competition, counters UTD spokeswoman Annette Katz. "We're not trying to trade one large elephant for a large hippopotamus," she emphasizes. "We are very aware that that is something to be concerned about."

Another troubling aspect: Suddenly one of the largest labor unions in South Florida will find itself in the odd position of also being the boss of the people for whom it regularly negotiates wages and benefits. How will UTD negotiate when it is sitting on both sides of the table? What about other areas of the labor-to-management relationship? Will the union know how to handle it when one of its teachers files a grievance with the union against one of the administrators in a union-run school? Gammon admits that UTD hasn't yet found a perfect answer for all the issues this unique arrangement raises. "There will be a lot of interesting questions," he understates.

Even more interesting will be the long-term relationship between UTD and Edison, a company that runs more than 100 schools around the nation. Make no mistake, Edison is in this for the money. So much so that it sells stock to investors on the promise that it can squeeze a tidy profit out of public dollars by more efficiently managing schools. Yet so far the company has operated many millions in the red for several years. New York financial columnist Christopher Byron argued in April that Edison's fortune is now largely determined by the vagaries of an unpredictable market. Byron speculated in the New York Observer that as the economy slows down, Edison's investors will demand the company cut costs -- and corners -- in its schools.

At the least Edison's reliance on economies of scale to drive its potential profitability means that the nine schools it plans to build in Miami-Dade won't be anything like today's small, intimate operations favored by parents. Each of the seven elementary schools is approved for up to 1100 students. The two middle schools could hold up to 1600 students apiece. But more troubling to the American Federation of Teachers is Edison's academic record at its 113 schools, which the AFT says is a mixed bag of good and poor results. AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass points out that Edison has run Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary in Northwest Miami-Dade for four years, yet the student performance at the D-rated school hardly been stellar (see "A Lesson in Mismanagement," May 20, 1999). "Edison doesn't have a perfect track record, far from it," Bass argues. "[UTD] will have to be careful."

The political triangle formed by UTD, Chancellor Academies, and the school district marks another change on the local charter-school scene. Thus far the district has been generally supportive of charter schools, seeing them as a way to help relieve overcrowding in the system. But converting an existing public school into a charter school, as UTD and Chancellor plan to do, would actually slightly shrink the system's bureaucracy, with its attendant money and power. And what would it say about the ability of those bureaucrats if the union, aided by several of the school district's own former top managers, actually produces a better-educated child at the same or lower cost? Recognizing this fear, the union is tiptoeing in. Only one or two elementary schools are targeted for conversion by the fall of 2002, if parents and teachers agree to it.

The take-home message is not that charter schools are bad. Like most traditional schools, each is as good as the people running them, which is why it is important to make sure they deliver the results they promise. In several cases around Miami-Dade County, it's clear that is happening.

Forty blocks north and a world away from the abandoned remains of Techworld, it is midmorning on the quiet streets of Miami Shores. In an unassuming corner of the intersection of NW Second Avenue and 114th Street sits a collection of nine white portable classrooms. The Miami Shores/Barry University Charter School is tucked behind the gymnasium and fields of Barry University. Red paw prints are painted on the asphalt between the buildings. This is one of the places where the intent of the charter-school law is being realized. It is one of the more successful charters in the county, in no small measure owing to the financial and educational proximity of the private Catholic university.

The middle school is in its fourth year of operation and has consistently ranked among Miami-Dade's top public schools. Last year the school received the second-highest FCAT scores of any middle school in the county. Executive director Fred Damianos, a former principal with 31 years in the Miami-Dade school system, has the scores stapled proudly to his office wall, along with a rendering of a permanent building the school plans to construct across the street. He attributes the success of the school to its smallness -- just 180 students, 9 teachers, and 6 assistant teachers. A third of the students are in gifted classes. The school also receives the attention of several of Barry University's teaching programs. "We have nine counselors who will have their master's degrees in a year," Damianos says. "It's a luxury. Where I came from in the public sector, there were 435 children to one counselor."

The smallness of most charter schools is the main reason why so many parents and their kids are filling them as fast as they can be opened. Davine Scarlett, a tall brown-skinned girl with gold hoop earrings, is in Deedee Conte's eighth-grade gifted class. "I came from a big school," she says. "I thought, They're going to put me in portables?! But once I got here ... you know everybody, and everybody knows you. Here you learn relationships like in the real world."

Damianos smiles as he thinks about how fast the education world that he knew as a high school principal is changing. And despite the mistakes made by some charter schools, he believes the movement as a whole will only improve the accountability of public education. "Regular public schools as we knew them five years ago and regular private schools are not the only game in town," he offers. "Clearly you're going to find some better, some the same, and some worse."

Magaly Abrahante at the school district tends to agree. But she offers the caveat that parents must ultimately decide which educational choices are good enough for their children. "Public education is at the core of the country, and the core is changing. It's scary, and it's exciting. But choice just for the sake of choice is nothing. The key will be, can we make parents educated consumers of education?"


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