Longform

McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos

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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.

A Plantation High reading teacher, who asked that her name not be used, can relate. She has noticed her "problem" seniors disappearing like never before. Sometimes she runs into them on the street and finds out they're at Preparatory Zion Academy or someplace similar. "These kids are graduating, but they're illiterate," the teacher says. "If you ask me, it's criminal."

The principals of neither Carol City High or Plantation High responded to New Times' inquiries. Public school brass are loathe to publicly admit to pushing struggling kids toward private schools.

The illicit practice even has a name: "FCAT cleansing."

Chris Christe could be the poster child for McKay scholarships. Sweet and glassy-eyed, he was raised by his grandmother in the shadow of Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens. Mom had died when he was 10 years old while she was giving birth to his brother. Dad made an awkward visit every three years.

Chris had trouble paying attention at Norwood Elementary and lagged behind classmates. In fifth grade, he took an IQ test. He got a 95. "Not retarded retarded," his blunt-spoken grandmother Gloria Joachim says, but low enough that the assistant principal recommended a more specialized school day: Have you heard of the McKay program?

So Chris ended up at the South Florida Academy of Learning, located in a storefront at the California Club Mall. Two years later, it went bellyup. Next there was Opa-locka's Monsignor Edward Pace, a large private high school that accepts McKay scholarships. The classes were too "fast for him," Gloria says, and she'd find Chris cowering in her bathroom when it was time to go to school. Last year, he finally received a diploma from the unaccredited West Hollywood Private School, which is run by a husband and wife in their converted home.

While transferring her grandson's credits, Gloria was bewildered to find that, according to the state, he was already enrolled at another school she had never heard of: Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah. As it turns out, Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno, the couple who ran Muskateer's, had stolen Chris's McKay information from the South Florida Academy of Learning, where Jacqueline had once worked.

"I'm unimpressed," 69-year-old Gloria says with a cynical chuckle when asked her opinion of the McKay program. She estimates taxpayers invested roughly $30,000 in the last six years of Chris's education. "I wish that money could have gone to establishing an area in his own public school for kids with special needs. Then there would have been some accountability."

Though it sounds exotic, what Gloria is describing is the traditional public special-ed model. "I didn't have the illusion that he was college-bound," she says, "but I wish he could have more skills that would help him with a job."

Now 22, after getting his high school diploma, Chris spends his days pacing Grandma's living room. He talks about becoming a songwriter, but when art colleges return his phone calls, he tells them Chris isn't home and hangs up.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts