ONE PARENT’S TALE OF A CHARTER SCHOOL BETRAYAL: Michigan and the National Heritage Academies EMO

 By: Gina Davis

As I am hearing I am just one of millions of parents all across our country who are having their eyes opened to the fight we all need to get on the band wagon of, for the future of our country… the fight for Public education! 

This is my story:

I am a single parent, self employed Licensed Daycare Provider, with a bright 13 year old son…

Unfortunately at the Charter School my son attended, Windemere Park Charter Academy, in Lansing, Michigan, he was bullied and then ambushed in a bathroom, into participating in what the Administration ended up portraying to the parents of the school as a ‘fight club. However, my son did not attempt to fight or even render one blow.  If you view the student made cell phone video of this incident you can easily see that my son was being assaulted. I would have placed a link to this video inside of this article if I could have but it is tightly held by the management company who runs the school in Michigan.  

Not surprisingly, the schools management company, National Heritage Academies, has refused to provide me with a copy of my son’s video, citing FERPA confidentiality reasons.  They claim that they do not possess the software which they could utilize to blur out any of the other students faces, which appear in this video.  I am currently contemplating my next move through the courts to hopefully obtain it. If anyone out here in cyberspace thinks you could assist me in obtaining this video, it would be greatly appreciated.  I am desperate and just one self employed parent going up against a corporation who employees a brothel of corporate attorneys.

This Charter School Administration and Board recommend my son be expelled; along with 9 other students that they uncovered were involved in this “fight club”.  If you view all of the videos which they used as evidence to convict these students you will note that many of the students are not fighting at all. There was no malicious intent, yet the school, the board and the management company chose to portray these incidents as such so they could basically “get rid” of these students, when the right thing would have been to keep them in school and educate them regarding peer pressure and bullying. In the end, this school suspended 4 students for 10 days each, and expelled 6 others.  This is all part of the zero tolerance student policies adopted by the for-profit brothels.

Basically, this Charter School administration and board decided to go ahead and “throw the baby out with the bath water”, and punished every student involved, no matter if they were bullied or assaulted.  They chose to not take the time to interview my son or do a thorough and fair investigation and categorize the students into levels of severity regarding their individual involvement.   This is because they do not teach, they disseminate curriculum as they decimate learning.

At the discipline hearings, the board attempted to throw attention solely on the students, when in fact, if they had proper security in this school, these incidents would not have ever occurred. If they had been enforcing their own cell phone policies, this may not have occurred as well, because a few of the students were video taping these incidents on their phones.

 At the end of 2009, there was very serious incident   at the school where a student was sent to the hospital with severe facial injuries.  This student was left unattended, by a substitute teacher, in one of the middle school rooms, while the bulk of the middle school student body was out of school on an end of the year field trip.  

At the hearings I learned that these incidents had been occurring last school year as well, yet the board had not addressed any of the security issues. I am certain because the management company, National Heritage Academies does not want to spend any of their operating budgets on security, this would mean less profits for their investors.  After digging, I discovered that this management company does not hire any sort of security officers at any of the approximately 66 schools they manage across our country.  Spending money on needed security would hurt the bottom line, profits. Shockingly, I was told in a meeting held, 7/13/10, with National Heritage Academies, Director of Partner Services, that they do not employ any Security Officers at any of their schools.

I fear that more of these types of incidents are going to occur at the school if action is not taken, and soon.

At my son’s disciplinary hearing I fought hard and the board voted to “exonerate” my son, stating he could come back to school the next day at which point I told them, “no thank you”.  I took my son out and enrolled him into a public school.  I chose to voluntarily withdraw my son from this school, for his safety. I also have no respect for the schools administration or their greedy management scheme and I was disappointed with this school’s academic rigor.  I have little faith that the management company has any genuine concern for their students.  It is obvious they are more concerned with dollar signs.

24 days later, on February 19th, I received his set of finalized “Board Determinations and Hearing Summary” with a cover sheet informing me that the Board had “reconvened” to “reconsider their decision”.  According to the Michigan Public Meetings Act, I should have been informed of this meeting, held on 2/15/10; however, I did not receive notification of the meeting until 4 days after it had already concluded. I believe the board had intended to inform me, because there was a notice regarding this meeting on the very bottom of these documents.  For some reason the documents were being “reworded”, which is what the Principal was telling me, so unfortunately this made their delivery extremely late; in fact a day late and a dollar short.  An apology would have been nice, at least.  I have to wonder if the other 9 parent’s board packets were also sent out late, so that they were not able to attend these meeting as well.

http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/publications/OpenMtgsFreedom.pdf

What was even more disturbing, and speaks to the ethics of this Administration is that on the very same day this meeting was scheduled , I had an early morning appointment scheduled with the Principal, (to view my son’s records before being mailed to his new school,) and they did not mention one word to me about this meeting scheduled for 12 noon.  If I had been informed then, I think I would have taken the time to clear my schedule and attend. I believe most parents would have.

I found that the Windemere Park Charter Academy Board had now placed a 10 day out of school suspension on my son’s record.  I have been fighting the past 7 months to get them to remove this unjust suspension, with no luck. 

CHARTER SCHOOL PARENTS.  LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDREN!

At the end of my work day, exhausted after chasing 2 year old twins around, I slump over the stove finishing up dinner for my family, when my 12 year old son saunters into the kitchen fresh home from a day at school.  He is in his second year of middle school at Windemere Park Charter Academy.

“Mom”, he tells me, “the teachers at my school are all mean, they are mean to the kids”.  I answer, “What do you mean, by ‘mean”, and are they ‘mean’ to you?  My son answered in the affirmative. “I mean, ‘mean’, like bad, they don’t care about what goes on in class, and yes, sometimes to me”.

I spend the next 10 minutes in conversation with him determining exactly the extent and the definition of the ‘meanness”.  I determined, at the time, his comments were mainly just from my son adjusting to a new school and I explained to him that sometimes in life you have to learn to deal with difficult people, and this particular teacher he was telling me about, seemed at the time to be one of them.  I brushed it off.

Over the course of the next year and ½ that my son attended this school I now realized I  “brushed off” way too many warning signs. 

I had this lingering feeling in the back of my head from the very first week of school that something was amiss at this school. Something was lurking under the surface that was not right.  I should have listened to that voice in my head. My women’s intuition or whatever you want to call it.

A “Lottery”, that you have zero chance of winning

My first indication that the entire Charter School system is broken should have come when I had to enter my son into “The Lottery” in order to enroll him at this school. Why should any student have to basically “role the dice” in hopes of being allowed into a school where they might be able to receive an adequate education?  Looking back now, I realize how wrong the “Lottery” system is.  All students no matter where they live deserve an equal chance at a real quality education. Google, “The Lottery” and you will be able to view trailers about a documentary that was done about 4 families living in Harlem.  You will get a quick education about what these Charter School Lotteries are really all about.   http://thelotteryfilm.com/

“MORAL FOCUS”….. equals… “HOCUS POCUS”

The Charter School my son attended hangs its hat on the fact that they teach “Moral Focus” to their student body.  As a Christian parent, this was a huge selling factor in the appeal that this school held for my family.  Looking back I realize now that this school should not be pushing my family’s Christian beliefs on anyone. There is a fine line between religion and state in our country, and through research I am learning that many Charter Schools are attempting to smear this line (http://www.edutopia.org/religious-charter-schools-violate-separation , http://dailycensored.com/2010/02/06/victory-for-anti-privatiztion-organizers-realm-charter-school-withdraws-its-petition-to-request-the-opening-of-realm-charter-school-in-berkeley-california/)

Additionally, this school was not truly teaching any sort of Moral Focus to its student body, due to the fact the Administration and the staff clearly did not “practice what they preach”.  It appeared to me that they did not “get” the age old concept of children learning by example. It is very evident that this school does not practice what they preach by the way they chose to simply throw out 6 students instead of working with them through dialogue to mediate disputes.

 One day while sitting outside of the Principals Office I noted a colorfully drawn poster by a student, which read, “RESPECT”.  I had to laugh. I had just witnessed a 4th grader walk into the office and basically be ignored by all of the secretaries.  I guess that is what the staff considered to be “respectful”. I was treated with more respect by the students of this school than I was by the Administration or teaching staff.  Moral Focus at this school was like the rabbit that gets put into the magician’s hat and then disappears.  Parents do not get fooled by the smoke and mirror tactics that some of these Charter Schools use. http://heritageacademies.com/our_schools/moral_focus/ 

Testing, Testing, 1..2…3… 

Day after day they prepped my son on taking tests.  I’d inquire nightly, “Hey, did you get a schedule for your classes yet?” Have you gotten to go the library and actually been able to pick out some sort of “book”?  Do you have any homework, yet?” Which he would reply, “Nope, Mom, just more learning to take tests”.   I bet you my kid can take a test with both hands tied behind his back, blind folded at this juncture. I felt as if my son was being taught to become a star on Broadway, being taught to do rote memorization of his lines, rather than participate in any type of critical thinking.

 Wake up parents! It is also becoming more and more evident that the Charter Schools across our country are not doing any better than traditional public schools and sometimes are actually doing worse at achieving their test scores, some say they are even worse (http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf).

Who’s minding the cookie jar?  School Security has left the building….

I noted that the middle school section of this school, (just one long hallway) did not appear to be supervised.  Not by anyone. The students ruled this area, especially during arrival and dismissal times.  I spoke with many other middle school parents and they agreed. Some stated that they were actually fearful to walk down the hallway.  And yet, every single day, the Principal and sometimes the Vice Principal would be out in the parking lot, “directing traffic”.  This bothered me. They should have been inside the school monitoring student activities.    This Principal would stand on a corner, with a huge fake clown smile plastered on his face, waving at the parents as we drove by while holding a stop sign in the other.  This is when I first started to realize that this person was a puppet and the management company who runs this charter school pulls all of his strings.

The lack of middle school security really bothered me. I began to take note of certain things around the school regarding school security. This particular retail chain of charter schools is very proud that they have a sophisticated security machine placed in their school offices.  It’s designed so that when people enter the school the office staff is supposed to make them run their Drivers Licenses through for a “background check”, at which point they are allowed to enter the School, thorough an unlocked office door.

http://blog.mlive.com/grpress/2008/07/scanner_adds_layer_of_school_s.html

 Hummm.  Let’s see. Number #1. From what I noted, the office staff at this school rarely makes anybody use this machine.  #2. The door going into the office is never locked, nor is it equipped with a “buzz you in” type of situation. # 3. A bad guy walks right into the front door of the office, with malicious intent, and he is going to actually use this machine? Get real, people.  A security background check machine can not bust a kid in the bathroom for bullying another student or stop any sort of student altercations. Last I checked a security “machine” does not have eyes, ears, or legs to walk through the hallways.  Unfortunately the Principal at this school avoided the middle school section like a plague.  Last I looked, he does have legs.

There isn’t any real or actually effective type of security in this school because the management company would have to spend profit dollars to actually make their students safer.  As the management company is a for-profit educational management organization (EMO), this would mean the costs would come from investor’s profits and you know how well that must go over with the investors. 

Additionally, I spent 7 months trying to get the board of directors, the management company, the schools authorizer, and the Michigan Dept. of Education to address the serious lack of Security at this school, and NOBODY would listen.  It’s like I’ve been on this huge merry go round of corporate greed, where nobody is accountable to anybody and I can never get to grab the brass ring because I simply do not have enough money to hire an attorney to help me reach it.   In the last two years at this school there have been major incidents where students  have been injured and nobody seems to care.  There is no accountability to anyone; therefore, why would anybody strive to make changes? 

Academics……… Can we even spell:  H- O –M- E- W- O-R- K?

The entire time my student attended this school the teachers allowed the students to do their “homework” in class. In other words, if you have a fairly bright student they can rush through what little class work the teachers deal out, so they can then finish their “homework” in school.  I complained and other parents complained to the robot teachers but they stood firm in their conviction to not have to do anymore grading than needed.  My son entered his new school with no idea what life with homework in the evening hours would be like.  My son had no clue what a “Pop Quiz” was. I think the first time he was subjected to such a horror.  He thought it had something to do with your preference for Coke or Pepsi products. He thought he could “retake” tests until he would get a decent grade, because this was sometimes allowed.   I think for the first several months he was actually in a form of “educational shock”.  I can tell you this:  this Charter School did nothing to help prepare my student for high school or any type of college.  

Discipline Policies, OR…. Who’s the Principal more afraid of.

Need I say more?  This principal levied punishment to the students in such an unfair manner that the entire group of middle school students had zero respect for him.  I guess when you are a corporate puppet; they chisel you without a set of wooden testicles.  I called him “Pinocchio”, because he was not the most ethical man I have come in contact with.   I came to believe that this man actually was fearful of certain students and their families.  I learned that he was failing to file the proper disciplinary reports into certain student’s records.  He himself testified to this, during one of the hearings. (This fact can easily be verified as there were audio tapes of the hearings made). It didn’t matter if a student physically assaulted a teacher.  Yes, scary I know.  Maybe teachers unions are not such a bad thing

Lost in Space…. Danger, Danger, Charter School staff ahead….

It became obvious very quickly that most of the administration and the staff at this school are robots attempting to appear human.  I feel that the school’s Principal has no business teaching anything other than corporate finance.  He is simply a paper pusher. I felt as if the teachers were all in over their heads, and they are underpaid.  These teachers are so stressed that if you blew a soapy bubble in their direction, they may fall over. The office staff conducted themselves like zombies with little to no regard for the students, whom they treated — as if they were “Casper” the friendly ghost.  Invisible. 

Girl Scout Cookie selling on steroids

It seemed like every time I turned around Windemere Park Charter Academy was bombarding their students with fund raising projects. Why was my son being bombarded with fund raising projects?  I mean, come on.  They had my son hawking candles, cookie dough, selling hot chocolate and coffee, to the parents sitting in line, in the parking lot (once a week, no less). Drive up service. I think at a buck a pop.  All this while the for-profit management company, National Heritage reaped huge profits for their investors and CEOs and laughed all the way to the bank.

In one of the more creative scams, the management company had the students actually each pay a dollar, if they wanted to be able to have the privilege to wear  “jeans” to school .  They had Friday popcorn sales.  They had pizza, juice and cookies for sale on Fridays. (This was in addition to the regular school lunch provided).  They had snacks for sale. It simply became ridiculous.  I would guess these types of forced “nickel and diming” incidents occurred on a weekly and monthly basis. So not only was this school actively working to have the students sell and advertise in my community, they were also selling to THEM. You do the math.  It was somewhat like a mafia shake down.  I wanted my son to learn at this school, not sell.  I felt as if he was being trained to work at Wal-Mart or start an Amway distributorship.  Like most schools today, this school needed cash.  This was WAY more selling than any Public School subjects their student body to. It seemed that this school would rather have the students out soliciting and shaking down my community for cash than get the management company to cough up any funds.  That would hurt corporate profits. 

THE POLITICS of Charter Schools… “Par for the course”

In the 7 months I have spent trying to “fight the system” not only for what happened with my son, but to bring sunshine on the way this school and their Board handled the incidents which I have briefly spoken of. I have had lawyers interested in assisting my cause, pro bono, no less, only to “go limp”, soon after realizing that they really would have to go up against this schools huge management corporation, in the end.  The cost of fighting these for-profit behemoths is out of range for most parents.  I felt as though I needed to carry a bottle of Viagra in my purse so I could administer it to these to firm members at the end of my consultations. 

It became very apparent right off the bat that if you want to fight this system individually, you have to know somebody.  You have to have an “in” with someone.  You have to be able to play golf and you must have an expensive set of “Ping” clubs and not just an old set you bought from a yard sale, around the corner.

In my nightmares, I dreamed that I was the cute girl operating the “drink cart” at some posh northern Michigan course. Frantically driving around the sand traps to make sure that the participants of the “Charter School Scramble”, the management companies executives, the Presidents of University’s who “authorize” the schools, and big wig corporate investment bankers all got a their drinks before they had a chance to yell, “Fore!”   All this while me, a simple low life golf course employee or caddie, is subjecting herself to this treatment!  I am sorry, but I am not willing to sit back and accept any sort of similar fate.  I can “tee off” with the best of these players and I can tell you I am ‘teed off now! 

THE CHARTER SCHOOL-Board of Directors and their “Nazi Puppet Show”

FERPA – “SMERPA” - I attended 7 Open Session Disciplinary Hearings at Windemere Park Charter Academy on January 26, 2010.  In my opinion, I witnessed so many FERPA, (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) violations that it would make your head spin, 200 times more than Linda Blair in the Exorcist. 

The school and for-profit EMO also violated many statutes of The Michigan Public Meetings Act.  For instance, one of the parents attempted to video tape during one of the open session hearings and the boards Attorney made them put away their camera. WHAT?  You heard it!  It boggles my mind that a board would have sat back and allowed their Attorney to do this.  

http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/publications/OpenMtgsFreedom.pdf

As far as FERPA violations, just to give you a tiny sampling, the board chose to show all of the student’s unedited videos to the entire public at the hearings.  The parents who had after the fact, by the way, signed consent forms for their student’s hearings to be held in “closed session” had their rights violated because the videos their students appeared in were being shown in previous hearings, during other student’s “open session” hearings. It was obvious that this board was not prepared and they did not take any care to protect their student body’s confidentiality.  Yet they won’t release the videos to the general public!

I am here to tell you that you need to get a fast and hard education about FERPA laws if you are going to enroll your student in a Charter School.  Most parents have no idea what these are. I know I didn’t but I am a very fast learner. 

http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/index.html

Also, this school followed the norm.  They are hiding behind the FERPA regulations when they can be used to their benefit, but they disregard them at the drop of a hat.  I have worked through 2 lawyers to obtain a copy of my student’s video tape, through the Freedom of Information Act, and have yet to succeed. I have filed 2 separate complaints with the US Dept. of Education, Family Compliance Office; but I am sure that was a waste of my time, we will see. I have yet to hear back from them on anything, as yet.

THE FINAL CHAPTER- Is there really a light at the end of the tunnel?

I finally got the schools authorizer, Grand Valley State University, to raise an eyebrow, after months of hounding. I believe my decision to finally copy in their Board of Trustees, on a few choice emails did the trick.  They now claim that they are going to hire an “independent third party” to do an investigation of the Windemere Park Charter Academy Board of Directors.  I sincerely hope that they take the time to solicit parents, like myself, who actually attended the disciplinary hearings.  You know the parents who actually sat through the “puppet show.”  

Low and behold, the day after I finally get Grand Valley State University to actually take notice, I am receiving letters from the Michigan Dept. of Education, as I type.  Wow, is all I have to say.  I feel like I should not have had to go to such lengths as to get some sort of assistance, but I guess the Charter System is set up to make it difficult for parents to have a voice.  I am just stubborn enough to not give up. It runs in my family.   It seems that I may have actually poked a pin prick into the system, but I am not holding my breath.

In the end, I feel betrayed.  I feel hoodwinked. 

I feel like a cheap date. We will see if I really get that “call” after my date.  From what I am being told it is typical for organizations like Grand Valley State University and the Michigan Dept. of Education to put on their own type of Kabuki theatre or “puppet show”.  In the end, I fear they will drag their feet, all the way to the bank, and I fear I will still be sitting by the phone, waiting.  

 I ALSO fear that the vacant General Motors property that sits here in my city, similar to Flint, Michigan, may as well be posted with signs which direct the billionare boys’ club investment teams to contact the Ingham County Land Bank for “further information”.  I fear instead of a “charter village”, that my city may end up with our very own “Charter School Disneyland” adventure themed park, complete with a roller coaster ride know as “Race to the Slop”. 

 http://dailycensored.com/2010/07/31/charter-school-teacher-villages-being-constructed-in-new-jersey

http://www.mlive.com/auto/index.ssf/2010/05/flint_has_11_former_general_mo.html

Parents Beware of the Charter School Myth!  The Charter School system, as it is now, is not what it appears to be. Proceed with Extreme Caution! 

Let’s all keep fighting for better alternatives!  If we unite, we can have a voice!