Education Reform

Laura Chapman on Charter Scams and Frauds

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Our faithful friend Laura Chapman writes:

“There is a hybrid model for charter school development. Real estate is only one part of it. It has multiple components.

The charter company has its own land acquisition arm, its own construction contracts, has a master architectural plan for the design of the school facility (K-8), has a “services” arm for front and back office operations, vendors for components of the preferred curriculum, managerial schemes for accountability and marketing, templates for outsourcing transportation, and a legal firm at the ready to draft very specific policies bearing on attendance, conduct of students and staff, and so on.

A school “district” for the charter school is informally defined by a specific recruiting area for students and by the availability of land for development. Development includes getting subcontractors for school construction, operation, and services such as meals and transportation. The charter school and its self-defined district may have more than one school and the charter district may overlap one or more regular public school districts (compete for those public school students).

Here is one example of the model, developed by Athlos Academies.

First, there is no special focus on low-income neighborhoods. The Athlos Leadership Academy operates in a north Minneapolis suburb that overlaps school districts for Maple Grove, Brooklyn Park, and Falcon Heights. All have relatively low poverty rates. In Falcon Heights the median home value is $323, 805. Maple Grove’s poverty rate is below 5%.

The governing board for the Athlos Leadership Academy is elected. The policy states: “Those eligible to vote for the governing board for the school are restricted to staff members, board members, and parents or legal guardians of children enrolled at the school. … Voters will need to show a photo ID in order to verify voting eligibility. ALA seeks school board nominees with professional experience in business, marketing, law, accounting, fundraising, education, and human resources. The ALA Board is comprised of community, parent, and teacher board members with professional expertise in one or more of the aforementioned categories.”

Second, the Athlos model clearly separates Management decisions from Governance. Governance for ALA means that board points to an issue and a law firm is contracted to write up a policy, citing any federal regulations or state statutes that may be relevant. “Thin” democracy works for the governance of the school. Management is everything else.

Third, in addition to marketing specific features of an Atlos curriculum (see below) the Atlos Model includes a full-service multi-stage package for starting a school.“ This includes everything from developing a charter application and building a facility, to school operations and educating students.”

A complete package of Athlos Academies services includes:
PRE-APPROVAL SERVICES: Charter application development; Authorizer approval assistance; Board governance training.

PRE-OPENING SERVICES: Site identification, Facility construction, Lease agreement, Board policy development, Board training and cultivation, Budget development, School launch, Staff professional training, Staff and student recruitment.

OPERATIONAL SERVICES: Bond market assistance; Research-based curriculum; Professional development; Website, email, social media, and marketing; Payroll processing and benefit management; Budgeting and financial management; Uniforms for purchase; Data reporting tools.

Fourth, the Athlos charter model appeals to parents/caregivers who want a school that offers a “three pillar” program with an explicit focus on character education, healthy living and physical fitness, and academics.

Pillar One. The Character Curriculum is present in every grade. “Athlos Character is part of a formal, year-long curriculum. Our proprietary lesson plans identify 12 essential performance traits.” (e.g., Grit, Self-control, Optimism, Leadership, Social Intelligence, Courage, Focus, Integrity, and Humility ). “These concepts become part of daily academic instruction and athletic activities.” The traits are taught through “Character Huddles” where “performance attributes” are discussed in relation to student goals and other real-life examples. “Reflections” are re-teaching exercises lead by students. “These are the strengths and skills that social researchers identify with success—far more so than an academic GPA. And they act as the foundation Athlos Leadership Academy uses to point our students toward success.”

Pillar Two. The Athletic Curriculum is a fitness and health program—not training for sports, although some team sports are included for “fun” and to teach the virtues of team play and competition. The program is intended to support the Academic Curriculum, reinforce the Character Curriculum, and ”create good habits, improve skills, and promote healthy bodies.” This aspect of the program is marketed as essential for mental, emotional, and social well-being, not just for physical fitness and health.

Pillar Three. The Academic Curriculum. This will vary by state, with non-standard components and topics developed as needed. So far, the Athlos Curriculum Model is for Pre-Kingergarten to grade eight. I analyzed the curriculum components.

The curriculum is keyed to college preparation with one target, high scores on PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests. The curriculum uses Common Core resources in language arts and mathematics, along with vocabulary exercises drawn from Core Knowledge. Science modules and hands-on kits of materials were developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California. Traditional skills in cursive writing are part of the program.

I estimated that the instructional resources—some with scripted lessons, posters, worksheets, online digital materials—would require contracts for at least twenty vendors, some of these very well known, including Pearson, Prentice Hall, and Scott Foresman.

You can see that the facilities are designed as if for a suburban community and to compete with schools that taxpayers have financed.

The founders of the Althos Model are claiming to be on a social mission. The mission is market-based education with a full-service operation that prevents public participation in anything except supplying funds to combine with those of venture capitalists.

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