November 5, 2013

Surprise state visit finds problems at Hope Academy charter school in KC

Missouri education officials said they found evidence of attendance inflation and academic integrity violations. The school’s superintendent and five other employees have been put on leave.

A surprise visit by Missouri education officials found evidence of attendance fraud and academic integrity violations at Hope Academy charter school, the state announced Tuesday.

The Kansas City school’s board of directors this week put Superintendent Vonnelle Middleton and five other employees on leave after the state review team’s visit in early October.

The team examined records from a six-week period and found evidence that school leaders may have inflated attendance and enrollment information and allowed students who live outside district boundaries to enroll.

State officials also said they learned that a school employee had taken $700 from a student in exchange for granting that student academic credit toward graduation. The money was later returned to the student.

The state reported its findings to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the charter school’s sponsor, on Friday. UMKC is reviewing the state findings and has called for a state audit of Hope Academy records.

State officials decided to visit the school after the school reported a 99.5 percent attendance rate.

“That means better than 99 percent of its students were in school 90 percent of the time,” said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “That is highly unlikely. It is highly unusual ... for even our highest-performing ones to have an attendance rate that high.”

She said the state also found the charter school listed a higher than average percentage of the school’s population reporting perfect attendance. According to state officials, Hope Academy reported that 11 percent of its students had perfect attendance. The state average is 3 percent.

The day the state showed up at Hope Academy, 174 students were in attendance. That’s less than 30 percent of the 636 students the school says are enrolled there. The state also identified some students who live outside the Kansas City Public Schools’ boundaries.

Missouri charter schools are public schools within the boundaries of the Kansas City or St. Louis districts. They are run by independent boards and sponsored by higher education institutions.

The schools are publicly funded based on student attendance.

“If the school inflated the attendance numbers and was taking state payment for those numbers, then that could be fraud,” Potter said.

Phyllis Chase, director of the UMKC Charter School Center, said that when she heard the state’s findings, “I was shocked and saddened.”

UMKC sponsors 10 charters and 13 campuses in Kansas City. Hope Academy has two high school campuses for students in grades nine through 12, at 1001 Bennington Ave. and 1524 the Paseo Ave.

The charter school’s board of directors learned of the state’s findings Sunday night in an emergency meeting called by Chase.

“This was news to the board,” said Dana Cutler, attorney for Hope Academy.

In addition to putting the superintendent, chief financial officer, chief operations officer, registrar and two other staff members on leave, the board has hired external auditors to conduct an independent investigation of the state’s findings.

“The Board takes the issues raised by DESE seriously,” a statement from the school said.

Cutler said LaQuanda Carpenter, principal of the school’s Bennington campus, is serving as interim superintendent.

Hope Academy was created as a charter high school that serves students who have dropped out or who are at risk of dropping out. The school board hopes to continue that mission, the school’s statement said. The board is seeking to renew its charter, not close the school.

But Hope Academy, which consistently has done poorly on state standardized tests, had been put on academic probation last month by UMKC. Chase said the board knew that if test scores did not improve, its charter renewal could be in jeopardy. UMKC gives the charter a year to raise its test scores.

Last year, UMKC declined to renew the charter at Derrick Thomas Academy, another low-performing charter, because of issues of mismanagement. That school closed.

More than 80 percent of students at Hope Academy are not scoring in the proficient range on state assessments in English language arts, and 90 percent of its students are not scoring proficient in mathematics.

State officials said the charter school’s low academic performance, combined with testing integrity issues found last month and other issues, have raised concerns about the school’s academic integrity.

Potter said the state review team that visited Hope Academy discovered that some students were getting credit for having completed community service work that has an academic component when students actually had done such things as after-school baby-sitting or braiding hair. Neither meet the service learning requirements. The school is reimbursed by the state for service learning hours met by students.

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