Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.
Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.
Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.
Woodland also is not welcome in Washington County, where residents turned up at a 10-1 ratio to speak out against it last year during community meetings. And maybe most importantly, the school is not needed in the poverty-stricken county, where not a single school is failing, most exceed state averages and students are free to attend any school in the county they wish.
“We never thought this school would be approved,” said Betty Brackin, an employee of the Washington County school system and an outspoken opponent of Woodland. “Before we knew any of the things about who was running it or all of that, we knew that only a small number of people in this county — people who were upset for personal reasons … with the public school system — they’re the only ones who wanted it. The rest of this county is not for this, and we’ve let everyone know it.”
But Woodland was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission, which appeared to violate at least three of its responsibilities in doing so.
The Commission ignored the community outcry against Woodland and failed to even discuss the need — or lack thereof — for a charter school in the county. Both of those are specific requirements within Alabama’s charter school law for the Commission to consider during its public meetings.
Additionally, charter schools approved in Alabama are, according to Alabama’s law, required to meet “national standards.” To assure those standards are met, Alabama lawmakers assured a concerned public that a “top-notch” national body — to quote two state representatives — would be contracted to review every application before those applications would be considered by the Commission. NACSA is that group, and Alabama pays it nearly $100,000 per year to review applications, and then the Commission ignores its advice.
Woodland Prep’s was at least the third charter application that NACSA rejected for very specific, very detailed reasons. For example, in questioning Woodland’s operational plan, the NACSA reviewers had concerns about its hiring of Unity School Services to perform management and education services. It was unclear why USS was selected, if the company — which had just eight total employees, none of which were in Alabama — could even do the job, and what expertise it had in such areas.
NACSA also noted that Woodland’s education plan included very few details, especially for a school scheduled to open the next school year, and had failed to identify key partnerships or assign key roles.
None of that mattered to the Commission, though. It approved Woodland’s application, and from what I can tell, the application was never reviewed by any other outside entity. (Other charter applications rejected by NACSA and later approved by the Commission were at least approved by a different entity.)
I asked the Alabama State Department of Education, which has oversight responsibilities of the Charter School Commission, to explain why the application was approved after being rejected by NACSA and/or to provide me with an approval of an amended application by NACSA or another group. There was no response.
ALSDE did, however, respond to several other questions I submitted concerning the troubling details of Woodland Prep’s ownership and management, the lack of community support for the school and about specific details — such as lease rates and interest rates — contained in agreements between Woodland’s board and the private companies it had contracted with.
ALSDE is supposed to maintain records, such as building plans and lease agreements, that charter schools enter into. That is because, as the authorizer of the charter school in Washington County, the Commission is responsible under Alabama law for the oversight of that school.
But in response to my questions, ALSDE decided to be flippant. It directed questions about community opposition to “commissioners who attended the meetings,” despite the fact that ALSDE video recorded each meeting. It disputed that the Commission has a responsibility to monitor and oversee the charter schools it approves, stating that “the Commission may monitor …” the schools. And finally, when asked about the out-of-state ownership and management of Woodland, ALSDE said those questions should be directed to one of those out-of-state groups.
Which seems to indicate that there is no oversight whatsoever of charter schools — or the process to approve charter schools — in Alabama.
The Gulen Connection
A month ago, I had never heard of Woodland Prep, or of the uproar that has taken place in Washington County over its approval. But the day after I wrote a story about Montgomery’s LEAD Academy — which the Commission also approved despite a rejected application, questionable ownership and a shady management company — six different emails landed in my email inbox from Washington County residents.
All of the emails, including two from teachers, one from a dentist, another from a doctor and one from Brackin, the school system employee I mentioned earlier, had the same general theme: “Please help expose what’s happening in Washington County.” That was the actual subject line of one of the emails.
It seems that one name in my story about LEAD had caught their attention: Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.
Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.
Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.
There have also been other, education-related problems, such as a massive grade-change scandal at Harmony in Texas and financial fraud allegations related to grants at other Gulen schools.
But in Washington County, while there was concern about Tarim’s past and his connections to Gulen, the much bigger question was a simple one: Why is he here?
“No one could figure out why someone from Texas would come to little ol’ Washington County for a charter school,” said Brackin, who is the federal programs coordinator for the system.
The answer was easy and expected: Money.
A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.
“He’ll be the highest paid man in Washington County,” wrote one county official who asked not to be identified.
But there’s more. Under the terms of his contract, he also is allowed to keep all profits from any school programs, such as pre-K or after-school trainings, and he is free to use Woodland Prep to apply for any grants.
An Ownership Mystery
Brackin has served as a sort of investigative reporter when it comes to Woodland Prep — gathering public documents, attending meetings and taking meticulous notes, demanding contracts that should be public and reporting it all on social media. She provided me with a trove of documents, and it was the land deed and lease contract that first drew me in.
According to the deed for the land, Woodland Prep’s local school board, Washington County Students First, isn’t the owner of the land. Instead, a holding company — Woodland Charter Holdings — in Utah holds the deed. That company has one registered agent — Jennifer Lind of Utah. According to online records, Lind is the agent of record for at least two dozen charter holding companies in Utah — most of them tied to charter schools thousands of miles away from Utah.
According to records kept by the State of Utah, Woodland Charter Holdings also has just one registered executive: American Charter Development. The same company contracted with the charter board to finance and build the Woodland school building.
So, why all of the layers of ownership? Judging by similar ownership of other charter schools, it’s to mitigate risk to the company financing the project and to allow for the easy sale or transfer of ownership of the land, school building or all of the assets.
Forming a holding company in Utah, where banking laws are particularly lenient, allows for the investors — American Charter Development, in this case — to set up a financial buffer between it and the debt incurred by Woodland Prep. If the school goes broke and has to close, it’s the holding company left on the hook, not ACD.
That means that ACD has relinquished its ownership of the Woodland Prep school to a holding company that ACD owns, and now ACD will charge itself rent and interest — paid for by the tax dollars that were once flowing into Washington County schools.
And make no mistake, ACD is rolling in the cash — receiving 6 percent of the “total development costs” in monthly lease payments, according to the heavily redacted contract it signed with Woodland Prep’s board. That fee does not include a guaranteed 8.9 percent capitalization rate that ACD is guaranteed.
There are also guaranteed increases in the ACD contract terms, which assure that the company will receive 2-percent increases each year after the second year. The contract is for 20 years, but Woodland Prep’s board has the right to purchase the building and land for 117 percent of the total construction costs once every five years.
All of those payments, including the 15 percent to Tarim, will be made using public tax dollars, diverted from the classrooms in Washington County and into the coffers of for-profit businesses. (By the way, I also brought up the issue of the redacted contract between ACD and the Woodland Prep board. ALSDE said it was a matter I should take up with ACD.)
Follow the Money
The contracts to build and finance charter schools are worth millions. States with similarly lax laws governing charter schools’ start-up and management have been inundated with shady, corner-cutting building and finance operations that have sucked millions from local school systems and turned their owners and investors into millionaires. The results for students and communities, however, have been anything but stellar, with the overwhelming majority of charter schools performing no better than the traditional public schools they replace and often faring much, much worse.
Other charter schools for which Lind is a registered agent and which set up holding companies in Utah have experienced all levels of fraud and greed — from schools failing to purchase textbooks and employ an adequate number of teachers to school buildings and property being sold multiple times and investors fleeing in the night as the schools close their doors.
In Missouri, for example, the Imagine Schools charter system — which also set up a Utah holding company — had the worst test scores of any system in the state. Its classrooms lacked basic learning materials, according to a review reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And several of the school buildings had changed owners multiple times in less than a year. But Imagine and its real estate investors made millions in profits, all of it coming from tax dollars.
Obviously, such an outcome can’t be predicted for Woodland Prep. But the process by which Woodland was approved and its start-up monitored by ALSDE and the Commission raises serious concerns.
And with millions of dollars at stake in an already cash-strapped state education system, shouldn’t someone be watching more closely?
Friday is deadline for Shelby County remote learning students to decide to return or not
Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.
Sept. 25 is the deadline for Shelby County schools students who have begun the school year to decide whether they want to return for the next nine weeks or continue learning remotely.
Starting on Monday, Sept. 14, the students who chose the traditional model of learning transitioned from two days a week of in-person instruction to five days a week as part of the “Back Together” phase of the Shelby County Schools reopening plan.
“Traditional in-person students may transition to remote learning if you have concerns about returning to school five days a week,” said Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks in a letter to parents. “Students who are currently remote students must continue in that platform but will be able to transition to in-person instruction starting October 12, 2020. Please reach out to your local school principal if you are a remote learner and plan to return to traditional in-person instruction at the end of the grading period on or before September 25, 2020.”
Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.
Shelby County Schools spokesperson Cindy Warner told APR that this decision is for the next nine weeks.
Students in traditional at-school learning can switch to online learning at any time — just like a student who tests positive for the coronavirus.
But parents are being asked to make the decision if they are going to stay online or not because the system doesn’t want students going back and forth between online classes and traditional at-school classes.
Warner said that 25 percent of students are currently in online instruction but from what they have heard from parents, they expect that many of those students will return.
Warner said that if a parent elects for their children to remain in online learning, they will be given the option of going to traditional in-person learning after this nine-week grading period ends.
Warner said that they did not know how many Shelby County students have tested positive for the coronavirus because the state is going to soon be reporting that data on their dashboard.
A parent at Oak Mountain High School shared an email with APR in which the school announced that that high school alone had 20 students who have tested positive and are in isolation, plus 68 students who are in quarantine because they have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Shelby County has the fifth-highest number of coronavirus cases with 5,116 cases including 299 in the past week. Some 41 Shelby County residents have died from COVID-19 — 14th highest in the state.
At least 2,507 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, four of them children age 0 to 17.
“If your child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep him/her home. If your child has tested positive, please contact the school nurse,” Oak Mountain High School wrote to parents.
Dr. Chris Cox appointed interim president at Bevill State Community College
Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker on Wednesday announced the appointment of Dr. Chris Cox as interim president of Bevill State Community College. Cox will serve in the role until a permanent president is named at the completion of a presidential search.
Cox has more than 24 years of higher education administration experience and currently serves as interim president at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College. Prior to his role at LBW, Cox served as the executive director of workforce solutions and innovations for the Alabama Community College System.
“Time and time again, Dr. Cox has proven to be a capable leader and I’m confident Bevill State will be well-served by his time as Interim President,” Baker said. “Chris’s innovative and enthusiastic approach is a benefit to students, faculty, and staff alike.”
A Geneva, Alabama, native, Cox began his career as a teacher and coach at Dale County High School in Midland City. He later served as assistant principal at Geneva High School in Geneva and principal at Pinedale Elementary School in Enterprise.
Prior to joining the ACCS, Cox spent time in Oxford, first as Oxford High School’s principal and then as assistant superintendent for the Oxford City Board of Education. Cox earned a bachelor of science in social science from Troy State University and a master of science in educational administration from Alabama State University.
Cox earned his doctorate of philosophy in educational administration from Auburn University.
“I am ready to hit the ground running to cover the more than 4,600 square miles that Bevill State and its campuses serve in the great state of Alabama,” Cox said. “Bevill State is a special place and I look forward to working alongside the faculty, staff, and administration to best serve our students. Go Bears!”
Cox’s tenure at Bevill State Community College will begin on Thursday, Oct. 1.
Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers
APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.
It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.
“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.
APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.
Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.
While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”
The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.
In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.
“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”
While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.
There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.
Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.
The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.
“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”
Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”
While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.
Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.
An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.
Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.
Alabama’s First Class Pre-K a bright spot in state’s Black Belt, report finds
Alabama’s Black Belt communities continue to be hard-hit when it comes to unemployment and a declining population, but according to a report released Tuesday, the region’s Pre-K program is a bright spot.
The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center released its latest report in the center’s “Black Belt 2020” series, each looking at different aspects of the majority Black counties that make up the state’s Black Belt.
Tuesday’s report — entitled “Access to Early Childhood Interventions and First Class Pre-K in Alabama; the Black Belt Region“ — shows that the state’s First Class Pre-K program is improving educational outcomes for students in the Black Belt and across the state.
Hunter Whann, a graduate student and research associate at the Education Policy Center, told reporters during a briefing Monday that Black Belt counties have a much higher percentage of single-parent households and, in general, higher percentages of participation among 4-year-olds in Pre-K programs.
Exceptions are Escambia, Lamar, Lowndes and Pike counties, which have less than 37 percent participation.
“Some counties outside the Black Belt still have low access, so a lot of progress has been made, but of course, as always, there’s more progress to be made,” Whann said.
Noel Keeney, another graduate student and lead author of the center’s latest report, said he believes that because there’s a greater percentage of single-parent households in the Black Belt, and higher rates of participation in Pre-K, it’s evidence there’s a need for the resources that Pre-K provides to families.
Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center, noted that the National Institute of Early Childhood Education Research in April 2020, ranked Alabama’s First Class Pre-K as the highest quality state-funded pre- kindergarten program in the country for the 14th consecutive year.
Katsinas said that from the very beginning of the state’s First Class Pre-K in 2000, and especially under Gov. Kay Ivey, the focus has been to develop Pre-K in the Black Belt.
“And I would suggest these data show that that has been a successful approach,” Katsinas said.
Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education, speaking to reporters during the briefing Monday said that from the beginning, officials knew there were some counties and some students that should be the focus of those resources.
“We’ve been able to really see the type of gains in the Black Belt communities because the department has been so purposeful about making sure that we’re serving our most vulnerable populations,” Cooper said, adding that work continues to reach those counties with lower participation rates.
Pamela Truelove-Walker, Region 3 Director for the Office of School Readiness, said Monday that the Black Belt is seeing Pre-K funding of almost $20 million during fiscal year 2020-2021, which employs approximately 466 teachers in those counties.
“So we are excited about the intentionality and the purposefulness with which we are targeting those areas,” Truelove-Walker said. “Because we do know that what it is that we are providing for those children, those families, those homes, and even with workforce development. It is very important.”
The data is clear, both Truelove-Walker and Cooper said Pre-K boosts school readiness skills, reading and math scores, social emotional development, but it is also closing achievement gaps for children living in poverty.
“We are very excited that children who actually attend First Class Pre-K are making gains that are, in many instances, even double the gains that their peers are making who were not able to actually have a First Class Pre-K experience,” Truelove-Walker said.
Additionally, First Class Pre-K allows families the ease of mind to know their children are receiving high-quality education while they themselves enter the workforce.
“Those families are able then to seek jobs and have opportunities for workforce development that they would not have had if their children were not able to be enrolled in a high quality learning environment,” Truelove-Walker said.
Parental involvement in a child’s education, a critical factor in future educational attainment outcomes also gets a boost through participation in Pre-K, Truelove-Walker said, and that involvement is then carried forward as the child progresses in school.
Jinping Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama, said Monday that research shows that family participation in children’s early learning is twice as predictive of a student’s academic success as family socioeconomic status.
“The earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer lasting the effects will be,” Sun said.
Data also shows that the benefits of Pre-K last well into a child’s later school years, Copper said.
“We have children that have been in Pre-K from its inception, and they continue to outperform their peers in both reading and math,” Cooper said. “We also see long-term benefits of children not having as many behavior referrals, disciplinary referrals in elementary school. Having better attendance, because we tackle attendance from day one in Pre-K.”
To learn more about the Education Policy Center’s previous reports on the Black Belt, visit the center’s website here.