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‘Craziness’: How Montgomery’s first charter school has devolved into chaos in less than six weeks

Josh Moon

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LEAD Academy, Montgomery’s first charter school, has been a chaotic mess since it opened less than six weeks ago, with staffing shortages leaving more than 70 students crammed into one class, angry teachers left without necessary supplies, student shortages threatening the school, extensive discipline issues and an ongoing fight between staff and the LEAD board over a strange contract that faculty members are being forced to sign several weeks after school has started, according to numerous LEAD teachers and employees who spoke with APR. 

Most of the issues have remained internal, with few details leaking outside of LEAD’s walls … until Friday, when the school’s first principal, Nicole Ivey, resigned unexpectedly. Almost immediately, rumors began to swirl and worried faculty members started to discuss the multitude of issues at LEAD. 

Two staff members who worked closely with Ivey said she ultimately resigned after a heated argument with LEAD board president Charlotte Meadows, who was pushing Ivey to require the staff to sign an at-will work contract which would allow the board to fire or reduce the pay of any LEAD employee without cause. But those staff members, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that they could be fired by Meadows, said Ivey’s resignation was likely inevitable due to a litany of mismanagement issues and odd decisions by leadership at the school. 

A list of more than a dozen detailed questions about the specific concerns raised by LEAD employees was sent to Meadows early Monday afternoon. Shortly after 6 p.m., she responded to the questions by saying that her email had been hacked and she had just gained access. However, she didn’t have time to answer the questions because a PTA meeting was underway and she needed to “pay attention to our parents.” 

“I expect that you will not print anything that you do not have credible proof that it occurred,” Meadows wrote. 

Indeed. 

For several weeks now, LEAD Academy staff members and their family members have been sending APR information about problems at the school. Prior to Friday, those issues ranged from the mundane to something just short of serious. But following Ivey’s resignation, a flood of information, including details of troubling safety issues and possible fraud allegations, came pouring in from LEAD staffers. 

The allegations reported in this story have been verified by at least two staff members, independent of each other, and in most cases at least four LEAD employees have corroborated the information. The staffers refused to be identified in the story out of fear that they could lose their jobs, and to explain their fear, several pointed to the fact that Meadows and the LEAD board members were already attempting to implement a “fire-at-will workplace.” 

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“This is the craziest place I’ve ever worked,” said one employee who has experience working in other school districts in Alabama. “There are no rules. They don’t follow the law. And when you ask Charlotte about it, or say that we can’t do something because it’s illegal, she’ll just tell you that ‘LEAD is a charter school and charter schools don’t follow laws.’”

A Shortage of Resources

Lawless is a good way to describe the day-to-day operation of LEAD, according to the teachers. 

One of the prime examples that several teachers pointed out is a morning physical education class at the K-5 school, where more than 70 students are in one class and monitored by one teacher. That class is always outdoors, because there is only one room within the LEAD school building large enough to hold that many students — the lunchroom, where lunch is being served to other students. 

The class being outdoors has increased anxiety among the staff who worry that a child could easily wander off — a point they say was repeatedly made to Meadows and others. Additionally, there is little shade, and the recent run of 95-plus-degrees days have made the classes even more dangerous. 

When teachers inquired about hiring an additional teacher to handle some of the students in the PE class, they said Meadows told them that the school lacked the resources. Instead, an aide was assigned to help out “when she could,” which was fewer than two days per week. 

A lack of resources also has hindered teachers in receiving proper supplies, three teachers told APR. The teachers said getting access to basic supplies is “a daily fight” and that it has sparked anger among the faculty, particularly due to the amount of money being spent on management fees that are being paid to Soner Tarim. 

Tarim, a controversial figure with ties to the Gulen Movement, operates Unity School Services, which is listed as the management company for LEAD. Under its contract, USS should provide daily management services, apply for federal grants and generally serve the same functions as a public school district’s central office. 

Only, that’s not the case, according to two employees with direct knowledge. Instead, Meadows, the board president, serves a more daily role — going so far as to direct staff to refer to her as a superintendent — and Tarim, who is receiving more than $30,000 per month, is rarely seen at the school, they said. Most of his duties, the sources said, have been shuffled off to others at the school. 

“If he’s there at all during the week, it’s maybe three days, max,” said one employee. “But there have been a few weeks since we started that he hasn’t shown up once.” 

A Lack of Discipline

The staff isn’t exactly complaining about Tarim’s absence, though. Both he and Meadows have fallen out of favor with most of the staff over recent decisions regarding discipline issues at the school. One decision in particular — not to punish a student who punched a teacher — angered the staff and led to a number of complaints. 

In that instance, the teacher and an assistant principal at LEAD had determined that the student, who also cursed the teacher, deserved to be suspended. Meadows and Tarim intervened and sent the student back to class. Their reasoning: “(Meadows) said it would be bad PR for the school,” a staff member said. 

Teachers said the student in question was returned to the same classroom and is still in the teacher’s class.

While Tarim is rarely at LEAD, the staff say they can’t get rid of Meadows and board member Lori White. Meadows has gone so far as to set up an office for herself at the school, and White is serving as the school nurse — which staff told White and Meadows was illegal under Alabama law. 

Additionally, staff members said Meadows and White repeatedly overstepped their responsibilities as board members and became involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. Meadows often entered classrooms unannounced and has, on multiple occasions, sat in on faculty-parent meetings without prior warning. 

White often communicates with faculty members about curriculum and daily activities. Recently, she used the faculty email list at the school to send a letter encouraging all LEAD employees to vote against Steven Reed in the upcoming Montgomery mayoral election, because of his ties to the Alabama Education Association. APR was forwarded a copy of the email. 

“I understand why (Ivey) resigned — because she was never left alone and was constantly dealing with BS from board members who shouldn’t be in the school,” said a teacher who said she witnessed Meadows enter a classroom unannounced. 

The Last Straw

The final straw for Ivey was the demand from Meadows and Tarim that she sign, and then force her staff to sign, a contract stating that they were working as at-will employees and could be terminated at any time without cause. The form, a copy of which was provided to APR, also stated that employees could have their pay reduced or docked without cause, and that salaried employees could be forced to work weekends, nights and overtime without additional compensation. 

The demand to sign the contract came well after the start of the 2019-20 school year, when teachers would have no options for seeking other employment for the year. Teachers said they told Ivey that they felt entrapped by the circumstances and that it was unfair. She agreed. 

“(Ivey) knew it wasn’t right and that’s why she was fighting them,” said one teacher. 

That the situation at LEAD has devolved so spectacularly should not be a surprise. APR reported months ago that the school’s application was rejected by the national reviewers because its school plan failed to meet basic minimums in any of three main areas. In portions, the National Charter Authorizers’ review of LEAD’s application almost seemed mocking, as it noted serious problems in staffing, finance and curriculum planning. For months, the school lacked even a building, and even charter school supporters expressed concerns that the LEAD board lacked a single person who had experience running a school. 

Still, the Alabama Charter Commission, facing serious political pressure, approved the application. That approval was the subject of a lawsuit, since a majority of the overall board didn’t approve — a requirement in the charter school law passed by the Alabama Legislature. The actual law didn’t matter much to the Alabama Supreme Court, however, and it overturned a lower court’s ruling and allowed LEAD to move forward with opening. 

APR also was the first to report in Alabama of Tarim’s ties to the Gulen Movement and point out his charter schools’ ties to a religious organization that has been deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey. There were also troubling concerns of fraud and questionable hires at Tarim’s old company, Harmony Schools. 

His management of LEAD — and of another charter school in Alabama — were questioned by a number of public education watchdogs around the state, who were concerned about the cost of his contracts with the schools, which pay Tarim a blanket 13 percent of all money — public and private — taken in by the schools.

 

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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding

Josh Moon

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Traditionally underfunded and serving an economically challenged student population, America’s historically black colleges are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of COVID-19 and many are facing bankruptcy, Alabama State University President Quinton Ross told CNN on Monday evening. 

Ross was interviewed by CNN as part of the network’s coverage of how coronavirus shutdowns of college campuses are disproportionately affecting HBCUs. 

“It exposed a number of inequities that were already present prior to this virus,” Ross said during the piece. 

HBCUs typically lack large endowments and hefty budgets, making it harder for them to adjust to shifting courses online. Also, serving a more economically disadvantaged student body often means that the students don’t have the necessary Internet or computers at their homes to participate in online courses. 

Ross said that some HBCUs needed more substantial technological infrastructure to transition to online and other alternative learning methods to ensure the continuity of education for entire student bodies; many of whom were returning to homes without connectivity or computers.

“We had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology, and many of the infrastructures were not prepared,” he said.

Ross has said that federal emphasis on access to technology is not just an HBCU issue, “it is a nationwide issue that must be addressed.”

The underlying inequities Ross mentioned stem, in part, from states, such as Alabama, implementing racist funding practices, leaving HBCUs funded at significantly lower levels than white colleges. That made it impossible for HBCUs to keep pace on matters such as technology infrastructure.  

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Former ASU vice president John Knight, a longtime former state representative, in the 1980s filed a lawsuit on behalf of ASU and other black colleges in the state, challenging the funding policies of the state. The state lost and was forced to pay millions of dollars to at least partially rectify decades of improper funding that denied thousands of black Alabamians a college education.

 

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Education

Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday asked Senate leadership to include money for public schools and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding. 

Jones and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led a group of other senators in drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that urges aid to be directed to education during the coronavirus crisis. 

“We continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools,” the letter reads. “This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”

“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out,” the letter continues. 

Approximately $13.2 billion through the CARES act Education Stabilization Fund has already been disbursed to governors for distribution to K-12 schools. 

Education organizations recommend $175 billion more for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education, according to a press release from Jones’s office. 

 Full letter below: 

 Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

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 We write to urge you to include, in any upcoming legislation designed to provide additional relief to Americans during the COVID 19 pandemic, significant additional support for our nation’s schools. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included an Education Stabilization Fund to provide immediate support, we continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools. This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.

 School districts rely almost entirely on state and local revenue. Low-wealth districts rely the most heavily on state aid and will be most impacted by the economic implications of this crisis. It is our duty to ensure that children receive the education they are rightfully entitled to. Students cannot learn if their schools are forced to downsize operations, eliminate teaching positions in critical subjects, or lay off other critical support staff such as social workers and counselors, due to depleted budgets.

 The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021,[1] changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known. One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession. [2] It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.

 As local communities and school districts see their revenue shrink, they will be forced to look at staffing cuts, as salaries and benefits comprise the majority of school budgets. As a result of this crisis, Learning Policy Institute estimates that if states experience a 20% decline in revenue, without federal intervention, about 460,000 educator positions will be eliminated. [3] Congress must invest now to stabilize the public education sector and fill the current gaps in our education workforce and prevent an even more dire shortage in the years to come.  

 In addition to focusing on our educator workforce in any upcoming economic relief package, we urge you to continue to help schools to address learning loss facing our most disadvantaged students and ensure that all students with disabilities can continue to access the Free Appropriate Public Education to which they are entitled. We therefore urge you to provide substantial, flexible additional investments through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Finally, if the next funding package includes infrastructure provisions, we urge you to explicitly include K-12 schools as eligible recipients for funds.

 Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

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When public schools reopen, nurses could be the key to combating coronavirus

Josh Moon

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When Alabama’s public schools open their doors to students in the fall, there will be one group of people on the front lines, entrusted with the monumental task of identifying and isolating potentially sick students and tracing their contact with other students. 

School nurses. 

The already overworked and underappreciated (and usually under-compensated) nurses that care for thousands of sick and injured school kids every day in this state will become perhaps the most vital cog in a plan to keep Alabama’s public schools from becoming hotspots for COVID-19. 

But there is a hitch: There aren’t enough of them. 

“We know that the school nurses will take the lead this fall in whatever plans are developed to respond to this (COVID-19) virus,” said Diana Collins, the president of the Alabama Association of School Nurses. “We feel like that having a nurse in a school all day, every day during this pandemic would solve a number of issues that will arise and provide the best care for our students. 

“A major concern for us is the lack of nurses in so many schools. It’s something we’ve spoken with legislators about, and I think those talks have been productive. But of course, money is an issue with something like this.”

Determining just how many school nurses that the Alabama State Department of Education is employing at a given time — and the number of nurses that should be serving each district — is a tricky task. Several factors go into determining the number of nurses needed, including the school population and the known health issues of its students. 

By law, each district must employ at least one head nurse, but that still leaves a number of public schools in the state without a nurse stationed on campus. According to figures provided to APR, about 300 schools in the state don’t have a nurse on campus. Many of those are rural schools, which would require extensive travel for the district’s head nurse. 

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That’s an issue that many principals and district superintendents have brought up numerous times over the last several years. The coronavirus outbreak has only heightened their concerns. It might also be the best chance to make a change. 

“Could this be the time that people realize we need a school nurse in every school every day?” asked Jennifer Ventress, the head nurse for ALSDE. “I believe that’s a possibility. But again, it’s about paying for it and where does the money come from. There’s no question that the nurses serve an important function, particularly in the poorer districts. And they will play an important role with the (coronavirus) this fall.”

State officials are examining the possibility of using at least some of Alabama’s allocation of CARES Act money to increase its total number of school nurses for at least the upcoming school year. 

Ventress said ALSDE officials are still formulating a plan for the fall — one that includes using nurses and their extensive training to help identify and isolate students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms — but that nothing, including the available dollars, has been finalized. 

Under the plan currently in the works at ALSDE, school nurses, in addition to identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms, would also assist superintendents and principals in identifying areas in which students suspected of having the virus can be sequestered safely. They also will help ensure that students get medical treatment. 

The finer details of that plan have not yet been worked out, Ventress said, because of a number of fluctuating variables. State superintendent Eric Mackey on Wednesday asked district superintendents to consider pushing the start of the 2020-21 school year back to at least late August, in part, so school leaders would have more time to gather data. 

Ventress said many of Alabama’s school nurses will spend that time working with the Alabama Department of Public Health, helping it to track down and perform contact tracing on patients who test positive for COVID-19. That program will provide nurses with valuable experience for the fall school year, and also provide them with a few extra dollars.

“It is a completely voluntary partnership that we have formed with ADPH to assist them in some much needed tracing,” Ventress said. “We see it as a win-win with no downside. It’s voluntary for our nurses and gives them great training and a little extra money. At the same time, it helps out ADPH, and they could really use the extra assistance right now.”

The primary benefit to ALSDE, obviously, is that by the start of the school year, it should have a small army of school nurses trained to perform proper contact tracing and familiar with the workings of ADPH. 

But not in every school. 

“Right now, school nurses are needed more than ever,” Collins said. “We are a vital bridge between the schools and the health care providers. We have been caring for these kids for a long time, and we know that environment better than anyone. I would just hope that everyone remembers that we’re all in this together and that everything we do should be in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the children.”

 

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