School's Out 

Troubles at Omni Prep charter school leave students, parents, and teachers in limbo and raise questions about how charter schools are regulated.

"I want to assure you that your students learned this year," says Courtney Eskew, sitting at a table at a public library with concerned parents from Omni Prep North Pointe charter school in the Raleigh-Frayser district. "The reason we stayed so long is because we knew we were giving them a good education."

Eskew and another kindergarten teacher called the meeting to explain why they had resigned from Omni Prep lower school the preceding week, only eight weeks before the end of the academic year. The following Monday, April 4th, three more teachers would resign.

Local news stations designated the developments as a "strike" or a "walkout." FOX news ran the headline "Teachers Skip Class at Omni Prep." In truth, by the time the story broke, five of the six lower school teachers at Omni Prep, which includes kindergarten and first grade, had tendered their resignations — including one Teach for America Corps member.

Omni Prep North Pointe charter school was founded last year by Cary Booker and Marc Willis and opened last August. The two worked together on the Soulsville charter school before deciding to open Omni Schools, a charter company with its sights set on opening multiple schools in the city. The Omni plan promised parents an alternative to failing public schools and offered students the prospect of learning in a "technology-rich environment."

In Tennessee, charters are granted to schools that can provide parents and students with alternative options to low-performing schools. The Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act states that charter schools are encouraged to use "different and innovative teaching methods and provide greater decision-making authority to schools and teachers in exchange for greater responsibility and student performance."

Charter schools also are charged with creating new professional opportunities for teachers and giving parents "substantial meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children." Progress is measured in an annual report, and schools must meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards to continue operating.

News outlets and Omni Prep administrators alike reported that the five teachers left because Omni Prep told teachers in mid-March that they would only receive one-third of their paychecks. (This was not the first time Omni Prep had been unable to pay teachers; they skipped a pay period in July, which was made up in back pay.) But the former teachers have since come out in defense of their resignations, citing a host of concerns about the overall functioning of the school. The Teach for America member Loide Marwanga even refused TFA's offer to support her financially through the end of the school year, resigning for what she termed ethical reasons.

"To say that we skipped class or that we walked out on students is suggesting that we didn't care about our students," says Eskew, who continues to tutor her former students as a volunteer on Saturdays. "I was at a point in my teaching career where the only thing I could control was how much I loved my students. I left because leaving was the only way to protect them and to stand up for something that should have been educational reform. That's what we were promised at Omni Schools."

Teachers agree that the school's plan was exciting and inspiring on paper, but they soon became apprehensive about how the vision would work in practice. For Eskew, doubts began when teacher training was cut short so teachers could commit themselves to recruiting students.

"I think the fact that I started to work for a school that had no students — that was my first moment of doubt," Eskew says. "We were told, Training is stopping because we don't have our quota. We asked, How many students do we have? They said five. And two of them were one of the principal's own kids."

Administrators and teachers were still trying to reach their target number of 80 students per grade level until the day the school opened its doors. For the lower school, the enrollment target was 160 students.

"In the days leading up to the school opening, Memphis City Schools were doing their registration, and we were asked to stand across the street, off of school properties, and flag down cars to give them a flyer and the elevator speech about Omni Prep," Eskew says. "We didn't have an address to give them. We could only say in the Raleigh-Frayser area. The school site wasn't confirmed until August 7th, two days before opening. That was the day we were allowed to start decorating our rooms."

Teachers also expressed concern over not being fingerprinted, a standard safety procedure for working with children in the Memphis City Schools system. They were similarly uneasy about their training being cut short. "We were promised a month of training," says Felice Ling, a former teacher at Omni Prep who was let go in January for financial reasons. "We got a week or two of fluff."

Booker admits the teachers did not receive all the training they were promised. "We originally scheduled three weeks of training," he says. "That got truncated significantly to help us with our recruitment. They had partial days of training and some full days of helping to recruit. I think they got 40 percent of the original amount."

But the former teachers' complaints don't stop there. No books, no curriculum, no consistency, and no recourse for their concerns were among the top grievances. Many teachers complained about the way students were grouped by ability: basic, proficient, and advanced. At the beginning of the year, Eskew says, "I was asked to divide my students into three groups based on ability — no instruction as to how to do that. Just 'group them by the end of the day.'"

Students were regrouped again in January and again the week before Eskew resigned. "I was informed that I would be receiving new students to work with in the last two months of school. And I would not necessarily be working with the students I had had since January," she says. "I did not leave only because I wasn't getting paid, but also because I was informed that I could potentially not be working with my students for the remainder of the school year."

Booker expressed doubts about many of the teachers' complaints. Eskew says she isn't necessarily surprised by Booker's reaction.

"I can't say that the administration, as far as Marc Willis and Cary Booker, was aware of all the problems we were having as a lower school," she says. "They were very rarely present, unless giving tours to members of the board or visitors or potential donors."

Eskew recalls when a potential donor came to visit the school and sat down with teachers. She asked them specifics about the curriculum. "Our response was, We have no curriculum. And she was very surprised, because in the application for the funding, it explicitly laid out specific assessments, specific curriculum, and specific tools they were going to use to create a strong academic program at the school. And the fact that, as teachers, we had never heard of these tools, heard of this plan, or seen any of those resources was a huge concern for her."

Booker doesn't agree that the school had no curriculum.

"We started out with a plan for teacher-created curriculum," he says. "It became obvious at some point that we needed to buy the packaged curriculum in order to give folks the kind of support and direction they needed. From one perspective, you could accept that [there was no curriculum]. I just really don't. We had scope and sequence. We had pacing guides. We had the principals and the contracted person to help with the curriculum development, and I think as it became more apparent that was not going to be enough, we made further investments."

According to former teachers, however, after being tasked to create a "teacher-created curriculum" they received little or no guidance.

"We asked, How do we design our lesson plan? What do we use to create our lesson plans?" says Eskew, as two other former teachers nod in agreement. "They sent us a link to Tennessee grade level standards, and said, Use this. It told us what the students needed to learn, but it did not tell us how to teach. The response was, You have the Internet, go and use it."

As a result, teachers say they relied heavily on a colleague, Molly Logan, the one kindergarten teacher with experience. Logan had taught at the early childhood level for a number of years. "Molly was aware of what a kindergarten curriculum should look like," Eskew says. "She was our only real resource. She also resigned."

Prior to her dismissal, Ling was switched from teacher to part-time receptionist and instruction specialist. "My job was to pull together a curriculum," she says. "I was printing off a stolen curriculum. I was told to print it off for times when we lost Internet access.

"I think the big thing is that they hired fresh, out of college teachers," Ling says. "So I didn't personally have any idea until much later on. I thought all first grade teachers went through what we went through."

Charter schools receive funding from the state based on the number of students they have enrolled, as dictated by the Basic Education Program. And while charter schools like Omni Prep are uniquely positioned to receive public funding and to leverage private, philanthropic dollars, Booker says public funding issues set off their financial trouble.

"It started with us missing our recruitment goal for students in the beginning," he says. "We've made adjustments as we've gone through the year to tweak the budget and try to recover from that. In the first year of a charter school, you have a lot of things that you're trying to get up and running. You pull back on investments in technology, you pare back a little on the music program, you don't fill some positions, and along the way you have to cut some positions."

Because Omni Prep did not get the enrollment numbers the founders expected and did not receive the state funds they budgeted for, financial worries were present from the beginning. Midway through the year, the physical education teacher was let go and P.E. was eliminated. Ling was let go after serving for a brief time as the instruction specialist and receptionist. The original lower school principal who began the year but was then shifted over to be the dean of recruitment and retention was also laid off. Despite these layoffs, Booker hired a director of academics and assessment, Mary Mitchell, who left her position as a fifth-grade teacher at Grahamwood Elementary in December to accept the position.

"We knew there were financial concerns, because Cary informed us over the winter break that we might not be implementing some of the summer programs, which were included in the vision plan," Eskew says. "My question was, how do you put another dean on hire, when we can't support summer school?"

Nicole Gates, infant mortality campaign coordinator at Shelby County office of early childhood and youth and parent of twins attending kindergarten at Omni Prep, had similar questions about the way Omni's funds were allocated. At a recent emergency parent meeting (after I was asked to leave for being a member of the press), Gates raised the issue of teachers not being paid.

"My question was how did salaries get touched?" she says. "That's inexcusable. You knew you needed teachers, regardless of the number of students, so what happened to their salaries? There was no explanation of that. That question was not answered at all. Most of my questions were not answered. I came prepared and I sat on the front row.'"

Gates, who has experience in early childhood education, had a number of other questions about the way Omni Prep was run. Like many parents, she says she consistently had trouble getting into the school to pick up her children because the receptionist was rarely, if ever, at her desk. She served as a parent liaison to a board meeting in December and was surprised that no mention was made of the financial straits at Omni Prep. She was shocked to discover that the school had no books, and brought some of the county's Books From Birth materials to the classrooms.

Gates says her girls will not return to Omni Prep next year.

"They have to answer to nobody," she says. "There's no guarantee to me that they're going to make any changes before next year. It's scary, especially when you're talking about kids and their education."

Booker says Omni Prep will be open next year.

"We've got tighter models," he says. "We're not depending as heavily on outside grants and donations. The budget we have now is 98 percent of local and federal dollars, the per-student money. A little bit of fund-raising and grants that the school will do locally, and it amounts to a very small piece of the budget. So even if we miss those targets, it wouldn't require radical adjustments. Next year's budget will not rely at all on any outside dollars coming in."

But Memphis City School Board member Tomeka Hart isn't sure about the idea of a charter school relying solely on public funds.

"Then you're not going to have any more resources than a regular public school. How do you shield yourself from the bureaucracy? Now you're relying on a bureaucracy. Those charter schools that are going to be sustainable are those that also have philanthropic dollars and access to other monies."

Hart says she supports charter schools and believes the chartering process, by which Omni Prep was granted a charter, is a rigorous one. All the same, she says, "even when you think about how great that process can be, you're determining on paper if something is going to be great. Now I would say the process still has to be considered a great process, considering the number of charter schools that we have chartered, and we don't have major problems."

While Hart was unaware of the details of the Omni Prep situation and believes that Omni Prep had a great plan, she was clear about the myriad problems many new charter schools face.

"I think the problem with charter schools is that you can conceptualize a great program, but then you get it, and it's kind of like a dog catching a car — what do you do now?," she says. "The implementation of that program you have visualized in your head and your heart and on paper, it doesn't always work out."

As for what the school board can do if a charter isn't working, Hart says they are limited in their authority.

"We can revoke a charter, once we've issued it. We can revoke it for financial issues, or if they are not meeting No Child Left Behind requirements for two years in a row, or if they've violated their contract. We don't have stated in the law, though, any way to check on that until the annual report."

So while charter schools are under the umbrella of Memphis City Schools and receive public funding, they are functionally autonomous. According to the law, charter schools can be "subject to state audit procedures and requirements" and are under the "general supervision" of the chartering authority (the school board, in this case), but control of instruction is "vested in the governing body of the school."

"The challenge there is if you give the local school board too much [authority] then it's not really a charter school. It's just another one of our contract schools," says Hart, adding that many parents still make calls to the school board with complaints about charter schools. "We don't have anything to do with them once we charter them, until it comes to the annual report," although Hart admits that if there were "some blatant violation of their contract and it's in December, I don't know that we just have to wait until July."

What role the charter board plays is an important part of the equation, Hart says. "I do think the law is failing our students and teachers who choose charter schools, because their boards are not held to the same standard as the school board."

Hart believes charter boards should be required to go through school board training, just like the Memphis City School Board does. "If the board is doing what a board should do, it would be the first to know the issues that a charter school may face. Part of it is making sure that those boards are present and accountable, the same way we have to be.

"In a broad sense, what this situation points out is that the state really needs to take a look, because oversight isn't necessarily a bad thing. Oversight can mean the opportunity to course-correct," Hart says. "I think that in its efforts to create this school structure that has some autonomy, well, being autonomous comes at some price."

With Governor Bill Haslam's education reforms on the horizon, things could get even more interesting for charter schools. According to a new law, charter schools will be open to all students, not just those in low-performing schools or on free or reduced lunch programs. What's more, the chartering process will no longer involve a local education agency. Instead, the state will take over as the charter-granting authority.

"They're trying to remove the school board from the decision-making and having an arm of the state do it. I don't know about that," Hart says. "I'm all for giving more options, but if we're right here in the community and some things can happen, I'm not sure how the state thinks its arm will be closer."

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