When Romig Road Community School in West Akron received its state report card a little more than a year ago, the news wasn’t good: Under Ohio law, it had crossed the line of no return.
The huge, publicly funded charter school’s academic performance was poor, it had failed to show improvement, and it would have to close at the end of the coming school year, 2012-13.
More than 450 children would have to find a new school this fall.
So, as the year came to a close, children brought home letters that left Kim Duckworth confused. All of the students, including her grandchildren, were invited to return.
A new school would open on the same site, run by the same company, but with a new name: Imagine Leadership Academy.
“What will be different from last year?” Duckworth asked. “That will be the determining factor as to whether I will take them back there.”
What happened on Romig Road isn’t all that new. Analysis of Ohio Department of Education records for years prior to 2013 show seven charter schools operated by for-profit management companies were closed for academic performance and were reopened under that same company, with only one exception.
And as for academics, three of the seven again are in academic emergency and a fourth is in academic watch.
On Romig Road, the manager continues to be Virginia-based Imagine Schools, one of the nation’s largest for-profit education companies. The school board has changed, curriculum has been updated and seven of 13 teachers were changed.
Enrollment has dropped to 240 in the first week of September, but administrators hope to fill 100 more seats, said first-year Principal Erica Lucas, a fourth-grade teacher at Romig Road last year.
Imagine has a significant presence in Ohio. Last school year, the company operated 16 charter schools, received $46.9 million in state tax dollars and enrolled 6,582 students, according to the company’s website and state financial records.
Of the schools that were rated, all but one received a “D” or “F” in 2012.
Advocates in charge
The process of flipping a failing school is an easy one.
The original idea behind charter schools was that a group of citizens interested in experimenting with new education concepts would create a nonprofit organization, form a school board and work with the Ohio Department of Education to launch a school.
In practice, however, many for-profit management companies do all the work. And when they see a forced shutdown on the horizon, they create a new nonprofit school, establish a new school board — or keep the same one — and in essence control the entire process.
The education department and state school board have been stripped of oversight.
That occurred as the department was challenging the viability of some proposed charter schools, several of them proposed by Akron entrepreneur David Brennan’s White Hat Management, and the state board voted against some of his applications. The legislature gave oversight to sponsors, which generally are run by supporters of the movement and have a vested interest: They collect sponsorship fees.
“We have no authority to make a judgment about the worthiness of a [prospective] school,” said ODE spokesman John Charlton. “We see if the contract is compliant; we have an enrollment system to make sure the minimum number of students are enrolled; we require sponsors to send us an assurance that the building is a safe place for kids.”
Charlton said various criteria are monitored when the school is up and running to ensure academic and fiscal viability. However, state report cards are being revised and criteria that determines whether a school should close has not been established. For that reason, charter schools that might be forced to close under old standards will be exempt from closure until 2017, one ODE official said.
White Hat’s maneuvers
Because ODE can only ask that failing charter schools not be duplicated, it is up to the sponsors to examine applications and ensure that reopened schools have sufficiently changed to guarantee better academic performance.
Although some sponsors vow to not support the automatic reopening of a failed school, questions have been raised about that pledge.
At one time, White Hat Management operated a Life Skills Center for high school dropouts on the northeast side of downtown Canton and a Hope Academy for grades K-8 on the southwest side.
The Hope Academy failed academically and had to close in the spring of 2010.
What transpired over the next few years was reconstructed by the Beacon Journal by tracking school incorporation papers, funding, street addresses and “IRNs,” which are the unique identification numbers the state applies to each school so that it can track enrollment, academic performance and funding.
When Hope Academy on Garfield Avenue Southwest closed in the spring of 2010, department records show that its name and IRN were wiped from the books.
But the building didn’t miss a beat. A new elementary school, Brighten Heights, opened months later. The legal paperwork creating Brighten was handled by lawyers at Brennan’s law firm, Brennan, Manna & Diamond LLC of Akron.
However, while the school name was new, the IRN wasn’t: It was the same number — 142901 — used to identify Life Skills of Canton the previous year.
But the Life Skills Center on Cleveland Avenue Northeast hadn’t closed, either. Signs suggest it had been renamed Brighten Heights high school.
After the disappearance of Hope, state records show that enrollment at IRN 142901 — the old Life Skills school — surged and funding doubled from $1.5 million to $3 million in 2010-11.
What changed? For this year, IRN 142901 included elementary school children.
The next year, it changed again. IRN 142901 returned to Life Skills of Canton, and a new school called Garfield Academy with its own IRN opened in the old Hope Academy building.
After one year, Brighten Heights ceased operations.
Through three school years, the elementary building on Garfield Avenue Southwest had three different IRNs, was a failed Hope Academy, the elementary campus of Brighten Heights K-12, and then Garfield Academy.
And through it all, White Hat managed all schools, retaining more than two-thirds of the staff. Lawyers associated with Brennan created each new school and managed each name change. School board members for Hope, Life Skills, Brighten and Garfield appear to have never changed.
Public, but not public
Charter schools are nonprofit organizations that receive public money, are audited by the state and are expected to comply with state public records and open meetings laws.
However, the Beacon Journal was unsuccessful in gaining meaningful information from any of the Canton charter schools or White Hat.
For example, in an attempt to understand whether the board members exercised any power in the closing and opening of schools, the Beacon Journal asked a Garfield employee for board-member contact information. The employee said board information could not be given out. “You’d have to call our corporate office [White Hat] for that information,” she said.
Attempts to interview a White Hat representative for this story began on Aug. 13 and have been unsuccessful. The company would accept only written questions. A request for the names and contact information of board members was answered on Aug. 23 with a list of lawyers instead.
A search of federal tax reports and Web sites for the schools suggested five names as board members. Messages seeking comment from persons believed to be those board members have not been returned.
White Hat Chief Executive Tom Barrett has written, however, on Ohio’s academic closure rules. He wrote in a letter to the Columbus Dispatch in July that, “Ohio has the toughest automatic-closure laws in the country, which don’t apply to traditional public schools.”
Garfield Academy, which has been open now for two years, is rated in academic emergency.
Sponsors swap oversight
When failing schools are forced to close, they are required to reform with new leadership, new school boards and a new plan.
St. Aloysius Orphanage, a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati that had sponsored the Hope Academy, abandoned the school because of its poor academic performance.
The Canton Life Skills school was sponsored by yet another organization, the Ohio Council of Community Schools (OCCS), which for one year would have sponsored the K-12 Brighten school.
But when Garfield was created, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (BCHF) in Columbus stepped in as the sponsor.
In a recent interview, BCHF education director Peggy Young said she is optimistic that, through additional collaboration and intervention, Garfield Academy will improve academically.
She disagreed with the scenario that Garfield was a failed school that had reopened. That would have been found out through BCHF’s “rigorous application process.”
“I don’t believe that this school was closed, because we do look at that…This is not a school that was closed. This is a brand new application. They had a facility available,” she said.
At the Romig Road school, OCCS dropped its sponsorship because of low academic ratings.
“We didn’t think it was a good performer,” said Frank Stoy, OCCS director of operations. “And I don’t even know who’s sponsoring it now, but I can tell you that’s something that we wouldn’t do anymore.”
The school’s new sponsor is the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center.
“Imagine is putting a school back in where the school was. Yes, that is correct,” explained Jim Lahoski, superintendent of the North Central Ohio ESC. “And no, it is not the same school. There’s been an updated curriculum. There’s been new employees. There’s been a number of things that turned around at that school.”
“Here’s what has to happen,” Stoy said. “I think sponsors have to take a strong position that they’re not going to sponsor schools that are, for lack of a better term, a re-creation of an already failed school. I think that’s the position that we have to take, that sponsors should be respectful of the closure law.”
Again, the education department has little control.
“If we suspect that there may be recycling of a school closed for poor academic performance — same management company, same building — we ask the sponsor to verify that a different program is going into the building; that the majority of staff at the building are different; that there’s a different governing authority. We ask for this verification, and we have gotten assurances that it is not the same old, same old, but we have no explicit legal authority to prevent this from happening,” ODE spokesman Charlton said.
While a canvas banner masks the school’s old name, Imagine Leadership Academy Principal Lucas said much has changed on Romig Road. The curriculum, the emphasis on leadership and seven teachers are new.
Lucas encourages confused parents to call the school, request a home visit or stop in.
But it’s too late for some.
Christina Ferguson wouldn’t wait to see what might change. She enrolled her daughter at another charter school across town.
“With Imagine closing and opening up and not knowing what teacher they will have for the second grade, I don’t really take chances with my daughter’s education,” Ferguson said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.