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Published in Print: August 17, 2001, as Mismanaged Care

Mismanaged Care

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Bill Stevens, as usual, is making the most of a tough situation. The start of summer vacation for students at Techworld Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., is just two weeks away, and the teacher was set to review for his world history final. But many of his Techworld colleagues chose today for end-of-the-year field trips, so the hallways are nearly empty. Of the 15 9th and 10th graders who usually attend Stevens’ Friday morning class, only two are present.

No matter. He pretends the room is full of antsy teenagers. “Quiet down, class. Quiet down,” he says, smiling. Both students giggle. Then one joins in the fun, high-fiving imaginary students seated nearby.

Stevens quickly launches into the day’s assignment. Tall and thin with spiky hair, he has the enthusiasm of a rookie teacher and disciplines his kids with equal parts toughness and camaraderie. Pointing at the white board at the front of the room, he advises the students to develop sample questions as a way to study for the exam, which will cover everything from the Russian Revolution to modern-day Africa.

But before anyone can begin, one student raises his hand and asks Stevens for a textbook. He forgot his, he explains. And he needs a pencil and a piece of paper, too. Stevens frowns.

“How is it that you have nothing with you?” he asks.

The kid shrugs and says, “It’s just one of those days.”

Stevens knows what he means. He’s endured many rough days since he joined the Techworld staff in the fall of 1999. Previously a teacher at a private school for kids with severe emotional problems, he switched to Techworld because he wanted to work with a variety of students. And like others who’ve signed on with charter schools—which receive public funds but operate, for the most part, independently of school systems—he thought the job would offer more flexibility and minimal interference from administrators.

“Unfortunately, that’s why Techworld had problems—not enough red tape, not enough people checking up on them,” says Stevens.

Last fall, after years of conflict among school officials and allegations of financial mismanagement, the District of Columbia Board of Education announced plans to revoke Techworld’s charter and close it down. But in June, the board saved the school, at least temporarily, by extending probation until December.

That’s good news for the teachers still working at Techworld, not to mention the students. But the school’s struggles have taught a painful lesson: If you’ve thought about joining a charter school faculty, you may face risks not even imagined at a traditional school—administrative bungling so severe, for example, that the teachers are left behind to pick up the pieces.

The charter movement began in 1991, when Minnesota passed a state law providing funds for schools that would be allowed to experiment with curricula and teaching methods. Each school was to be supervised by a team of parents, teachers, and other community members that would track progress and make policy decisions in place of the district office. The concept—favored by standards-minded conservatives and envelope-pushing liberals alike—drew nationwide attention, and by September 2000, roughly 500,000 K-12 students were enrolled in 2,100 charter schools in 34 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Of those kids, 10,000 were attending 33 schools in the nation’s capital, which began its charter crusade in 1996, when decades of low test scores and high staff turnover had become intolerable. The result is that 12 percent of the district’s public school population is now charter students, making the city “arguably the single most ‘charterized’ jurisdiction in the entire country,” according to a study conducted by researchers at George Washington University.

But reports on the city’s charter schools suggest that most aren’t offering anything remarkably better than what’s found in a typical D.C. public school. And in many cases, they’re tougher to operate. Administrators have struggled to find adequate space for startups; state and federal funds often arrive late; and conflicts among members of the board of trustees sometimes threaten a school’s existence. Since 1996, three charters have closed their doors.

Nationwide, just 4 percent of the country’s charter schools have been closed, according to the nonprofit Center for Education Reform. The movement’s advocates cite this figure as proof of success. But the closure process, which often results in dislocating hundreds of students, is a messy one. And it’s difficult to assess just how many schools are struggling in any one district. In Washington, D.C., for example, a handful of schools have been put on, or threatened with, probation by the city’s board of ed. Techworld is one of them.

The school was founded by Daanen Strachan, a former college administrator who, in 1994, ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the board of education. His idea was to create a high school that offers technology-related “majors,” such as computer programming. The school’s charter, approved by the board in 1998, even promised a laptop for each student.

The trouble began almost immediately. That summer, Strachan accused Reginald Green, chair of the school’s board of trustees, and two other members of trying to purchase a school building without full board approval. Strachan, who was Techworld’s executive director, persuaded the rest of the board to oust the allegedly errant members. Green then sued Strachan, who filed a countersuit.

Despite the conflict (both suits eventually were dropped), Techworld opened in August 1998 with a class of 140 9th graders and 14 teachers. Over the next couple of years, as each class advanced, a new group of 9th graders was added to the school’s enrollment, which, as of September 2000, totaled about 340 students in grades 9 through 11.

But growth at Techworld didn’t satisfy Strachan, who aimed to establish a network of schools. Just as the D.C. operation got under way, he flew numerous times to Miami, where in 1999 he opened another Techworld. (He later started a third school in Las Vegas.) When the district’s board of education learned that nearly $20,000 of Techworld’s operating funds had been used to cover Strachan’s expenses, it summoned Dean Matthews, then chair of the school’s board of trustees, to a closed-door meeting in March 2000. Strachan now explains that he used a credit card for the Miami trips knowing the bills would be paid by the D.C. Techworld, which he had planned to later reimburse. Matthews told school board members that Strachan had done just that, but they ordered a financial audit of Techworld anyway.

In May 2000, the board placed the school on six months’ probation, citing “weaknesses in its financial controls and record keeping.” Techworld’s principal resigned soon afterward, and Strachan jumped ship in October. “I’m a visionary,” he explains. “I don’t want to have to be tied down to day-to-day things, the pettiness of a school system.” Now a consultant for nonprofit groups and software development companies, he attributes Techworld’s problems to conflicts over his vision and poor financial managers. One of those managers was Kenneth Strachan, the founder’s cousin, who served as a consultant to Techworld as well as other district charter schools. But in early 1999, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion while he was an accountant for a Washington, D.C., mental health program in the mid-1990s. Last December, Kenneth Strachan was sentenced to a year in prison.

These setbacks, coupled with the threat of closure, didn’t make things easy for Techworld’s 30 teachers, four of whom left before the 2000-01 school year ended. In addition, there were not enough funds to pay for computers for all the students, and local newspapers were chronicling the unfolding crisis, prompting worried parents to flood the school with calls.

Stevens says he often interrupted class to answer students’ questions and sort through rumors. “You saw shoulders starting to slouch,” he recalls. “Kids started to think, ‘Well, if teachers are leaving, why do I need to work so hard?’ It was very frustrating trying to worry about my classroom and outside garbage.”

Still, the remaining Techworld teachers have performed admirably. Monitoring reports note that students are “actively engaged” in “clear discussions” in classes. Stevens, for his efforts, was recently voted teacher of the year by the faculty. And though its future is uncertain, the D.C. Techworld has fared better than its counterparts. Last winter, Strachan closed the Miami school because of “financial hardship,” and he couldn’t find a permanent location for the Las Vegas school, which was shut down in December.

‘You’re not going to see the Taj Mahal,” Willie Ingram told a visitor during a tour of the D.C. Techworld back in May. “I think what you’re going to see is the aftermath of what we’ve all gone through. We really have some troopers here who are trying to salvage what is left.”

Ingram, who’d begun as a history teacher at Techworld, was named chair of the school’s ever-changing board of trustees prior to Strachan’s departure and later accepted the job of assistant principal. He and principal Simon King then spent several months, with the help of lawyers and business managers, sorting through the school’s financial mess and negotiating with a school board whose membership, due to a recent election, has changed drastically since Techworld opened. Their efforts paid off when the board voted in June to extend the school’s probation through December.

Located on the second floor of a shopping mall in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., Techworld operates out of a space formerly inhabited by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some renovations have been made to accommodate students and teachers, but it still looks like a drab government office, with mostly barren white walls and buzzing fluorescent lights. Sharply dressed, with a ready smile, Ingram seemed the most likely candidate to serve as the public face for a troubled school—more so than King, who comes off as reserved.

In fact, Ingram was trying, sometimes too hard, to make friends with everyone: reporters, school board members, even students. At one point during the tour, he spotted a teenager pouting in the hallway. Asked what was troubling her, she said she’d lost $10. Ingram quickly reached into his pocket, pulled out a $20 bill, and handed it to the student, asking her to bring back the change.

As diplomatic as he was, Ingram did not last at Techworld either. He resigned in July, citing “irreconcilable differences.” He explains today that, after he and King clashed over choosing a computer consulting company, the principal told him his contract would not be renewed. So Ingram left. “It was crazy. I was making myself sick,” he says. “I just wanted out.”

Teacher Chris Goodson left also. A former newspaper reporter from North Carolina, he turned to teaching because he thought the job would offer more stability. In 1999, he moved to Washington, D.C., with his wife, who’s studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at American University, and joined the Techworld faculty that fall. He was excited by the prospect of using computers in his English classes, and he fused his old job with the new by starting Techworld Horizon, a student newspaper.

But by the spring of 2000, Goodson was hearing rumors about the school’s financial problems. He didn’t worry too much until he realized the board of ed was debating whether to shut Techworld down. Because his wife was in school, Goodson was the family breadwinner. “I knew I couldn’t walk in one Monday morning and have someone say the school board pulled the plug,” he says. So he resigned in November.

Now teaching English at a public high school in Fairfax, Virginia, Goodson admits he didn’t even consider trying another charter school. “I was wary, to start with, of the charter movement. And [my experience] makes me more wary,” he explains. “Many people have good intentions. There’s just too much opportunity for misuse and abuse.”

Bill Stevens, the history teacher who’s sticking things out at Techworld, says he has no plans to leave any time soon, but he has sent out résumés—just in case the doors close in December. If a tempting offer comes along sooner, he may have to take it.

Would that include an offer from a charter school? Maybe. “But,” he says, “I’ll probably do a little research on who the administrator is.”

Vol. 13, Issue 1, Pages 20-23

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