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Home / Family / Inspire charter school says it sometimes struggles to monitor student work – The San Diego Union

Inspire charter school says it sometimes struggles to monitor student work – The San Diego Union

School leaders within Inspire — a homeschool charter network targeted for a state audit into alleged fiscal malfeasance — recently described how it’s difficult to ensure students meet statewide learning standards because parents choose which curricula and resources to use.

During a Nov. 8 staff meeting of teachers, when talking about how teachers can enforce state learning requirements, a school leader said: “We don’t really have those answers. It’s stuff we have to, kind of, trial and error,” according to records reviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The meeting was held for staff of Pacific Coast Academy, an Inspire school authorized and overseen by Dehesa School District in San Diego County. School officials were instructing teachers on how to prepare for an impending audit of the school ordered by Dehesa.

The meeting provides a window into how Inspire has been trying to assure staff and families of their school’s sustainability, weeks after eight county superintendents called for the state to investigate Inspire’s practices, the state’s charter school association expelled Inspire from its membership and Inspire’s founder resigned without explanation.

These events followed a series of stories by the Union-Tribune that drew attention to questionable financial and organizational practices by Inspire, including heavy borrowing and borrowing among its schools and Inspire-affiliated corporations, and previous expenditures of school funds on items such as Disneyland annual passes and dinner theater tickets for students and parents.

Meanwhile, Inspire has posted below-average test scores and graduation rates in recent years.

Inspire has restricted some school expenditures in recent months and implemented board training on fiscal and legal best practices, according to its school board agendas.

On Nov. 25, a Union-Tribune reporter emailed Inspire spokesman Chris Bertelli a list of questions about the Nov. 8 staff meeting. Neither Bertelli nor any other Inspire official answered the questions despite repeated requests.

An attorney representing Pacific Coast Academy emailed the reporter this month, threatening to “pursue all legal remedies” against her and the Union-Tribune if the paper does not return “confidential student education records.” The records the Union-Tribune reviewed of the meeting did not contain student records.

Homeschool freedom, state standards

In five years, Inspire has grown to 12 schools with a combined estimated enrollment of at least 35,000 students statewide.

Inspire schools are homeschool charters, meaning they give parents freedom to choose how to educate their children and the curricula they use. Parents do so under the supervision of a credentialed teacher who meets with students once a month.

Students also have to submit at least one work sample or one work sample per subject, every month, such as a worksheet or a picture of a science project, parents have said.

Inspire credits parents $2,600 or more a year of school funds per child to spend on any of the thousands of approved vendors, who offer classes, curriculum, extracurricular activities, field trips and more.

Some parents said they chose Inspire for this freedom and funding to customize their children’s education. Many said they dislike how traditional public schools force the same curriculum and teaching methods on all students even though students learn differently.

But the degree of educational freedom that Inspire gives to parents is sometimes at odds with the duty Inspire has, as a public charter school, to ensure students are learning according to state standards, Inspire officials and teachers said at the Nov. 8 meeting.

Pacific Coast Academy Principal Krystin Demofonte said she recently realized the school ne to change how teachers monitor student work.

“Getting this Dehesa oversight information has really shown us the areas that we need to improve, and one of those areas is monitoring the student work,” Demofonte said at the meeting.

As an example, school leaders discussed how 22 percent of Pacific Coast Academy’s students passed state tests in math this year. Statewide, 40 percent of all public school students passed math.

California’s tests are based on the Common Core standards, a nationwide set of standards adopted by California in 2010.

A training leader for Pacific Coast Academy said she has encountered parents who did not want to use Common Core to teach math to their kids, because they weren’t familiar with it. She has had to work with families to somehow implement Common Core because that’s what their students will be tested on.

“If your family picks some random curriculum that doesn’t cover all the standards, it is then your job to find things that fill those holes (rather) than just saying, ‘good luck’ and that’s it,” the leader said. Her name was not provided in the record reviewed by the Union-Tribune.

Demofonte said the school will be training teachers next semester on changing their approach to writing student learning plans.

“We are going to be changing our learning plans because it’s just not what we want it to be,” she said.

The task of reconciling the freedom of homeschooling with state learning standards is unique to homeschool charters. Charters are public schools run independently of school districts.

Traditional homeschoolers in California don’t have to follow state learning requirements, unlike students attending homeschool charters. Such private homeschoolers get no money from the state.

Other independent study charter schools vary in how much teacher involvement they mandate.

Some schools say they require teachers to review all work a student has completed at each monthly meeting, rather than just the one work sample that is typically required by homeschool charters.

Others offer more structured options to students, such as allowing students to take classes provided by the school a few days each week.

Studying for the audit

In addition to learning plans, Pacific Coast Academy teachers were trained on several other things officials said they need to know for Dehesa’s audit.

A staff member told teachers to make sure they have the appropriate teaching credentials and to make sure their parents know that they have credentials. The teachers also must make sure their student learning plans are grade-level appropriate and that they’re writing down the learning plans, the staff member said.

Mike Fine, CEO of a state agency that audits school districts and charter schools, said in an interview that, for audits in general, it is not wrong to prepare school staff ahead of time for an audit. Fine, who leads the state agency that will also audit Inspire, was not commenting on Inspire.

He said a school’s staff “should all know what they are doing and be able to answer a question or demonstrate the process they are following on their own, without a lot of preparation.”

All auditors are looking for is honest answers, he said.

“‘I don’t know’ can be an honest answer, but that raises questions about training regarding the job they are assigned, not training on how to answer an auditor’s question,” Fine said.

Fine added that many auditors will ask school staff if they were prepped for the audit beforehand.

“The auditor’s going to be skilled to figure out what did they learn yesterday in the preparation versus what they do every day,” he said. “A skilled auditor’s going to figure that out.”

Fine said “it’s not the end of the world” if an audit finds something that ne to be corrected.

“You cure it, and you move forward,” he said.

‘For money reasons’

During a separate QA session at the Nov. 8 meeting, Pacific Coast Academy teachers asked Inspire officials for assurances that they could give to parents that their school would not close, according to the records reviewed by the Union-Tribune.

“There’s nothing we see that can close us down,” Steve Lawrence, current CEO of the Inspire District Office, told them.

Lawrence said he thinks the state audit will make Inspire stronger.

“If they point out that we did something that, you know, that we should’ve been doing differently, we can learn from it and make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes moving forward,” he said.

Lawrence also assured the staff that Pacific Coast Academy likely would not close because he thinks Dehesa benefits financially from Inspire.

Charter schools must pay fees to school districts that authorize them. State law says those fees are to pay for the cost of overseeing charter schools.

Lawrence said that what Inspire pays Dehesa for oversight and other fees is “probably” close to what Dehesa receives from the state. He also pointed out that Dehesa is suffering from budget cuts.

“That’s why some of the large counties and the large school districts are saying that these districts are doing this for money reasons. Hey, if I was that superintendent, absolutely,” Lawrence said.

“It’s a relationship. As long as they believe that we’re ethical and we’re doing the right thing for our kids … they would want to continue because it is mutually beneficial,” Lawrence said of Dehesa.

Some prosecutors, state legislators and education officials have noted that relationships between small school districts strapped for cash and charter school networks looking to expand are ripe for abuse.

Prosecutors said that the leaders of A3 Education — who were indicted in May for allegedly stealing $50 million from the state by operating fraudulent charter schools — targeted small districts to authorize their schools, because small districts likely have limited experience in charter oversight. Small districts also have a financial incentive to provide little or no oversight of such charters, some argue.

Regarding Lawrence’s comments, Dehesa’s acting Superintendent Rich Thome said in a statement that Dehesa will not use charter oversight fees to alleviate its budget deficit.

“Any assumption that the District would prospectively authorize a charter school for ‘money reasons’ does not accurately represent the District’s intentions,” Thome said.

He said all decisions related to approving or renewing a charter school will be focused on that school’s performance, soundness of educational program, fiscal practices and compliance with state law.

Founder Nick Nichols, Ohio charter loan

During the meeting’s QA, at least one Pacific Coast Academy teacher asked Lawrence for more details about former CEO Herbert “Nick” Nichols’ departure.

Lawrence said the Inspire District Office board wanted Nichols gone.

“I can’t get into every board member’s mind about why they made these decisions, but you know, they got data and information that they felt that it was just, I guess, time for a new direction and they made that decision,” Lawrence said at the meeting. “There’s really not much beyond that I can share.”

Nichols could not be reached for comment.

Lawrence also addressed a question about another matter involving Nichols: a brick-and-mortar Inspire charter school that Nichols helped to open last year in Columbus, Ohio.

Records show that Nichols signed a February 2018 lease guaranty for the school’s building and filed a tax form for the school.

Contract records show that Inspire District Office is Inspire Ohio’s exclusive management organization. It provides the Ohio school with several operational services, as it does for the Inspire schools in California.

A May copy of Inspire Ohio’s five-year budget projections showed that the school has a $1.4 million loan from Inspire District Office, as well as projected enrollment for this year of 150 full-time students.

Lawrence said lawyers have told Inspire that it’s legal to lend money to start another charter school, but he doubts it was a good choice.

“Now, we could all probably argue it might’ve not been the best decision, but there’s a difference between … decisions that shouldn’t have been made and being illegal,” Lawrence said.

Pacific Coast Academy staff will be called for audit interviews starting next month, school leaders said. The state audit of Inspire will begin in January, Fine said.