Deion Sanders’ new charter school drawing questions about financial, academic plans

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Prime Prep Academy’s most famous backer was there in person when the Texas State Board of Education voted to approve its charter application in September, and he greeted the news enthusiastically:


But some SBOE members and Texas Education Agency staff have been less thrilled by some details of Deion Sanders’ charter school plans, and a review of the application by the Texas Independent revealed portions of the document are identical to plans developed by other schools.

The National Football League Hall of Famer’s proposal is for twin charter campuses in Dallas and Fort Worth, offering a mix of academics, sports and leadership training, which he has said is an extension of his TRUTH program for youth sports. A three-year-old nonprofit called Uplift Fort Worth was created to sponsor the school.

While the board gave its go-ahead in September, SBOE member Michael Soto (D-San Antonio) wasn’t impressed by what he saw in Sanders’ presentation. “I have no idea what the applicant plans to do in the classroom,” Soto said before the vote, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Since then, other questions have arisen about some of the school’s financial arrangements — deals that would help its top officials profit from the school’s fundraising and property rental.

As the SBOE meets again in Austin this week, Soto told the Texas Independent he still has concerns about the rigor of the school’s academic plans, and has more questions he plans to raise with TEA staff.

A review of Prime Prep’s charter application by the Texas Independent has also revealed striking similarities between language in its plans — its “vision statement” and its plan for gifted and talented education — and existing language from charters and traditional public schools across the country.

Officials at the TEA and a state charter school association told the Independent that while new charters often consult other schools’ applications, borrowing language wholesale from other schools is not typical.

Despite early concerns, board was enthusiastic

NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, in a KDAF-TV report on his new charter school.

Even in the SBOE’s September meeting, members looked past other possible causes for concern on the way to approving Prime Prep’s application. Beyond Soto’s concerns about vague academic plans, some members were worried by its plans to use the online curriculum CSCOPE — a product that has been dogged by complaints, though it’s used by three-quarters of Texas’ school districts.

SBOE member Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) told the Star-Telegram after the meeting that “she shared the concerns [about CSCOPE] but felt comfortable enough with the academic plans to vote to approve the academy.”

Even before the board took its vote, SBOE member David Bradley (R-Beaumont) told the Houston Chronicle he was impressed by Sanders’ proposal. “He assembled a first class management team and their presentation was flawless,” Bradley said.

Sanders and one member of the school’s management team, D.L. Wallace, also offered assurances that a 2010 lawsuit over a separate venture of theirs shouldn’t be a factor in the board’s decision.

That complaint alleges that through a company called PrimeTimePlayer, Wallace, with Sanders’ help, sold parents space in a book promoting high school student-athletes to college recruiters — a book, the suit says, was never published.

It also says Wallace tried to sell investors on a $25,000 buy-in on a deal that would net them $174,600 from a “revenue sharing agreement” for property to be leased to a new charter school.

Though the case is still open, Wallace told the Star-Telegram in September that the suit is “frivolous and has no merit.”

An October report by KDAF TV in Dallas said Sanders and Wallace had already lined up 2,000 students on a waiting list for the school, which would operate on a $10 million annual budget — much of that in outside donations. “We expect to get crazy, and get really big, really fast,” Wallace told the station.

“We met with Van Heusen, we met with Procter & Gamble,” Sanders said. “We met with the NFL on assisting us with our endeavors, and they turned a cartwheel.”

More questions about ties to PrimeTimePlayer

Over one month later, though, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Texas Education Agency staff had more questions about PrimeTimePlayer — which, according to Prime Prep Academy’s application, would be contracted to handle sales and marketing for the school.

Prime Prep’s application describes the corporate enthusiasm for the school’s concept, recalling a meeting Sanders hosted before this year’s Super Bowl in Arlington, including representatives from the NFL, Major League Baseball, Campbell’s Soup, Pepsi and Under Armour, among others. “All in attendance agreed that such an initiative has the ability to enhance the educational landscape for families in the inner city with limited options,” the application says.

And as the Statesman reported, a contract included with Prime Prep’s application said that as PrimeTimePlayer wrangled donations to augment state funding for Prime Prep Academy, it would get a 10 percent cut of the money for its troubles.

The fact that Wallace and another woman, Chazma Jones, are officers with both Prime Prep Academy and PrimeTimePlayer, was a red flag for the TEA and for Eric Dexheimer, the reporter who broke that story.

An attachment to Prime Prep’s application details the corporate donations already pledged to Sanders’ school, which total over $185,000, including large donations from Walmart and Bank of America.

Prime Prep Academy, according to its plans filed with the state, would also pay its rent to a company called Pinnacle Commercial Property Group — $5,000 a month in its first year, increasing to $9,500 a month in its third year. The Statesman uncovered another conflict there: “Secretary of State records show the company’s directors as of May 2011 to be Damien Wallace and Chazma Jones,” it reported.

“They didn’t initially reveal all the connections there,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told the Statesman. She and Wallace told the paper that both PrimeTimePlayer and Pinnacle’s contracts had been removed; the property for the school will be given as a gift to Prime Prep.

But the application apparently still includes another PrimeTimePlayer project, an online student portal called PTP Study Hall, “fully integrated online software that has been tested and proven to increase proficiency on standardized tests, improve study habits and enhance the learning process,” the application says. “Designed especially to suit the diverse learning needs of 21st century youth,” the software includes practice SAT, ACT and TAKS tests.

(The URL given on the application, “ptpstudyhall.com,” directs to a blank default page.)

PrimeTimePlayer apparently sells monthly subscriptions to its online study hall for $19.95, but Prime Prep’s application doesn’t address whether students, or the school, will pay to use the service.

Repeated requests by the Texas Independent for Wallace and Jones to comment went unreturned. Ayana Young, a spokeswoman for Sanders and the school, did not reply to questions sent Friday. A TEA spokeswoman was unsure whether staff had requested details about access to the online portal.

Application includes language identical to other schools

The conflicts of interest were uncovered by TEA only after the SBOE approved Prime Prep’s charter, but Soto is concerned by the school’s “incredibly vague” academic plans, and told the Texas Independent he’s been getting concerned calls about the school.

Soto said he was unfamiliar, though, with another possible concern: that where Prime Prep’s plans do get specific about academics, the language is nearly identical to wording developed by some other schools.

For instance, Prime Prep’s “Vision Statement” given in its application begins (with emphasis added):

The vision of Prime Prep Academy is to provide exceptional opportunities for academic achievement, intellectual growth, artistic fulfillment, physical development, moral awareness, and community responsibility; resulting in well-educated, respectful leaders.

Greenhill School, a 61-year-old private school in a North Dallas suburb, includes the following in its mission statement:

As the region’s first co-educational independent school, Greenhill School provides exceptional opportunities for academic achievement, intellectual growth, artistic fulfillment, physical development, moral awareness, and community responsibility.

Prime Prep’s vision statement goes on:

Leaders are identified by their moral character and intellectual qualities. Prime Prep Academy will nurture the intellectual capacity of students with a foundation in reading, writing, science, technology and mathematics. Problem-solving and cognitive development will be heightened through the teaching of mathematics and scientific methods.

Here, again, the language is already being used, this time by Vision Charter School, an Idaho school that opened in 2007, which includes the following on the “About” page of its website:

Leaders are identified by their moral character and intellectual qualities. The Vision Charter School will nurture the intellectual capacity of our students with a foundation in reading and writing. Problem-solving and cognitive development will be heightened through the teaching of mathematics and the scientific method.

On page 21 of its application, Prime Prep outlines plans for its gifted and talented program:

Prime Prep Academy will offer a talented and gifted program designed to elicit higher level thinking. The talent and gifted program will be used to identify and nurture gifted potential among young learners. The problem-solving skills, thinking processes, and student products resulting from this program will provide observable evidence of a student’s ability to think and reason on advanced levels.

The program is structured around a five-stage model which provides students opportunities to connect content to prior knowledge, engage in new ideas, use thinking skills to consider possibilities, reflect on new learning, and connect the lesson to future learning.

This time, the language appears to originate with a public school district, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, where the gifted and talented program is described like this:

In kindergarten through grade six, the critical and creative thinking lessons are designed to elicit a higher level thinking response. These lessons can also be used to identify and nurture gifted potential among young learners. The problem-solving skills, thinking processes, and student products that result from these lessons provide observable evidence of a student’s ability to think and reason on advanced levels.

Each lesson is structured around a five-stage model which provides students opportunities to connect content to prior knowledge, engage in new ideas, use thinking skills to consider possibilities, reflect on new learning, and connect the lesson to future learning.

In both cases, the sections go on to detail the same step-by-step process for instruction. Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman declined to comment on the similarities, but did confirm the language was developed by district staff.

‘Never a good idea to cut and paste’

Debbie Ratcliffe, the TEA spokeswoman, said she wasn’t aware of the language similarities in Prime Prep’s application, but that borrowing some inspiration wasn’t unheard of. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a charter did some things similar to public schools,” she said.

“Unlike journalism or legal writing, the education industry is very collaborative,” said Denise Pierce, the Texas Charter School Association’s vice president for member services. “They’re always out there trying to say, ‘Do this in your classrooms, this is what gets results for our kids.’”

“By and large, most of the charter applicants do write their own original applications,” added Josie Duckett, TCSA’s vice president for public and government affairs. She said her group does pass around sample charter applications that have been approved in the past, though Prime Prep isn’t a member of their group and didn’t attend their training sessions.

“It’s never a good idea to cut and paste, but it is a good idea to have an idea of what is the correct tone, and what did the last group of recipients write in their approved applications,” Duckett said.

Soto said the charter school system should be about systematic innovation, but the approval process has opened the door to a patchwork of operators across Texas. “There’s no real logic that I can identify for how individual campuses fit into a local or a state education landscape,” Soto said.

“Charters are by statute supposed to be innovative, and they’re supposed to be models for what’s new and interesting in education,” he said, “and for mission statements to repeat what can be found elsewhere, that seems not to jive with the very purpose of charters.”

Prime Prep Academy charter application

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