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Charter Academy Shuts 60 Schools

Times Staff Writer

California’s largest charter school operator has shut down at least 60 campuses amid new state restrictions and an investigation into financial and academic practices -- leaving nearly 10,000 students to find new schools just a few weeks before the new semester begins.

Many campus officials and parents learned over the weekend that their schools had been closed.

Facing mounting financial uncertainty -- with pressure from state laws banning long-distance oversight of campuses and restrictions on state funding to schools for adult students -- the Victorville-based California Charter Academy announced the closure of 38 campuses several weeks ago. Last week, the remaining campuses found out that they, too, would not reopen this fall.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Angie Garcia, a parent of three children who attended The Village Elementary School in Inglewood, where she also worked full time as a teachers’ assistant. She had planned to enroll her fourth child there next year. She and her husband were notified of the closure by school officials over the weekend. “It’s devastating. It’s a good school; they like it.”

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The 450-student K-8 campus was located in a church with 16 classrooms. Its on-site administrators ran the campus with a private school feel, requiring students to wear uniforms.

A message on the school’s answering machine over the weekend announced: “It is with great regret at this time that we must inform you of our school’s closure. If you are a family currently enrolled, we are here to assist you through this process.... We must advise parents to seek enrollment elsewhere.”

School director Trina Muhammad said the closure was a tragedy.

“With public schools going the way they are going, we need opportunities, and good opportunities,” she said. “Parents will have to put their children in schools they had chosen not to put them in before.”

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Charter schools are financed by state taxes but are exempt from numerous state education regulations.

State officials and charter experts said some good schools got caught in California Charter Academy’s complicated operations problems, while others were flawed and needed to be closed.

The academy ran its campuses -- from San Diego to Northern California -- under the auspices of four charter schools sanctioned by three California school districts: Oro Grande Elementary in Victorville, Orange Unified in Orange County and Snowline Joint Unified in San Bernardino County.

That arrangement allowed the organization and districts to receive a portion of tax revenue for those schools. The academy has collected more than $100 million in state funding since 1999.

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But the setup put some of the campus oversight responsibilities in the hands of districts that were hundreds of miles away.

A new law, Assembly Bill 1994, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), banned such long-distance charter school oversight. It was prompted, in part, by scandals at other charter organizations with far-flung campuses, including a 1999 case in which some of the Fresno Unified School District’s distant campuses were accused of teaching religion and exaggerating attendance.

The state withheld $6 million from the California Charter Academy after it illegally opened 10 campuses after the law took effect.

In March, Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, launched an investigation after an advisory panel alleged that the academy was charging some of its campuses millions of dollars in administrative fees and was inadequately overseeing the schools.

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O’Connell subpoenaed academic and financial records in recent weeks to ensure that paperwork did not get lost as schools closed.

The academy was founded by C. Steven Cox, who is being investigated by the state for his dual role as California Charter Academy board member and president of a for-profit company that managed the academy’s school sites. Cox resigned several weeks ago and has not commented.

Calls to academy board members were not returned over the weekend.

The state is working through county offices of education and local school districts to inform parents about alternative schools, said Department of Education spokeswoman Ann Bancroft.

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Some of the schools may be able to reopen by applying to the school district in which they are located and seeking charter status on their own, Bancroft said.

But charter experts and administrators have complained that the process is lengthy and often requires going through layers of bureaucracy.

Gary Larson of the California Charter Schools Assn., an advocacy group for charter schools in the state, said his organization is working to find other charter campuses for the displaced students before the new school year begins.

More than 500 charter schools serve more than 180,000 students in the state, and a lot of them will be able to accept many of the academy students, he said.

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Over the next year, Larson’s organization, which is headed by former Los Angeles Board of Education member Caprice Young, plans to help many of the “high quality” campuses gain sponsorship from their local school districts as charter schools. Some may be able to reopen by the 2005-06 school year, he said.

“Do not underestimate how frustrated the rest of the charter school community is with this one bad apple who abused the process,” Larson said. “For over two years now you’ve had the charter school community recognize this organization is a problem.”

Charlotte Austin-Jordan, director of a California Charter Academy campus named Save Our Future, near downtown Los Angeles, met Saturday with parents, students and teachers to inform them that the school -- created to educate troubled teens -- would be closed.

“They want to fight,” Austin-Jordan said. Her voice was hoarse from calling parents, students, school board members, assemblymen and state officials to ask for help.

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Her landlord told her that an $8,000 check sent by California Charter Academy for her school’s rent this month had bounced. A check for $11,000 for mandatory fire inspection costs bounced too, Austin-Jordan said.

“I’m very angry with them,” she said.

“We are responsible for these children. Families are running all around. There’s 10,000 kids in the system that are getting ready to have serious problems. My parents, today, were in tears,” she said.

Carlos Mojica, 18, a junior at the school, said he doesn’t know where he or his brother, Ruben, 16, will enroll this fall. Both have been successful at the 300-student campus, because of small classes and hard-working teachers, he said.

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“It was the first school I liked,” said Mojica, who attended three other high schools before enrolling at Save Our Future.

Garcia of The Village Elementary School is trying to remain calm, even though she just lost her job and her children’s school.

“It’s going to affect them. They were taught well,” she said. “Where are they going to get the same kind of education?”


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