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Critics assail director of L.A. charter

Times Staff Writer

A Highland Park charter school is facing allegations of financial impropriety, gross mismanagement and academic shortcomings from a group of former employees and parents who formerly enrolled their children at the school.

The school’s director and its outgoing board president deny the worst allegations, while characterizing other problems as growing pains of a new school operating under difficult circumstances.

A delegation of critics is expected today to address its concerns about Academia Avance with top officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The story of an embattled charter school facing the school board and the court of public opinion has emerged several times in the last year. Nearly all such schools have survived, whether the issue was low test scores, admission practices, questionable accounting or an unorthodox curriculum. Charters are independently run schools that are free from some regulations that govern traditional schools.

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Most of Academia Avance’s critics are closely associated with the school’s founding. They include a former principal, former teachers, former office workers and parents.

They describe a poorly organized school that churned through staff and a director who was never short on plans to increase revenue but was perpetually short on resources for students.

“It was an amazing opportunity for an inner-city area and an incredible idea, but it was run very poorly,” said former English teacher Tiffany Miller. “We had no school supplies. There was no working air-conditioning or heating. There were broken windows. Very little supervision.”

In fall 2005, the school started with about 100 sixth- and seventh-graders and was planning to add a grade every year so that it eventually would teach grades six through 12.

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Of the school’s five initial teachers, Miller and one other finished the year before quitting, she said. Much of the school year involved a procession of substitutes and short-term hires. The substitutes allegedly included the school’s founder and director, Ricardo Mireles, office staff and parent volunteers.

Mireles said that after an unsettled beginning, he began to rely on qualified substitutes from a temp agency.

Critics characterize Mireles as an autocrat with little experience in education or management who, because of financial pressures, crossed the line of propriety.

Early on, they said, he allowed the school district’s charter-school division to believe that classes were actually taking place at nearby Ramona Hall or in the facilities of Plaza de la Raza, rather than at a Presbyterian church at North Avenue 53 and Figueroa Street.

For one visit by the charter-school division, the entire student body was moved to Ramona Hall, according to former Principal Carlos O. Cortez, former office manager Maria Lopez and former teacher Miller.

Mireles denied any deception. Sometimes the church was unavailable because of construction or church-related business; sometimes it wasn’t the best venue for the day’s instructional program, he said.

A district spokesperson could not provide information about alleged problems at Academia Avance. But notes from a charter-school supervisor, obtained by The Times, suggest that evidence supports claims of substandard classrooms, inadequate services for the disabled, poor student record-keeping and a lack of employee personnel files. The school’s test scores are low but in the range of other middle schools in the area.

Mireles allegedly instructed staff to pad the daily pupil attendance number -- a figure that determines how much state funding it would receive. If an absent student could be accounted for at home, in a hospital or even in Mexico, that student was to be marked present, said two former parent volunteers and former office manager Lopez, who quit last spring.

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Parents of sick students also were allegedly encouraged to go to the school to sign in and sign out for their child so attendance money could be claimed.

Mireles said those claims were false. During parent forums, “we explained to parents and kids, even if your child is not in school and you come and talk to your teachers and get the homework, there’s a value for that,” he said. ". . . If the student comes on campus for 1 minute, that counts -- that’s the way the average daily attendance rules work.”

Mireles, 43, said his dream was to give students the type of education he benefited from. Mireles matriculated from a local Catholic school before graduating from Columbia University with a degree in anthropology and doing graduate work in urban planning at MIT.

Professionally, Mireles worked as a technical specialist for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and later for L.A. Unified’s school construction program. He then helped set up computer and phone systems for the California Charter Schools Assn., while soaking up what it would take to start his own school.

Mireles received good marks from the outgoing president of his school’s board of directors.

“We have a couple of employees who weren’t happy with the situation and some parents who didn’t have a good experience,” said Maribel Marin, executive director of 211 LA County. Other issues raised by Academia Avance critics include the alleged lack of working computers and inadequate, unsupervised bathrooms that had to be shared with other church programs. The group also took issue with the school’s inability for months to provide food despite student eligibility for government-funded meals.

In all instances, nothing was legally or ethically amiss, Mireles said. Claims regarding the bathrooms and other facility issues have been exaggerated, he said.

“We have just about 200 students this year,” he said, the school’s largest enrollment to date. “We’re really excited about how this year started. Something’s working if we’re able to present a positive experience for these kids in Highland Park.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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