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California

Westside private school gave diplomas to nonstudents for a fee. Then came the college admissions scandal

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 26, 2019: The West Hollywood College Preparatory School, background, hous
The West Hollywood College Preparatory School allegedly housed one of the test centers involved in the college admissions scandal.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Ellsworth had a problem. She was eager to enroll in a criminal justice program but lacked a high school diploma.

Her predicament didn’t last long. She was told by a for-profit college that she could get a diploma from a Westside private school simply by taking a test and paying $280. She wouldn’t have to do any coursework, or even set foot on the tiny campus of West Hollywood College Preparatory School.

So that is what she did. Within a few weeks, the 31-year-old had her diploma signed by West Hollywood Prep’s principal, Elina Dvorskaya.

That was in 2014 — five years before the school’s former director, Igor Dvorskiy, was accused of conspiring with William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of a national college admissions scheme. Federal prosecutors say Dvorskiy was bribed $10,000 per student to allow a test-taking whiz to doctor SAT or ACT exams for children of the wealthy.

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Through his Newport Beach consulting business, the Key, Singer instructed parents to use excuses like bar mitzvahs or weddings as reasons for their children to take the entrance exam at the West Hollywood site, instead of their home high schools.

The Times discovered the diploma arrangement while examining the school’s role in the scandal, which rocked academia and upended the public’s perception of the college admissions process.

FULL COVERAGE: Dozens charged in connection with college admissions scandal »

A lawyer for West Hollywood Prep’s principal is defending the decision to issue hundreds of diplomas to people who never attended the school. Administrators had been assured by an intermediary that the procedure was proper, she said.

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But the school’s accrediting agency said the diploma practice, which occurred between 2013 and 2014, was unauthorized.

Interviews with people listed as West Hollywood Prep alumni revealed that they received their diplomas while pursuing an education at for-profit colleges, often UEI College and the now-defunct Westech College.

College admissions representatives had told them they needed high school credentials to secure tens of thousands of dollars in federal financial aid.

Prospective students said they were told they could either get a GED — which requires passing a seven-hour exam that usually costs $50 to $150 and likely would mean some studying — or take a shorter test that would yield a diploma from West Hollywood College Preparatory School. It cost about $280, student receipts show.

Two diplomas shown to The Times were signed by Principal Dvorskaya, who is Dvorskiy’s mother. She did not respond to requests for comment.

West Hollywood Prep’s accreditation agency, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, said the school was not authorized to issue diplomas in such a manner, and that officials had been unaware it was doing so.

Association President Barry Groves declined to say whether his agency would investigate.

While the college admissions scandal catered to the children of wealthy parents such as actress Felicity Huffman, West Hollywood Prep’s practice of bestowing diplomas was mainly marketed to those with far fewer resources.

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One Torrance resident in her 50s was desperate to advance in the law enforcement field when she approached one of UEI’s California campuses in 2014. The college did not recognize her high school diploma from the Philippines. She said she twice failed the GED exam because her English was poor.

UEI reps told her there was another route. So she paid the fee and took the exam to get a West Hollywood Prep diploma at the UEI campus — no classes needed.

“I didn’t expect to pass,” said the student, who asked that her name be withheld because she fears that if her diploma is seen as illegitimate, it will be more difficult to find a job. She’s still unemployed and $38,000 in debt after completing the 11-month criminal justice program, she said.

The quick, easy exam described by the for-profit college students does not fit the profile of any legitimate high school equivalency tests as described by the Federal Trade Commission.

According to Dvorskaya’s attorney, Laura Each Nguyen, the school issued diplomas in this way for about a year starting in late 2013.

Dvorskaya was approached by a company called HSAS (High School Assistance Service), which acted as a middleman between the prep school and colleges, Each Nguyen said. The colleges would collect the application and credit card payments for the exam.

West Hollywood Prep issued about 200 of these diplomas, the lawyer said, and made $55 per student.

According to Each Nguyen, HSAS formulated the “curriculum” and exam. Dvorskaya was under the impression that students were required to complete coursework and submit transcripts before receiving their diplomas, she said.

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The students interviewed said that wasn’t the case.

“You have to remember that Ms. Dvorskaya was told that there was a thorough curriculum,” Each Nguyen said. “We do not know whether or not the curriculum was actually followed.”

HSAS founder Alex Chernavsky declined to answer questions about the company, which folded in 2015.

Aaron Mortensen, senior vice president of International Education Corporation, UEI’s operator, said college representatives gave students without high school credentials a list of options for obtaining them, among them HSAS.

This was between mid-2012 and late 2014 when a provision called Ability to Benefit, or ATB, was suspended. ATB allowed students to receive financial aid after taking a government-approved test on general skills, or after completing six college-level credits.

According to higher education experts, ATB captured students who might find the GED process intimidating.

Cancellation of the program in 2014 left community colleges and for-profit schools scrambling for ways to get students without high school credentials enrolled, said Vickie Schemel, former director of Westech’s Moreno Valley campus.

Their bottom line depended on it.

“There was a whole crop of these places that popped up overnight,” Schemel said of companies that offered “real quick, real easy diplomas.”

Ellsworth, who attended UEI College in Chula Vista, now wonders about the validity of her diploma from West Hollywood Prep.

The school, which has deep ties to West Hollywood’s Russian-speaking community, was founded as a tutoring center in 2000 by Dvorskaya. It began offering preschool through 12th-grade education in 2003.

The school is located at the corner of Crescent Heights Boulevard and Fountain Avenue, in a wing of a building owned by the Iranian American Jewish Federation that also houses Hollywood Temple Beth El. The federation says the school is a tenant but is not affiliated with the organization.

Thirty-eight students were enrolled at West Hollywood Prep for the 2018-19 school year, according to the California Department of Education.

Alex Toloceno said he was drawn to the school because of the one-on-one attention offered there. And it’s one of the few schools in the area that emphasizes Russian culture and language, said Tolocenco, whose kindergartner attends the school.

Many of the private school’s staff are first- or second-generation immigrants of the former Soviet Union.

“We want him to maintain the language,” Tolocenco, a West Hollywood resident who works in real estate finance, said of his son. “We don’t want him to lose his heritage.”

The school’s social media accounts show students on field trips to local art museums, participating in spelling bees and helping seniors in low-income housing celebrate the holidays.

It costs $15,000 to $22,000 annually to send a child there, depending on the grade level.

Dmitriy Belyavskiy, who taught at the school from 2006 to 2010, said he was pressured by school administrators to give students passing grades. When he refused to do so, he sometimes saw a “D” or an “F” changed to a “C” on a report card, he said.

“I would be told: ‘You can’t fail them because his parents paid this much. You can’t fail them because they donated,’” Belyavskiy said.

Through her attorney, Dvorskaya denied those allegations.

Students get a decent education at the high school, according to teachers, but few are vying for admission to Ivy League universities. Many go on to community college; the school’s top students might go to UCLA, former teachers said.

On paper, the school has operated in the red for many years. It showed a $62,000 deficit in 2016, the most recent tax year available in the public record.

In the wake of the college admissions scandal, some West Hollywood Prep parents fear the school might shut down.

West Hollywood Prep is not an official SAT testing center. But some test accommodations — usually made for students with disabilities — can be offered at schools that apply to administer the SAT. A school needs only to be an accredited, brick-and-mortar site with staff members who can give the exam, said College Board spokesman Jerome White.

“To prevent this abuse of the system, the College Board will ensure students with school-based accommodations test at their home schools whenever possible,” the College Board said in a statement following news of the indictments.

Tolocenco said he was surprised by the allegations.

“People who attend this school value it, and whatever this scandal is, we don’t like it,” Tolocenco said. “We just want our kids to get a good education.”

As of mid-May, the school was still accredited and accepting new students for the fall.

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

laura.newberry@latimes.com | Twitter: @LauraMNewberry


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