Embattled company applies to open fourth school

Cincinnati Enquirer - January 27, 2012
By Jessica Brown

White Hat Management, Ohio’s largest charter school company and the subject of controversy, has applied to open a fourth dropout-recovery charter school in Cincinnati.

The company has not picked a location. Its application filed with the Ohio Department of Education indicates that the school will be located in Cincinnati. It will be called Signal Tree Academy Southwest Inc.

The company manages dropout recovery schools in Walnut Hills, Roselawn and Middletown that operate under the name Life Skills Center. It manages a fourth, more traditional charter school in the East End called Riverside Academy.

Signal Tree Academy is among five schools, statewide that the Akron-based company wants to open under a new law that allows the Ohio Department of Education to sponsor charter schools. That would mean the department would provide technical support, and academic and financial oversight.

The role of the Ohio Department of Education as a charter school sponsor, however, has a history of controversy too. State legislators took away that power several years ago because they didn’t feel the state was doing a good job as a sponsor.

The new law includes a restructured setup. The Ohio Department of Education created an independent office solely to handle charter school sponsorship. It would receive three percent of the school’s state money to fund its sponsorship duties. But the idea of the department assuming a sponsorship role again is raising some concerns among charter school and policy groups.

Bill Sims, of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the state’s workers are experienced and the department has learned from past mistakes. But he worries whether they have enough staff to handle the demands of sponsorship.

The DOE could not be reached.

Piet van Lier, communications director of Ohio Policy Matters, said a more pressing concern is the problems — academic, and legal — that surround White Hat-managed schools.

“If you look at what’s been happening, their schools don’t have a very good track record,” he said. White Hat doesn’t seem like the kind of operator that we should be encouraging to open new schools. Not just White Hat, but that’s certainly one of the most problematic and high profile.”

White Hat Management, which did not respond to Enquirer calls, has been mired in controversy. Several of its schools in Cleveland and Akron filed suit against the company in 2010 amid questions about how it was spending state money.

The schools wanted the court to void their contracts with White Hat and block the company from seizing equipment and textbooks.

The schools had asked for an accounting of how White Hat the money was being spent, but White Hat refused and tried to oust the schools’ boards, according to the Columbus Dispatch, which reported on the suit, filed in Franklin County. The judge in August ruled that White Hat does have to provide detailed accounting of how it spends money, according to subsequent reports in the Akron Beacon Journal. Other parts of the case are still pending.

Company owner David Brennan was in the spotlight again during state budget talks last year after he asked legislators to insert changes into Ohio’s budget bill that critics said would boost the power of charter operators and reduce oversight. Most of those requests were revised.

The company also appears to be in financial trouble. The Akron Beacon Journal reported in December that the company has not met financial forecasts for the past five years and enrollment is declining. The company appears to have streamlined administration at local schools. One administrator, Arnez Booker, now oversees the Life Skills center in both Roselawn and Walnut Hills, whereas last year each had its own administrator.

The three local White Hat schools for dropouts have struggled with low graduation rates. The rates for Life Skills Centers in Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Cincinnati and Middletown were 7.5 percent, 11.8 percent to 16.9 percent, respectively last year. The state average is 84 percent. Some school officials have attributed the low rate to the fact they’re dropout recovery schools. The students come to the schools behind grade-level and usually with other challenges that hinder their progress.

Of the three schools, two are in Continuous Improvement, a roughly C grade on the Ohio Report Card. One school is in Academic Emergency, the worst rating. Dropout recovery charter schools aren’t subject to the same academic regulations as more traditional charter schools, which can be forced to close for poor academic performance.

Embattled company applies to open fourth school


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