She started the year at Shaw High in East Cleveland. "Which was terrible," she says. "I wasn't learning anything." Friends told her about The International Preparatory School (TIPS), a privately run charter school.
When she met with school officials, they boasted of rigorous classes. She could study Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, and Hebrew. She'd have computers to work on, digital cameras to use. She could also travel to Egypt, Senegal, or China as part of an international study program. And they said that the high school campus in Warrensville Heights was beautiful.
Stevenson was smitten. Her enchantment, however, didn't survive the first week. "Everything they told us was a lie," she says.
She transferred to International Prep just after Christmas break, only to discover teachers covering subjects she had studied two or three years before. "My classes are super-easy," she says. "I came here to get a better education, but I'm not learning a thing."
Most students in her honors-level algebra class failed the state's ninth-grade math proficiency test, she says. In her honors English class, the teacher's handouts usually included spelling mistakes. Students turned in papers that made no sense. It didn't seem to matter.
"As long as you wrote one and a half pages about anything at all, you got an A," Stevenson says. "Half the students cheat off my tests, because I already learned all this stuff. And I came from Shaw High School! I mean, c'mon now!"
International Prep was founded in 1999 as a taxpayer-funded charter school, part of a movement to give parents an alternative to the state's floundering public institutions. Charters, the thinking went, would force public schools to improve, and kids would benefit from the competition.
But if legislators had good intentions, they were also stunningly naive. The plan allowed nearly anyone to start a school, regardless of qualifications. Ohio would be handing out millions of dollars, with scant oversight and almost no strings attached. It was a near-perfect recipe for disaster.
Seven years later, that calamity has arrived. About 48,000 children attended Ohio's 213 charter schools last year, costing the state $425 million. Those students failed proficiency tests at more than double the rate of public-school students. Over 70 percent of the charters are on academic watch or academic emergency -- compared to only 10 percent of public schools.
Yet even by these low standards, International Prep is in a class by itself.
Though its mission is to "provide a world-class education to children combining traditional teaching methods with advanced technology," test scores show TIPS isn't even keeping up with Northeast Ohio's worst public-school systems, including those of Cleveland and East Cleveland.
The chaos isn't limited to the classroom. The last time the state performed a full audit of International Prep, it found evidence of gross financial mismanagement. The school was more than $1 million in debt. Administrators paid themselves hundreds of thousands a year in consulting fees and regularly overcharged the state by inflating attendance. The school is required by law to send financial records to the state every year, yet TIPS hasn't complied since 2001.
In most states, such problems would set alarm bells ringing. But despite repeated warnings, the Ohio Department of Education has never conducted a full investigation of the school. Nor has state Auditor Betty Montgomery ever conducted a follow-up audit to see whether the problems were fixed.
But whenever the school is scrutinized, its officials are quick to play the race and religion cards.
"Let's be honest," says Da'ud A. Shabazz, director of pupil services and son of school founder Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz. "We're African American owned and Muslim on top of that. We're bringing in a lot of money. You know damn well there's a lot of people who don't want this."
Shantell Stevenson doesn't care about any of that. She wants to learn, and she's transferring to another school while there's still time to save her education. "This entire school is a hoax," she says.
Finding students displeased with TIPS isn't hard. On the last day of final exams, they gather inside a dimly lit sports complex next door to TIPS high school on South Miles Road. Some students play basketball; others eat French fries at the snack bar.
Word circulates that a reporter is interviewing kids. Within minutes, a swarm of a dozen girls surrounds him, each shouting her complaints over the voices of others.
"I've been in Japanese class all year, and I don't know any Japanese," says sophomore Tashyna Seals, dressed in matching pink jacket and miniskirt. She usually answered only half her test questions correctly, yet still received a B-plus in the class. "And I can't take Japanese again next year, because they only teach the first year of all these foreign languages. So basically, this year was a waste."
Brittany Shelton searches her backpack for a copy of her social-studies final, which she has just completed. The teacher had passed out an article written by U.S. Army College professor Larry Gordon, entitled "A Grand Strategy for the Middle East," then tested on it.
The class spent the entire year studying American history, Shelton points out, and never discussed the Middle East. Some questions made little sense. "A person must have a search warrant. True or false?" read one.
The last question: "You are in the 12th grade. True or false?"
"This test is a joke!" Shelton says. "I regret ever coming to this school."
A rotund man arrives, scowling heavily. It's the building's administrator, Henderson Deal. The girls see him coming and scatter.
"Who are you?" Deal yells at the reporter. "What are you doing here? You're not allowed in here."
He spins around and chases the girls, who are walking quickly toward the door. "Do NOT talk to this man!" Deal yells at the girls. "Don't you know? He's the man who's trying to close the school!"
So much for public relations.
International Prep leaders are used to being challenged. After all, this isn't what most people expect from a school. Its founders believe that today's students are so accustomed to channel-surfing that they don't learn well from traditional methods.
"If you try to stand up in the front of the class and teach out of a textbook, you're going to lose their attention in the first minute," says Da'ud A. Shabazz. (His father, Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz, declined to be interviewed for this story, as did other members of International Prep's board.)
TIPS tries to engage students by replacing textbooks and lecturing with hands-on experience. Take, for example, a project on the human heart.
In math class, Shabazz says, students could study how much blood the heart pumps per minute. The science class could build a large-scale model of a heart. The social-studies class might learn about the evolution of heart treatments.
Teachers supplement hands-on projects with high technology, Shabazz says. For example, last year students took hundreds of photos at the zoo, then compiled their work onto a CD-ROM.
International Prep also boasts an extensive travel program. This year, three students and two teachers flew to Lebanon for a conference on endangered species. Over the summer, 20 students will travel to Senegal to trace their family trees back to West Africa.
"It's not enough that these students earn their diplomas," says Shabazz. "With globalization, they need to learn to compete on the international level."
But according to state records and interviews with students, teachers, and parents, International Prep consistently fails to live up to its lofty promises.
Teachers work without such basic resources as paper, pencils, erasers, and rulers.
"You can't teach high school-level algebra and calculus through a project where you're making a human heart out of cardboard," says math teacher Debra Aquaowo.
Some make do by photocopying books. But the elementary-school copier was broken for most of the year. In April, the principal barred teachers from using it altogether.
"Teaching without a textbook takes a lot of creativity," explains Yusef Abdallah, who helps run the school's international program. "A lot of these teachers can't do it, so they use the photocopier like a crutch."
But at some point, teachers counter, students must read something. "These kids don't have books at home, and they have no books at school," says an elementary teacher. "The administration says they want us to be creative and use technology, which we don't have."
Sometimes, administrators' technology choices are downright strange. After making repeated requests for teaching materials, fourth-grade teacher Correen Schall was offered a woman's vest and a digital clock. "It was completely useless," she says. "How am I going to use that?"
At the beginning of the school year, science teachers were told to sort through a mound of materials in the school's warehouse and take anything they could use. Beneath broken desks they found a few beakers and Petri dishes. They also found 25 microscopes. One actually worked.
Teachers also were given a $50 gift certificate to a school-supply store. It was enough to buy a few rulers and grade books. This was the sum total of the school's lab equipment, which was supposed to prepare hundreds of students for the Ohio Graduation Tests in biology, physics, and chemistry.
"You just can't teach high school biology without a lab," says science teacher Chris Kaletka. "We kept begging the school administrators for supplies. They said, 'We're not going to order you anything until you use what we already have.' But we didn't have anything."
The lack of materials often forces teachers to ignore Ohio's mandatory curriculum standards. State law requires that all 10th-graders dissect an animal. Teachers skipped dissection altogether because they didn't have the supplies. Instead, they did what they call "cookbook science." They used air pressure to crush soda cans. They had students act out roles as different parts of a cell.
"It wasn't really high school-level science," says one teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "A lot of the time, it wasn't closely linked with what we were learning. But I wanted to show them something."
This wouldn't be so bad, if TIPS lived up to its contract with the state and invested in technology. But the school has nowhere near the number of computers it needs for 950 students. The elementary and high schools have 30 machines each. Teachers complain that students rarely get to use the computer labs, because they're usually full.
TIPS also won a grant from iEARN, an online service that allows schools around the world to share hands-on projects. To qualify, every TIPS student must complete a project. But since there are so few computers, most students fell behind.
Administrators threatened to fire any teacher whose students didn't complete their projects. "If these teachers were committed to actually teaching kids, they'd use their planning periods to get students in to use those computers," says Abdallah.
But because of the computer shortage, four teachers told Scene, they saw their peers completing students' projects themselves. "They say students have access to computers, but they don't, really," Aquaowo says. "I teach hundreds of students. There's no way I can get all of them onto three computers."
Shabazz believes that teachers simply aren't using the resources they have. "It's not just computers," he says. "Advanced technology can be using a calculator. Advanced technology can be using an overhead projector."
It's a curious choice of examples. Aquaowo administered the pre-SAT test this year. Students who do well can qualify for college scholarships. "This test is extremely important for any college-bound kid," Aquaowo says.
But students needed graphing calculators to take the test; the school refused to supply them.
So Aquaowo refused to give the test. After two days, administrators finally relented and bought the calculators. "Miss A. was crying, because we didn't have calculators," Shantell Stevenson says. "Without them, there's no way we could have done those problems in the time they give you."
For most of the year, the supposedly high-tech school didn't even have an overhead projector. After teachers begged for four months, administrators finally bought one in December. The projector worked until April, when the $40 bulb blew out. The school didn't replace it. "It's a basic piece of equipment for teaching science," Kaletka says.
The state should have known what it was getting into.
Department of Education investigator Susan Malyk reviewed plans submitted by Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz before TIPS was founded. In words that would later seem prophetic, Malyk noted that Shabazz had no idea how to teach at-risk students and had offered no evidence to support his enrollment projections, no evidence that he could meet curriculum goals, and no evidence that he had "the necessary capacity or resources to carry out the work involved in establishing a community school."
Six years and millions of dollars later, TIPS still faces the same struggles. Perhaps that can be expected. No one in the Shabazz family, including the founder, his wife, Hasina, or his son, Da'ud A., holds a teaching license or a certificate in school administration. Da'ud A. Shabazz says he's studying for his bachelor's degree from a long-distance school called "The University of Thomas Edison." (He appears to be talking about Thomas Edison State College, which some have accused of being a diploma mill.)
Elementary Dean of Students Sami Roman is licensed only as a substitute computer-science teacher. Henderson Deal, a high school building administrator, holds a substitute's license to teach English. Sister Yvetta Eley, director of TIPS' international program, is not licensed at all. Her assistant in the international program, Yusef Abdallah, has a part-time substitute's license to teach agribusiness.
"None of these people are qualified to run a school," Aquaowo says. "They don't understand the fundamentals of education."
But instead of listening to trained educators, Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz often fires them. At the beginning of the school year, Dr. Alvin Fulton, who is state-certified, served as the elementary and high school principal. He regularly fought Shabazz over educational issues, say teachers who witnessed the arguments.
So Shabazz fired Fulton, the only person on staff who appears qualified to run a school. "As opposed to implementing our educational program, he resisted the program and tried to create his own program," Shabazz says. "You can't do that."
Meanwhile, the elementary school went through three vice principals in nine months. "That threw discipline right out the window," says one elementary teacher. "With a new principal every few months, the kids all know they can get away with anything."
Leadership at the high school is just as rocky. Ask Shabazz who's in charge, and he pauses for some 20 seconds. "They have two building administrators, two counselors, two curriculum-instruction individuals, and a dean of students," he says finally. "Oh, and I think they have an academic director."
"The leadership of the school changed all the time," says teacher Chris Kaletka. "We never actually knew who was in charge."
Without trained educators in leadership positions, Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz is free to make erratic decisions that hurt kids' educations. On three separate occasions last year, he ordered TIPS' fourth-grade teachers to exchange students and shuffle them between different classrooms -- the last time with just three weeks remaining in the school year. "It was ridiculous," says fourth-grade teacher Correen Schall. "You can't just say to these kids, 'It was nice knowing you for a few months, and now you're gone.'"
The teachers avoided Shabazz's order by waiting out the school year. They were helped by another Shabazz blunder, when he announced that school would end two weeks early -- giving parents only one week to arrange alternative child care.
Most teachers are terrified to speak out, because they have no protection. When Republican legislators wrote the charter-school law, they barred teachers from unionizing. In light of the many recent school layoffs around Northeast Ohio, TIPS teachers say they're afraid to challenge the Shabazz family, because they have nowhere else to go.
"The minute you tell them that their system isn't working, they fire you," says Schall, who's looking for a job in Atlanta. "I saw it happen over and over this year."
Without stability or basic learning materials, students waste much of their time on make-work projects. "The stuff they give us to do is just to give us something to do," says Tashyna Seals. "I'd work harder, but I'm already in honors classes and getting A's. There isn't anything else for me to do."
It should be no surprise that International Prep fails miserably on proficiency tests. It met none of 16 state academic requirements during the 2003-2004 school year, the last year for which data is available. On its annual report card, the state declared that TIPS was in a state of academic emergency.
"Well, the local report card, I don't consider it a true assessment," Shabazz says.
Students are so far behind when they arrive at TIPS that their progress doesn't register on the state tests, he argues. So at the beginning and end of every school year, students take an alternative test, called Terra Nova. A ninth-grader may start the year reading at a fifth-grade level and end at an eighth-grade level. "You have academic achievement; it just doesn't show up on the proficiency tests," argues Shabazz.
But this reasoning doesn't explain why similar students in public schools perform much better than International Prep students. Most TIPS students are transfers from Cleveland and East Cleveland. "The students I teach at TIPS are no different than the ones I taught in Cleveland public schools," says Chris Kaletka.
But public-school students from similar families and neighborhoods consistently outperform TIPS students on proficiency tests. For example, 14 percent of TIPS ninth-graders passed the state science test last year, compared to 75 percent of students in similar districts. "The only thing that's different about these kids is that they go to TIPS," one teacher says.
Ramona Benson was excited when she first enrolled her fourth-grade daughter in 2003. "They made all these promises that so many colleges would be recruiting their students because they will have so many skills," says Benson, who teaches software classes to Cuyahoga County government employees.
But then her daughter received an A in reading comprehension, though Benson knew that she skipped words she didn't understand. Benson attended classes and saw kids sleeping, swearing at the teacher, and playing Pokemon cards. "One kid was literally doing back flips in the middle of class," she says.
Benson decided to move her daughter to a Cleveland school, where the girl repeated the entire fourth grade. "By then, the whole year was wasted," Benson says. "I don't think she learned a thing at that school. If you're truly interested in your child's academic career, TIPS is not the place."
Geraldine Seals, Tashyna's mom, heard similar promises from TIPS leaders. After hearing her daughter's complaints all year, Seals plans to spend the summer looking for another school. "She was even in honors classes, making honor roll," Seals says. "But she's not learning anything."
Even the vaunted international-studies program is somewhat misleading. The trips do happen, but most students never leave Cleveland. "This year about eight kids went overseas," says Shantell Stevenson. "There's a few hundred students in this school. I'm happy that some kids got to go, but what about the rest of us?"
Adds one elementary teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired: "I think it's great to take them to China or the Middle East. But these kids can't read!"
When Chris Kaletka interviewed for a job at TIPS, he was promised his own room, with a built-in science lab. It meant that he could install the 12 computers he had built at home.
But when he arrived for the first day of school last August, Kaletka was greeted by chaos. The high school had just opened in its new building, a former optical-lens factory. Kaletka found a cavernous, largely empty space, with a few classrooms carved out of drywall. He was handed a list of classes to teach and another list with students' names. "They told me to go find my kids, then go find a classroom," Kaletka says.
All the classrooms were already full. So Kaletka led groups of students through the halls, looking for a room. The only thing he found was other teachers doing the same thing.
"I was stunned," says Kaletka, who teaches during the summer at NASA Glenn Research Center and is licensed to teach physics, biology, chemistry, and general science.
Kaletka bounced around to five different rooms during the year and didn't receive a permanent classroom until April. It didn't even have a chalkboard.
Other teachers were lured to International Prep with promises of labs and permanent rooms. Most never got them. "If they had told me that up front, I would've been okay with that," says one teacher. "The administration of this school just lies to you."
The old lens factory contains a large warehouse that's dark and noisy. Building codes bar TIPS from using the space until the school installs classrooms, hallways, and lights. "They're not allowed to use it for anything but light storage," says Bob Bearden, fire inspector for Warrensville Heights.
TIPS uses the warehouse anyway. Science and art classes were regularly held in the space.
Building problems have plagued Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz for years. From 1983 to 1999, Shabazz was executive director of the Islamic School of the Oasis, a private Muslim school that received state funding through Ohio's voucher program.
Serious fire hazards were discovered in its building on Hayden Avenue. So in 1999, the Department of Education kicked the Islamic School out of the voucher program.
At the same time, however, the state was helping Shabazz to create TIPS. Though he'd been booted from the last program, the department even gave Shabazz more money. Under the voucher program, his school earned $2,500 a year per student. As a charter school, it earned $4,600.
The new school opened on Shaker Boulevard with few actual classrooms. Instead, Shabazz erected chest-high cubicle walls. "We basically had hundreds of kids in the same room," says Lori Peterson, who taught that first year. "Kids would throw stuff over the little cubicle wall. You couldn't hear a thing. It was a nightmare."
Less than two months after TIPS opened, Cleveland's fire marshal ordered the school to close. Its building had no sprinkler system, no proper fire alarms, and no reinforced fire doors. "You have failed to remedy these hazardous and dangerous conditions," Fire Marshal David C. Kebbel wrote the school.
Shabazz again cried discrimination. He told The Plain Dealer that the fire marshal was biased against Muslims. He threatened to sue the city.
TIPS eventually made the necessary repairs. The Shaker Boulevard building now serves as the elementary school. The fire marshal hasn't come calling, but problems continue.
Four classrooms on the first floor didn't have electricity this year, according to teachers. So the school's administrators ran a long extension cord down the hallway, an obvious fire hazard with hundreds of students walking by.
TIPS officials say that it's no big deal. "You want to close the school because there are four classrooms without electricity?" asks Dean of Students Sami Roman.
The elementary school has no gym, and students are not allowed outside during the winter. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of a Dickensian orphanage. Hundreds of kids, ranging in age from 5 to 12, are cooped inside a building for seven and a half hours a day. "They're expected to sit in their seats with their hands folded, even at lunch," says Schall. "By the end of the school day, they're very difficult to control."
When the weather is warm, students take recess in the school's busy parking lot. "Whenever I drive into the parking lot, I have to watch and make sure I don't hit any kids," says a teacher. "It freaks me out."
Last year, about half the girls' toilets were broken, leaking water all over the floor. Lines of waiting girls often stretched down the hall. "The bathrooms are just disgusting," says another teacher.
Even with all these problems, TIPS is looking to expand again. In the next two years, it wants to grow to 1,500 students. "We've got this building now that's not ready to go; we don't have the resources we need to run it," says one teacher. "And now they want to expand into a whole new, even larger building? I think it's crazy."
TIPS can't grow without support -- and more money -- from the Ohio Department of Education. Given the department's history of overlooking TIPS' glaring problems, school leaders may have little to worry about.
It's nearing end of a school day in May, and a reporter arrives at TIPS' elementary school to interview parents. They sit in cars with the windows rolled down, trying to keep cool as they wait for their children.
At the head of the line is Melissa Lavender, whose five-year-old daughter is attending kindergarten. She will not be returning in the fall. "I don't feel they're teaching my baby too much of nothin'," says Lavender, as she fans herself with a folded map. "They want to teach her to play the violin. She can't read a book. She doesn't know the alphabet. So how's she gonna learn to play music?"
Behind the reporter comes the sound of jangling keys and labored breathing. "Excuse me!" yells a man who's pushing his voice to its baritone depths in an attempt to sound more intimidating. "Sir! Sir! You are not allowed to be here," says the security guard as he rushes up.
Behind him is Sami Roman, the dean of students. Together they draw their chests close, trying to get the reporter to step backward.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave, sir," Roman says. "If you don't leave, I'll have to call the police."
The reporter points out that he's standing on a public sidewalk, talking to an adult who's agreed to be interviewed. No laws are being broken.
Roman grunts, then leans down to talk to Lavender. "How are you today, ma'am?" he asks. "Is there a problem? Is there something I can do for you?"
Lavender fans herself faster. "I've seen you out here every day for a year, and you've never said anything to me," she says. "Now, the minute somebody comes up and starts asking questions, you act all concerned. Don't give me that bullshit."
State officials trying to communicate with TIPS have about the same luck as Lavender. In 2001, then-Ohio Auditor Jim Petro attempted to conduct a regular audit of the school. Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz skipped the scheduled meeting.
Next, Petro demanded that TIPS send all its financial records to his office. Instead, Shabazz mailed a box of papers regarding the school's curriculum.
Finally, Petro was forced to subpoena the records. Shabazz shot back with a $100 million lawsuit in federal court, arguing that Petro was racist and biased against Muslims. Though it seems to be his first line of defense whenever he gets into trouble, Shabazz is holding a weak hand when he plays the race card. One hundred percent of TIPS students are black. Which means that his serial bungling and mismanagement are only hurting black kids.
Shabazz's saber-rattling didn't work. The state cut off the school's funding, and TIPS came within one day of shutting down before it finally conceded to the audit.
Petro's report uncovered huge problems. After just one year in business, the school was already $856,000 in debt. Charter schools get paid every month, based on the number of students enrolled. By overestimating the number of students throughout the year, the school overbilled the state by $750,000, the audit found.
The report also described how other companies controlled by Shabazz received taxpayer money. In 1990, Shabazz's wife, Hasina, co-founded the Oasis Development Corp. with a man named Jamiel Abdul Rahman. The company originally operated out of Shabazz's Islamic School of the Oasis. Oasis Development later created two schools, The International Preparatory School and Dayton Urban Academy, a charter school in downtown Dayton. Jamiel Rahman's wife, Habibah, became superintendent of the Dayton Urban Academy.
Petro's audit found that TIPS and Dayton Urban Academy paid Oasis Development Corporation a combined $387,000 for consulting services in 2000. Petro warned that both schools had "significant deficiencies" in their ability to manage money.
Things grew worse the following year. Ohio's new auditor, Betty Montgomery, performed another audit, which found that TIPS' deficit had ballooned to almost $1.5 million. The school inflated its enrollment numbers again, and overcharged the state by $760,000. Meanwhile, the school was $338,000 behind on its rent.
Dayton Urban Academy and TIPS both withheld income from employees' paychecks but failed to pay income taxes, workers' comp, insurance premiums, and pensions.
The audit also found that the Dayton Urban Academy misused $328,000 in taxpayer funds. Habibah Rahman was forced to repay the state $17,000.
The education department ordered Dayton Urban Academy to close. "It's probably one of the worst cases of abuse and just gross neglect that we've seen," Eric Hardgrove, Montgomery's spokesman, said at the time.
The school fired back with another $100 million lawsuit, again accusing the state of racism. "I don't believe race is the sole issue, but it is one of the issues," said the school's lawyer, James Greene III. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed.
Despite the glaring problems, Montgomery hasn't performed an audit since 2001. The school continues to stonewall her requests for information.
"We haven't been able to do an audit for the last few years," says Jen Detwiler, Montgomery's spokeswoman. "They're always very nice about it. It's always 'Didn't you receive those documents?' Or 'Oh, our fax machine just broke.' But we just haven't been able to get the documents we need."
TIPS officials deny this. "The truth is, we're in compliance with all the reporting," Shabazz says. "And this is despite constant change in management."
Shabazz also claims that school leaders made a clean break with their troubled past. "Yeah, we made mistakes," says Shabazz. "But we corrected the mistakes. Because you know what? If we didn't, we wouldn't be here right now."
When asked whether Jamiel and Habibah Rahman are still involved with TIPS or the Oasis Development Corporation, Shabazz responds emphatically, "No. In no capacity."
But in April 2004, Hasina Shabazz created a new company called Daha Worldwide Development. It operates out of the same building as Oasis Development and TIPS' administrative offices. Serving with Shabazz on Daha's board of directors is Jamiel Rahman.
More questions are raised by the employment of Menelik Shabazz, the elder son of Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz. Menelik was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl in Painesville in 1986 and served eight years in prison, according to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's sex-offender database. He now works for Oasis Development, in the same building as TIPS administrative offices. Teacher Debra Aquaowo says she's seen Menelik Shabazz at the high school.
Moreover, events this spring suggest that TIPS' finances remain in chaos. In March, the state requested the school's attendance records. News of the audit sent waves of panic through the school. Administrators bought new grade books for every teacher. They printed out the school's computerized attendance records, then ordered the teachers to copy the records directly into the new books.
Many teachers balked. They knew the school's records were just as flawed as their own. "I asked them if they were telling us to lie to the state," Debra Aquaowo says. "I keep records every period. The school doesn't. All they're worried about is how many kids show up for homeroom, because that's how they get their money."
Some school leaders blame the confusion on a subcontractor paid to track enrollment data. Others blame the teachers. "All these teachers are keeping attendance in different ways," Yusef Abdallah says. "How hard can it be?"
But teachers say that administrators never tell them which students are excused and which are simply skipping. So they take their best guess. "This is not a difficult thing to figure out, and the administration has had six years to do it," says one teacher. "The problem is that the leaders of this school have no idea what they're doing."
With only one week to redo their attendance books for the entire year, "Most teachers just stopped teaching," Kaletka says.
"We showed movies all week, because we had to get those grade books done," Aquaowo says. "These kids need a lot of help. To waste a week of teaching time on that is just very sad."
Once again, the state found TIPS submitting inflated enrollment numbers. To recoup its money, it cut TIPS' monthly support from $573,271 in April to $138,900 in May, according to education-department documents.
The school ran out of money and failed to make payroll. For half the summer, teachers gathered at TIPS administrative offices every two weeks in hopes of getting paid. They always left penniless and angry. "I've got three babies at home," said one teacher as she left the building. "My rent's due. I have to pay my car loan, my lights, my gas. What am I going to do?"
"I should never have come to work here!" another teacher screamed at a TIPS administrator as they stood in the parking lot. "How do you expect me to live, if I ain't getting paid? This is motherfucking bullshit!"
Just as it did in 2001, TIPS also deducted money from teachers' paychecks, but didn't actually pay its share of employees' income taxes and health insurance. Debra Aquaowo called the IRS in June and was told that the school hadn't paid her taxes since February. Her health-insurance company told Aquaowo that her policy had been canceled, because TIPS hadn't paid the premium for five months.
"The school never told us," Aquaowo says. "What would have happened if I had been hurt during that time? I would have been totally screwed."
A month ago, Aquaowo finally received a paycheck. It bounced.
Since Montgomery's last audit was for 2001, there's no way to know where the school's $6 million annual budget is going. "A lot of people think my family is getting rich with school funds," Da'ud A. Shabazz says. "When you go outside, you'll see an '86 Monte Carlo, quite raggedy. That's my car. My dad drives a used Lincoln Continental. Nobody's getting rich here."
County property records show that Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz owns a modest three-bedroom home in Richmond Heights valued at $150,000, plus two rental homes in Cleveland worth a combined $85,000.
"I don't think these guys are crooks," a teacher says. "I think they're trying to do the right thing. They're just incompetent."
Despite the charter program's widespread failure, the Department of Education admits that its oversight is actually getting less strict. In the early days, the department conducted site visits. But in a 2004 letter, it informed TIPS that "the compliance portion will be accomplished mainly though the school's self-study of its performance and compliance."
Translation: Police yourself.
Trying to find out whether the state knows about the conditions at TIPS touches off a dizzying game of runaround. When Scene asked to see the Ohio education department's reports from its previous site visits, Gaylen Blackwell, associate director at the ODE community-schools office, first told Scene to call Jen Mantilla, the department's consultant for northern Ohio. "She's in charge of making visits to all the schools," Blackwell said. "She'll know more about TIPS than I would."
Actually, she doesn't. "I've never set foot inside their school," Mantilla says. "I hope to. But right now I'm spread pretty thin. I'm responsible for schools all the way from Toledo to Youngstown."
Scene called Blackwell back. He said to contact the Lucas County Educational Service Center, a government agency that oversees 112 charter schools -- almost half the charter schools in Ohio. State law requires the center's five-member board to approve every school. But the agency is currently under fire because 78 of its schools, including TIPS, were never actually approved by the board.
Instead, TIPS was allowed to continue operating with only the authorization of Tom Baker, the center's long-time superintendent. As criticism of the center's lax oversight mounted, Baker resigned July 11. State Senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) asked the Department of Education to conduct a full investigation; the department refused.
After weeks of leaving unanswered voice-mail messages, Scene finally reached Jim George, who directs the center's charter-school office. George declined to speak and instead told Scene to call Da'ud A. Shabazz.
Shabazz said that he would no longer answer Scene's questions verbally, and asked the paper to fax him the remainder of its questions in writing. Scene did so on June 21.
Shabazz never responded.
"The real problem with charter schools is there's no accountability," says Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "Are they using qualified, certified teachers? Are their finances in order? Are the kids actually learning? We don't know, because the state of Ohio isn't looking."
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