Cyber-school kids truant, failing, and teachers have been dumped

John Craig
John Craig
Posted: March 14, 2012

IT ALL SOUNDED so good on paper: a "global high school of the 21st century," a cyber school that would teach about 300 students two languages and keep them constantly engaged in learning.

That was how John Craig pitched the Frontier Virtual Charter High School to state education officials two years ago.

The state approved the Philadelphia-based charter, hoping that the school would prove to be a model for both cyber and traditional high schools.

Frontier opened in the fall. It fell apart before the spring.

The dominoes have tumbled quietly for months, the Daily News learned in recent weeks.

The cyber school seems to have serious money woes and other problems:

* Frontier - which is receiving $435,520 from the Philadelphia School District this year to educate 54 city students - didn't pay its teachers or principal in August, September and most of October, according to several sources who have direct knowledge of the school's troubles.

Since then, teachers had been paid only half of their $40,000 salaries.

* Craig said on Thursday that he was working on a plan to get the staff back pay and address other financial problems before the end of the school year. The following day, he laid off all the school's teachers and the principal. He later posted part-time teaching jobs on Craigslist.

* Craig, also an associate pastor at the Philadelphia Revival Temple Church, said that Frontier doesn't "have really any students that are truant" and that many "are doing fine" academically.

But records viewed by the Daily News show that numerous students are habitually truant or failing their classes - or both.

* Bills have gone unpaid, including some in excess of $80,000 for K12, the company that created Frontier's curriculum, sources said.

* Staffers raised repeated concerns about whether Craig and the school's board of trustees - which includes former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore - had violated the state's Sunshine Law by making decisions in private, sources said.

Frontier is still open - even without teachers - but the state Department of Education is conducting a full review.

"Based on the information that we're receiving, we have serious concerns about the school," said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the department. "We're going to look at the school in depth."

Craig developed the idea for Frontier four years ago.

"My background has been in education for almost 20 years," Craig said last week. He said he has a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

He previously was principal of Twenty First Century Christian Academy, although it's unclear if the school is still open. (The school's phone number is disconnected, and its website is no longer active. The school's address was the same as Craig's church.)

"I decided to do a cyber school because I wanted to reach more students across the state," Craig said, "and provide an alternative for children no matter where they came from."

The Department of Education approved Craig's application for the charter last January. But it also sent him a list of concerns that it had about the school's projected budget and a lack of internal procedures to prevent fraud and abuse, state documents show.

Craig told the Daily News that he addressed all of the state's concerns and opened the school.

He hired a staff last summer, including Sue Stiver, the principal, who was among the staffers that Craig laid off .

Stiver, who had previous cyber-school experience, said that she learned about Frontier from a friend.

"I looked at what they wanted to do, and I was impressed," she said. "They wanted kids to take two foreign languages and have career internships. It matched my personal beliefs."

Lawmakers and advocates have long had concerns about the financial and educational oversight of cyber charter schools.

The schools are approved and overseen by the state department of education, but local school districts are on the hook for paying for each of the students without any say in how they're run.

The Philadelphia School District, for instance, is spending $45.8 million on more than 4,800 cyber charter students this year.

Brett Schaeffer, communications director for the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, said that there has long been interest among legislators about making charters more accountable.

"Tighter accountability keeps the quality at a higher level," he said.

Craig said that Frontier's money woes are tied to the fact that their actual enrollment is only about 85 students, well short of the 300 he projected when he pitched the school to the state.

"We had no start-up funds from the state," he said, "so we were not able to effectively advertise."

In a proposed budget that Craig sent to the state when he applied for the charter license in 2010, he said the school would need to spend $5,000 on promotions.

Last week, however, he said that the school spent about $10,000 on promoting Frontier, with money obtained through fundraisers.

While the logic of Craig's argument seems questionable - he said that the school didn't have enough money to spend on advertising, even though it spent twice what was budgeted - there's no question that the school had money problems.

Stiver said that the school's language teacher was laid off after the first marking period ended.

Staff members received only one paycheck in October, following none in August and September. In November, their hours and salary were cut in half, Stiver said, as the number of classes they could teach online weekly fell from three to one.

"He told us to go on partial unemployment," she said.

Students were getting shorted, too.

"Each child was supposed to have received a laptop, a printer-copier-scanner and a $30-a-month reimbursement for the Internet," Stiver said. "We had probably two to three dozen kids who never received the printer-scanner-copiers, and maybe another 15 who haven't received laptops."

Darlene Lawrence, of Johnstown, Pa., said that her daughter, Makenzie, 15, received a laptop - but not a printer - when she enrolled in Frontier two months ago.

Lawrence said that she received a call from Craig on Monday asking her to return the laptop. She said that she refused because she wanted answers about what was happening with the school.

"He called the police on me," Lawrence said. "I was very upset. I want my daughter to get an education, but [Craig's] not worried about it. He's worried about his laptop."

Craig said that only students who enrolled in Frontier last week haven't yet received laptops, but he acknowledged that only "a quarter of families" have been paid for Internet reimbursement.

"We anticipate being able to get everyone caught up by perhaps the first or second week of April," Craig said.

When asked if Frontier was paying the rest of its bills, he said: "Our bills are fine."

But when the Daily News asked if the school has made any payments to K12, Craig acknowledged that the school is far behind.

Craig said that neither he nor the school's other executive staffers, Betty Simon, the chief of operations, and Patty Jones Thompson, the chief of outreach operations, are getting paid.

"We do receive a small stipend. I don't even know what it is . . . it's something very small," he said.

Craig said that he would provide the Daily News with financial records to show how the school has been spending its money. But he had not done so as of last night.

When asked how the school's students are faring academically, he said: "The students are doing fine . . . nobody is completely bombing out."

But records show that only seven students out of 58 passed history during the most recent marking period; 12 out of 52 passed English; and six out of 55 passed math.

The school's truancy policy calls for students to be returned to their school district if they've been truant more than 10 days.

"We don't really have any students that are truant," Craig said last week.

But records show that at least 18 students haven't logged into the school's website for more than 10 days - and, in several cases, more than 50 days.

Records also show that Betty Simon - who Craig said is the school's truancy officer - hasn't logged into the school's website in 179 days.


Contact David Gambacorta at 215-854-5994 gambacd@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @dgambacorta.

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