Troubled Philly-based cyber charter school ordered closed

John Craig, the school's CEO
John Craig, the school's CEO
Posted: June 27, 2012

IT APPEARS THAT the plug might finally be pulled on a troubled Philly-based cyber school that had siphoned a hefty sum of tax dollars.

A lengthy investigation by the state Department of Education determined that the Frontier Virtual Charter High School had "severe and pervasive" violations of its charter and the state's Charter School Law, according to a June 13 letter from state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis to the school's CEO, John Craig.

Tomalis said Craig had until June 18 to notify the state if he and the school's board of trustees would surrender the school's charter. Otherwise, Tomalis said, the state would file charges to have the charter formally yanked.

The state had not heard back from Craig as of Monday, a Department of Education spokesman said. The spokesman did not return calls or emails seeking comment Tuesday.

It's unclear why the state hasn't already followed through on its threat to revoke Frontier's charter.

This much was clear, however: Frontier's financial and academic problems — which the Daily News exposed in March, when all the school's teachers were laid off — are insurmountable.

"There is no indication that Frontier Virtual School could provide an appropriate education to students who may enroll ... in the 2012-2013 school year," Tomalis wrote to Craig.

The state cited a host of violations, from failing to provide students with necessary computer equipment to failing to properly manage its finances and provide promised classes.

Craig did not respond to a request for comment. According to the school's website, the board of trustees is scheduled to meet on Saturday.

Frontier opened last fall, two years after Craig sold state education officials on his vision of a "global high school of the 21st century." The cyber school was supposed to offer foreign languages, music and art courses and career training to about 300 students, all of whom were supposed to learn from the comfort of their homes.

It sounded, quite simply, like a dream. But it didn't take long to turn into a nightmare.

Frontier attracted only about 85 students, which meant less money from districts statewide than administrators envisioned.

The language teacher was laid off during the first semester. Many courses soon were axed, and the teachers saw their hours and salaries cut in half.

Numerous parents complained that they never received promised Internet reimbursements, or answers to questions about their children's evaporating classes.

On March 8, Craig — an associate pastor at the Philadelphia Revival Temple Church — told the Daily News that the school's students were performing well academically, but records showed that many were habitually truant or failing. Tomalis said Frontier "failed to properly monitor attendance, work progress, truancy and grades."

Craig laid off the teaching staff March 9, bringing the school year to a halt for several weeks until part-time replacements were hired. Several former teachers are pursuing legal action in a bid to recover lost wages.

Despite the turmoil, Craig and other school officials released occasional statements claiming that the school was merely enduring normal growing pains.

"Maybe they convinced themselves that they were telling the truth," said Chris Kristofco, whose wife, Amanda, was one of the laid-off teachers. "But the department saw how bad it was. They had to know this was the endgame."

"It's nice to see that [the state] did the right thing," said Sue Stiver, the school's principal, who was also laid off. "But it's sad, when I think about all of the kids that came to Frontier because they couldn't find any other place that would take them." n

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

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