It was clear to teachers at the Einstein Montessori School in Orlando that something was very wrong when school opened for business last fall.
There were no computers for student use. And although the school focused on students with dyslexia, there were no reading texts.
Teachers said there was no set curriculum and no library.
“It was a disaster,” said Brittany Clifton, a first-year math teacher who took on additional duties as principal for several months. She said students weren’t getting what they needed. “It should have been shut down before the end of the semester.”
The charter school closed in February, two months after Orange County Public Schools warned the privately run public school that it was violating state law and its own contract with the district. It had about 40 students in grades three to eight.
A bill in the Florida Senate sparked by Orlando Sentinel stories about another failed charter would give school districts the power to close charter schools that fail students academically or lack fiscal controls. Under current law, immediate closure is only an option if students’ health or welfare is in danger.
“The fact is, any time you take children and deny them the opportunity to get a good education, you hurt them, you hurt their parents and you hurt their community,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, the bill’s sponsor for the legislative session that starts Tuesday.
The school, which received about $164,800 in state tax money, is the latest in a string of troubled charters to shut down in Orange County since 2011.
Two years ago, Imani Elementary Charter Academy was shut down by the district School Board after the school misspent state money and left students without computers or adequate books for nearly an entire school year.
Later that year, the district closed Summit Charter School in Maitland, which served students with learning disabilities, after years of financial troubles, including administrators spending school money on lavish meals, travel and a truck, and employees working without compensation.
Then, in 2012, the academically lagging NorthStar High School gave its principal a payout of more than $500,000 after its charter was not renewed. In addition, she was being paid about $305,000 a year in salary and bonuses. The four schools, combined, have received more than $287.2 million in state tax money.
After an Orlando Sentinel investigation about NorthStar, state legislators expressed outrage, followed by a stack of bills related to charter schools, many increasing fiscal controls.
“I hope that we’re going to make these kind of stories a thing of the past,” said Simmons.
At Einstein, teachers said their training was haphazard, paychecks were late from the start and payments meant to compensate them for a lack of health insurance stopped after a single check. Three teachers who left in December and January were never paid several thousand dollars they were owed, they told Orange County Public Schools officials.
Things were also falling apart in the classroom.
The principal quit to save on salaries, and two of the five teachers were forced out, former teachers said. Further defections left a revolving door of substitute instructors, according to former teachers and the Einstein Montessori board chair, Rebecca Simmons.
Victoria Miranda, 14, said she had substitutes in all classes but one.
“They let us do what we wanted,” she said. All middle-school students were combined into a single classroom and given the same work sheets.
When approved by the district in 2010, the school’s application promised an accelerated, innovative curriculum for students with dyslexia. It delivered far less, teachers said.
“The students never had any grade-level materials,” said Jill Nicholson, who taught the specialized reading program for dyslexic students, known as LiPS, on which the school was based.
“We were all first-year teachers and we didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “It was more like a baby-sitting service.”
Computers weren’t set up until a few weeks before the school closed. A promised partnership with dyslexia experts at the University of Central Florida never materialized.
And parents weren’t informed what was going on.
“A lot of things were kept from us,” said Brenda Miranda, Victoria’s mother. “The only reason I kept her there was they kept promising they were going to hire math and reading teachers,” she said.
“I was hanging on to a glimmer of hope, because at least she was getting LiPS,” a program that helped the eighth-grader read more smoothly. Both Miranda and Nicholson said it would have been better if the school closed sooner.
Now that the school has closed, Miranda is driving her daughter 40 minutes each way to Einstein Montessori Academy, a private school in Cocoa run by the Orlando school’s founder, Zach Osbrach.
Osbrach said the school couldn’t get enough students, and therefore enough money, without taking children from other counties, which is not allowed.
“Our costs were high,” he said, noting that the school had both a LiPS teacher and a reading teacher at first. “We were struggling just to keep the teachers employed,” he said.
But he ultimately believes in the model and said he hopes other schools pick up on the failed school’s curriculum.
“We need schools for kids with dyslexia,” he said. “We never really got off the ground.”
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