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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Florida's McKay scholarships create fraud and chaos, part 3

From the Miami NewsTimes

by Gus Garcia-Roberts

A Plantation High reading teacher, who asked that her name not be used, can relate. She has noticed her "problem" seniors disappearing like never before. Sometimes she runs into them on the street and finds out they're at Preparatory Zion Academy or someplace similar. "These kids are graduating, but they're illiterate," the teacher says. "If you ask me, it's criminal."

The principals of neither Carol City High or Plantation High responded to New Times' inquiries. Public school brass are loathe to publicly admit to pushing struggling kids toward private schools.

Chris Christe could be the poster child for McKay scholarships. Sweet and glassy-eyed, he was raised by his grandmother in the shadow of Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens. Mom had died when he was 10 years old while she was giving birth to his brother. Dad made an awkward visit every three years.

Chris had trouble paying attention at Norwood Elementary and lagged behind classmates. In fifth grade, he took an IQ test. He got a 95. "Not retarded retarded," his blunt-spoken grandmother Gloria Joachim says, but low enough that the assistant principal recommended a more specialized school day: Have you heard of the McKay program?

So Chris ended up at the South Florida Academy of Learning, located in a storefront at the California Club Mall. Two years later, it went bellyup. Next there was Opa-locka's Monsignor Edward Pace, a large private high school that accepts McKay scholarships. The classes were too "fast for him," Gloria says, and she'd find Chris cowering in her bathroom when it was time to go to school. Last year, he finally received a diploma from the unaccredited West Hollywood Private School, which is run by a husband and wife in their converted home.

When transferring her grandson's credits, Gloria was bewildered to find that, according to the state, he was already enrolled at another school she had never heard of: Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah. As it turns out, Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno, the couple who ran Muskateer's, had stolen Chris's McKay information from the South Florida Academy of Learning, where Jacqueline had once worked.

"I'm unimpressed," 69-year-old Gloria says with a cynical chuckle when asked her opinion of the McKay program. She estimates taxpayers invested roughly $30,000 in the last six years of Chris's education. "I wish that money could have gone to establishing an area in his own public school for kids with special needs. Then there would have been some accountability."

Though it sounds exotic, what Gloria is describing is the traditional public special-ed model. "I didn't have the illusion that he was college-bound," she says, "but I wish he could have more skills that would help him with a job."

Now 22, after getting his high school diploma, Chris spends his days pacing Grandma's living room. He talks about becoming a songwriter, but when art colleges return his phone calls, he tells them Chris isn't home and hangs up.

"No job, no school, no nothing," Gloria laments. "If you can think of what to do with him now, let me know."

Christopher Vaughn decided it was time to leave South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy — the Oakland Park strip-mall school with the ass-thwacking principal — in his junior year, when a classmate tried to stab his brother with a pen.

It was 2010, and Christopher was 18. He was a sturdily built kid with a hard-fought, scraggly beard and loads of ambition despite having sprouted from tragedy: Mom dead of AIDS, Dad always working, six siblings, raised mostly by a grandmother who was getting eaten by Alzheimer's.

He wanted a college degree. He wanted to start an organization to help kids with rough home lives just like his. Before going to South Florida Prep, he had been a good student at Lauderhill Middle School.

But when Christopher tried to transfer his credits — all As and Bs — from the disastrous private high, they were rejected by the charter Smart School. Then the alternative public school Whiddon-Rogers Education Center turned down his transcript as well. Having made no mistake besides going to the high school his grandmother heard about at church, Christopher faced the prospect of being a freshman again.

"I had to start from scratch," he says. "Everything just went down the drain. I didn't feel like being in school no more."

He hasn't taken the excuse to give up. He's now about five credits from graduating from Whiddon-Rogers.

In October the year that Christopher left South Florida Prep, fire marshals shut down that school. The student body wandered between local parks and churches for a month, before the DOE finally suspended its McKay payments, about four and a half years too late.

Principal Julius Brown was sued by the strip-mall owner for falling behind $55,650 in rent, and he faced three other lawsuits related to the tragic van accident on the trip from Orlando. He does, however, know one way to make some money in a hurry.

In March 2011, Brown and partners incorporated Sunrise College Preparatory School in Orlando. According to its website, classes in grades kindergarten through 12 begin August 29.

Sunrise College Prep is not registered with the state, but Brown clearly has a plan: The school website advertises that it accepts McKay scholarships.

After reaching Brown by phone at his new school, New Times could get in only one question: Planning on paddling kids in your new digs?

"I got nothing to say to you!" he bellowed before hanging up. "South Florida Prep was a long time ago. I've moved on!"

Rich Abdill contributed to this report.

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