There’s more to say about Wednesday’s move by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to close Rock Creek Academy, the private special education school with some big issues, according to the agency’s investigation.
One finding got only glancing attention in this morning’s story: OSSE says Rock Creek violated regulations by played fast and loose with attendance data, which is the basis for its payment from the District. Investigators said that being spotted in the hallway was basis enough for counting a student present, regardless of whether he or she actually attended class. Under District regulations, if a student misses four classes without excuse, it counts as a full-day absence.
According to OSSE, a sampling of school records from September 2010 show that student attendance by class period doesn’t match up with invoices submitted by Rock Creek to the District. One student, according to invoices, attended school for 14 days in September. But class attendance records show the student present on only ten of those days. At $242 per student per day — the rate charged by Rock Creek--the discrepancies add up.
The report said that school staff “expressed concern that Rock Creek Academy leadership places an emphasis on the school’s profit margin rather than the education and needs of students. One staff member, unnamed in the report, told investigators that the school raffles flat-screen plasma televisions and cable subscriptions to encourage parental participation, but that students lack books, paper, pencils and other basic materials.
Another element to the story is new D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley, who personally delivered the 27-page report — along with a notice of the agency’s intent to revoke the school’s operating certification — to Rock Creek president and chief executive Shawn Meade.
Mahaley said she did it to emphasize the seriousness of the matter.
“This is a big deal involving a lot of people,” she said late Wednesday. ”I wanted to look him in the eye and make sure he understood what this was about,” she said. It was also a message, she said, to other private special ed schools that the level of scrutiny has increased.
Mahaley is under a mandate from the man who appointed her, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, to bring down the crushing cost of non-public placement for special education students, which runs at about $280 million annually in tuition and transportation. That includes $16 million to Rock Creek in the past two years. But Mahaley insists that it’s not about the bottom line.
“People say ‘it's about the money, it’s about the money.’ But it’s not. It’s about the quality,” she said.
What disturbed her most about the findings of the OSSE probe, she said, was evidence that the school did not involve older students in discussions about their future beyond Rock Creek. A review of 29 students files showed that in only three instances were students invited to IEP meetings to discuss their post-secondary plans.
I’m scheduled to speak with Meade later today. One point in the report that is likely to be vigorously contested is the conclusion, based on limited interviewing, that a significant portion of Rock Creek’s 163 students don’t belong in a private setting and can be served in a public or public charter school. Some students, the report said, “were able to clearly articulate their academic strengths and weaknesses, evaluate the ability, or lack thereof, of the teaching staff, and recognize the ‘institutional’ nature of the non-public school.”
OSSE staff also cited the school’s off-campus lunch period and daily Metro travel as evidence of student capacity. “If students are able to independently travel to and from the Metro station where they continually interact with nondisabled peers and are able to leave campus for lunch, during which time they interact with the community socially and financially, then a genuine question exists as to whether the nature and severity of the students’ disabilities are such that the children need a separate school to meet their educational needs and whether those students should ever have been placed in Rock Creek Academy at all,” the report said.
In another section of the report, however, OSSE refers to allegations that students have destroyed property at businesses along the Van Ness section of Connecticut Ave and used drugs.