D.C. charter schools still play by their own rules on the basketball court

By Josh Barr and Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 19, 2010; D10

Toward the end of his sophomore year at Randallstown High in suburban Baltimore two years ago, Brandon Young started looking for a new school. He had been a reserve guard on a successful team that regularly contended for a state title, but with the coach leaving and Young struggling academically, he was hoping for a fresh start.

Upon the suggestion of his travel team coach, Young drove to Washington to work out for Clinton Crouch, the coach of Friendship Collegiate, a D.C. public charter school. Young had never heard of Friendship and, as a student living outside of the District, should not have been allowed to attend the school without paying more than $10,000 in tuition.

But as Young and his mother found out, where he lived mattered less than whether he could play.

"He had to go out and perform for him [Crouch] to see if he really could do what he said he could do," said Tracey Bailey, Young's mother, with whom he lived while attending Randallstown.

At most of the District's charter schools, sports are little more than an afterthought. However, a few are seeking to use athletics to increase their enrollments and raise their profiles, and with little to no oversight, they are able to skirt residency and eligibility rules that govern other high schools in the area.

Introduced in 1997 to expand families' educational options in the District, charter schools have doubled in enrollment over the past four years, and according to enrollment figures released by D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Public Charter School Board, 38 percent of those receiving public education in the city are in charter schools. D.C. charter schools received $8,770 in public funds for each student this academic year; non-residents wishing to attend could pay $10,377 in tuition for the 2009-10 school year.

Like several players who previously lived in Maryland and now play basketball at Friendship and the Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers, Young took action to attempt to satisfy the residency requirement. Some players moved in with relatives or friends in the District and use their residences as home addresses. Young moved in with Crouch and his wife in Landover.

Neither tactic adequately satisfies the District's residency requirements -- students must live with a parent or legal guardian who pays taxes in the District -- but because schools such as Friendship, KIMA and Cesar Chavez are operating their boys' basketball teams as independents, they are free from restrictions from any central authority. Residency is just one issue; some rosters include players competing in their fifth high school season.

"Even though public charters are public schools, we operate like private schools. We make our own rules," said KIMA Coach Levet Brown, whose team is part of an eight-team tournament starting Saturday on the campus of Gallaudet University that includes public schools such as Friendship and Chavez, as well as private schools, such as Princeton Day and Progressive Christian.

Maryland imports

City auditors are supposed to annually inspect public school enrollments to ensure that students live with tax-paying parents or guardians, but an examination of the Friendship (24-5) and KIMA (30-10) rosters showed many players who previously lived in Maryland with their parents but moved to attend the D.C. charter schools. It also revealed players whose eligibility had expired, according to guidelines of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and DCPS.

All of the nine players who see significant court time for KIMA's varsity previously attended a public or private school in Maryland, including five who previously went to school in Baltimore. Four players said they moved from one parent's house to the other so that they could live in Washington and attend KIMA. Senior guard Jada Johnson moved in with his grandmother, who in turn told him about the school. Junior forward Juwan Newman, whose mother lives in Baltimore, often stays with Brown, who lives in Howard County, or one of the team's assistant coaches.

Nearly all of Friendship's players attended other schools before transferring, including seven who previously attended schools in Prince George's County. Five players repeated an academic year after transferring to Friendship. Chavez, which became an independent before this season, brought back its star player after he was named one of the Washington Charter School Athletic Association's players of the year in 2008-09 -- as a senior.

-- KIMA guard Vince Roux is in his fifth season of high school athletics, which would violate the basic tenets for athletic eligibility in most state high school associations, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs athletics in D.C. public schools. Roux played on the freshman and junior varsity teams during his two years at Carroll, played one season at Northwood in Silver Spring and is in his second season playing at KIMA.

Brown said he was unaware of this and initially planned to kick the player off the team. Subsequently, however, Brown said KIMA's guidelines state that playing on a freshman team does not count as a year of high school athletics. State high school associations, including the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and the Virginia High School League, make no such exceptions.

-- Friendship guard Curtis Symonds Jr. spent two years at St. John's, one at Paul VI Catholic and last year at his neighborhood public school, McLean in Fairfax County. He began this school year at McLean but started searching for a new school after the VHSL denied a waiver that would have allowed him to play this season. Symonds was eligible to play at Friendship and took an unusual route to satisfy the residency requirements: His father said he transferred legal guardianship of Curtis Jr. to his 28-year-old son, Demetrius, who lives in the District.

"My son had to be a resident," said Curtis Symonds Sr., former chief operating officer of the Washington Mystics and owner of a popular gymnasium in Chantilly. "So I signed off on [Demetrius] as his legal guardian. I wanted to make sure I took the right steps."

-- Cesar Chavez's Markee Mazyck, the WCSAA's West Division player of the year in 2008-09 as a senior, returned to play this year after the Chavez boys' team decided to play as an independent. Chavez Athletic Director Ernesto Natera brought the team's roster to the DCIAA for sanctioning, along with Mazyck's transcript. The transcript showed that while Mazyck was about to play his fifth season of high school basketball, he was not going to turn 19 until August 2010. Patricia Briscoe, the DCIAA assistant director of athletics, agreed to sanction the Chavez program, thus allowing it to compete against area teams. Natera paid the $100 fee required by the DCIAA.

"That's the funny thing about it," Natera said. "There was no true form I had to fill out. They didn't check up on me [after the fact]. I don't think there was anything legit about it."

Sanctioning stipulates that, " 'We agree to follow the rules of the NFHS,' and that's pretty much it," said Marcus Ellis, the executive director of the DCIAA since last August. "That's why we have to police our own leagues. . . . When it comes to charter schools, I can only police what's been brought to my attention. No one has come to me since I've been in this job."

Before transferring to Friendship, several players said, they understood they had to live in the District to go to the school.

"My coach told me that," said senior forward Kris Harris, who attended Surrattsville for three years but moved in with a relative and is now in his second year at Friendship. "We sat down with my mother and she said, 'He has an uncle who lives there so he can live with them.' "

Knights draw attention

Founded in 2000 and located across the street from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Northeast, Friendship Collegiate is the largest charter high school in the city, with an enrollment of more than 1,200 in grades 9 through 12. Despite operating out of a converted middle school with a small gymnasium and no football field, Friendship has established the most recognizable athletic program among D.C.'s 16 charter high schools, thanks to its success in the two highest profile sports: football and boys' basketball.

"They are a critical point of what we are as an organization," Friendship Chairman Donald L. Hense said of his sports teams. "They are also a major advertisement for the school. You get not only the players, but you get the kids who think the school is a winner, and they want to be associated with a winner."

When Friendship played KIMA late last month in what amounted to an unofficial charter school championship game, the bleachers were packed. George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga and one of his assistant coaches were crammed in the tiny gymnasium, along with coaches from Virginia Tech and Maryland-Eastern Shore. There was plenty of top talent on the floor.

Young, now 6 feet 4, this past fall signed a letter-of-intent to play for DePaul, though he is reconsidering that commitment after the school fired its coach during the season. KIMA featured forward Jonathan Arledge, who has signed with George Mason, and center Eugene McCrory, who transferred from Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax. McCrory recently committed to play for Seton Hall.

Crouch, in his fourth season as the coach at Friendship Collegiate, and Brown, in his third season at KIMA, said they modeled their programs after private schools such as Montrose Christian, National Christian and Riverdale Baptist. All of those schools have successful teams that compete as independents. The difference: private schools are not publicly funded and have no residency requirements.

The loaded rosters -- and the skirting of the D.C. residency requirement -- took some charter school administrators by surprise.

"You can't do that," said Friendship chairman Donald L. Hense, for whom the school's gymnasium is named. "I know we're popular, and you have no control over it, but we're audited every year. You have to live in D.C."

Said Thomas A. Nida, who stepped down last month after six years as chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board: "No, no, no. You can't stack the deck."

Said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), the chair of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation: "Right now, [some charter schools] have an independent mind-set -- getting their own games, making their own rules. They've got to change and be a part of a league and not follow their own lead."

The DCIAA has no oversight or enforcement role with charter school athletics. The Washington Charter School Athletic Association, a 501(c)(3) started in 2002, is the only attempt to bring the schools under one umbrella -- though Friendship, KIMA and Chavez have opted not to compete in the boys' basketball league.

Don Cole, 44, a commercial real estate agent who is not employed by any charter school, started the WCSAA and still runs it with his wife, Pam. Cole acknowledged managing the schools has grown increasingly difficult. He said he has made overtures to the charter school board offices, but has been rebuffed.

Cole told The Post before the season that he believed Friendship and KIMA had failed to learn the lessons of Marriott Hospitality Public Charter School, which a Post investigation in 2004 found to be using fifth-year players, players who were too old and players who were not District residents.

"Nonleague charter schools do not have any oversight and do whatever they consider to be appropriate," Cole wrote in an e-mail exchange with KIMA administrators that was forwarded to The Post. "When people move away from the league, they're saying, 'We don't want to follow any guidelines, we just want to be mavericks.' "

Friendship and KIMA officials said Cole's views are colored by his displeasure that their teams -- generally considered the top charter athletic programs -- had withdrawn from the WCSAA.

Brown has not put his team in the league since Cole suspended the Hawks during the 2005-06 season, when KIMA skipped league games to play outside opponents, played more than the league limit of 25 games, and had a player who had been in high school for more than eight semesters.

"Why aren't we in the league? There is no league," Brown said. "We're not going to be in it until you fix up the league."

During a teleconference last year with Josephine Baker, executive director for the board, Cole said he tried to emphasize the need for the board's oversight of charter school athletics.

"She said they're not in the business of overseeing athletics, which I think is a mistake," Cole said. "She said if I knew of a student who lives in Maryland and plays at a charter school to tell us. But they have the records."

Baker has declined repeated requests through a spokesperson to comment. Nida said that athletics might be something the board starts to monitor.

"If there is enough of that activity, then that could be an extension of our oversight," Nida said. "It depends upon our resources. If enough schools are willing to pay an administrative fee for it, then it would be something we would consider."

Ellis, who stressed he feels a strong obligation to improve athletics within DCPS before addressing the charter school issue, said combining the DCIAA and charter schools under one entity "would be quite a task. I don't even know what the infrastructure would be. . . . [But] it's a conversation that has to be had."

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