When D.C. resident Joanne Graham signed up in early 1984 for eight months of full-time training at The Academy of Business Careers, a secretarial school in downtown Washington, the school's handbook promised "training on the most modern equipment under the most advanced electronically assisted training systems."
Graham contends, however, that she did not receive training adequate to qualify her for the high-paying word-processing job that she said she understood would result from her course at the school. She is now working in a temporary clerical job.
The school, however, says its courses are designed to prepare students for entry-level jobs in word-processing, that it has not lead its students to believe it does more and that it fulfills its promised mission.
Graham was trained in word processing primarily on one model, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model IV, that was "the most advanced equipment available at the time," according to Marilyn Staab, the school's director of financial aid. Two months before Graham graduated from the eight-month course, the school added more equipment to its training arsenal, including five IBM, Wang and Lanier personal computers, according to school officials. Since then it has added 24 Leading Edge personal computers, IBM-compatible machines that school officials said have upgraded the quality of training.
Graham said that although she received some training on the newer equipment, it arrived too late for her to receive the kind of training she expected.
"We never promised IBMs. We never promised Laniers. We never promised Leading Edges," said Tommy Larue Decker, the academy's president. Another school official said the school offered free brush-up classes for students after their term ended to give them more training and practice time but that few took advantage of the opportunity.
Both school officials and students said that several improvements have been made at the school since Graham's class graduated, including the addition of newer equipment.
The Academy of Business Careers has offices in buildings at 825 15th St. NW and 1400 I St. NW and another school with the same name in Woodbridge, N.J. It is a subsidiary of the privately held Roseland, N.J., firm of Doerner & Goldberg, a court reporting agency, according to Decker. Decker is president of both the Washington and Woodbridge branches of the academy.
When the academy opened its Washington branch in January 1984, it was faced with the same challenge that many of its competitors had: providing enough high-cost computer equipment to teach its students skills marketable in today's automated workplace.
Graham was one of the students during the school's first year, during which there were some difficulties, school officials said. Graham was one of only 28 of an original class of 105 students who completed the course that ended November 1984, according to the school. School administrators say that the current dropout rate is only 36 percent. The school starts a class of students every two months in its eight-month day program and also runs an 11 1/2-month night school. Most of its students receive a part of their financing from student loans or grants.
Graham is one of several students from the school's earliest classes who wrote letters of complaint, which Graham has collected. Two students have complained to the Better Business Bureau. Some also have complained to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, according to the department's spokeswoman, Lucenia Dunn. The complaints center on the type of equipment and what the students said was insufficient training.
According to the school's director of education, Margaret Wright, the academy is not designed to teach advanced word processing and does not promise otherwise, despite its new equipment. "It does prepare one to get the entry-level position," she said. The school handbook, redesigned since last year, now reads, "Our curriculum has been developed to provide you with the technical skills necessary to obtain entry-level positions in your chosen field."
Wright added that many of the school's students need basic training to get a job because their education and business backgrounds were often limited. "This is an inner-city school," she said. The students are "making a transfer from an unstructured to a structured environment, which can be traumatic," she said.
Wright also noted that secretarial and technical schools like the academy can have very high staff turnover. She said that since the school opened, it has fired five teachers, and eight more have quit for a variety of reasons. It now has 21 teachers, two of whom teach part-time, Decker said.
Graham said that she and other students tried to make school officials aware of their complaints; officials, however, said they were initially unaware of the extent of those complaints. The Washington Better Business Bureau said that it was unable to get a response from the school on one student complaint, although the school did respond to a second. Decker said she was not aware of the first Better Business Bureau complaint but would respond to it.
School administrators met with five graduates in July. The students were seeking a refund of their tuition. But contact broke off after the meeting, according to both the school and the students. Decker said that the school was willing to offer additional classes and training but not to refund tuition because it feels it delivered on its promises to students.
Current students are mixed in their views of the school.
Niceta Pound said that she has been completely satisfied with her education at the academy. She is learning word processing on the Leading Edge machines, and the school found her a part-time job in which she can use her new word-processing skills. Her typing speed has increased from 25 words per minute to 50, she said.
"They offered me a chance to move ahead," Pound said.
James McBryde, 25, who served as president of the student government and will graduate from the academy this month, said that he orginally had been drawn to the school by the glassed-in typing and computer rooms as well as the $9.50 an hour that he says the admissions office told him he would make as a word processor once he graduated.
"The academy can work . . . ," said McBryde. "It's just got to get on the ball."
"No matter what technical school you go to, there will be problems," said Michael Monroe, another current student, who added that he has been learning useful skills, including word processing on the Leading Edge computers. He said that he feels that the school has become much more organized in recent months. "I really came in at the end of the drought," he said.
The school helped him get his current job as a clerical aide and messenger at the Office of Personnel Management. He said is searching for a better job to start after his graduation from the academy in October.
Former student Loretta Douglas went to the academy to become a word processor, but said that when she graduated in one of the school's earlier classes, she didn't have enough skills to apply for the type of job she had hoped for. Douglas, who said she can now type about 50 words per minute and process on a TRS-80, contended that there was too much staff turnover and that the machines used for training were inadequate. She said she has decided not to apply for a word-processing job and continues to work at the same job she had before attending school -- cleaning offices part time.