"Come with me. We'll journey into the future," said the resonant voice of the announcer in the Lacaze-Gardner school television commercial, as electronic music swelled in the background. "You're at your desk as a business manager or an accountant. You're a key-punch operator or a radio-television service person . . ."
When Ilse Murphy, a resident of Northwest Washington, heard that ad last January, she said, she was so impressed that she immediately sent her unemployed 19-year-old son Robert to the school to obtain more information about its job training programs.
"All I wanted my son to do was go down and get some information about the school," Mrs. Murphy said. "But when he returned home, he told me they had signed him up and that he was scheduled to start keypunch classes."
Ilse Murphy said she reluctantly agreed for her son to attend the school. She said admissions officials had promised that the full $2,900 tuition would be paid with various kinds of federal student aid funds.
But six months later, Robert Murphy said, he discovered that that total cost of his nine-month education would be $4,200, including principal, interest and such other costs as books.
Murphy, who said he and the school already were involved in a dispute over the selection of classes he was given, dropped out last June and filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection.
Murphy's complaint is one of about a dozen on file with the consumer office in which Lacaze-Gardner students and their parents allege that they were attracted to the school by slick radio and television advertising, but later found themselves tangled in a maze of financial and legal problems.
Daniel Grossman, owner of Lacaze-Gardner, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Lacaze-Gardner School, which is under investigation by the U.S. Office of Education and the FBI for alleged abuse of federal student financial aid programs, announced last week that it will not accept additional students at its downtown Washington office and will close next July.
The school, located at 710 14th St. NW, has an enrollment of 900 students, primarily drawn from inner-city Washington. Nearly 50 percent of all Lacaze-Gardner student pay their tuition of $2,900 with federal grants and loans. And the dropout ate is 80 percent, according to Office of Education estimates.
A former Lacaze-Gardner salesman said in The Washington Post last week that he often asked students to sign forms and contracts for financial aid that went into the school's coffers after the students dropped out.
Candida Butler, 25, who lives in Southeast Washington on welfare with her two small girls, said she was told to sign a stack of blank forms during her first day at Lacaze-Gardner.
She said she signed several contracts as she was instructed and later realized she had borrowed $1,300 from the school at 18 percent interest.
On another loan form, Butler said, she signed her name on an otherwise blank federal student loan contract and indicated she wanted to borrow $300. She said the next time she saw the form, the $300 had been erased and someone had written in $2,000.
Hazel Rouse, 41, of Mount Rainier, the mother of six, said she enrolled at the Lacaze-Gardner School of Business last February to complete requirements for her high school diploma so that she could get a better job.
She graduated on Oct. 26, but not before she said she sued the school in D. C. Superior Court over what she said was an attempt to force her to borrow $500 at 18 percent interest to help pay her tuition.
"I was shocked when I went down to Lacaze for the first time and they told me the tuition was $2,900 for nine months," Mrs. Rouse said. "But I decided to pay it because I needed some basic math and English courses. The school was close to where I work and the sales rep told me I could get a federal grant."
Rouse, a clerical worker for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., said the school failed to submit her federal student grant application on time last March. Rouse said that when the school did not receive the initial $500 installment of the grant, she was charged the $500 and told the school would lend her the money at 18 percent interest.
Rouse said she filed a suit against the school in the small claims division of the D.C. superior Court demanding that she not be charged for the grant money that was never received.
The day before her case was to go to court, last June 6, she said, Lacaze-Gardner backed down from its demands that she either borrow the money or pay and agreed to erase the debt upon her graduation.
A spokesman for Lacaze-Gardner has said that Grossman feels 18 percent is a fair rate of interest on loans made to students by the school. In addition, Grossman has maintained that large numbers of Lacaze-Gardner graduates, and even dropouts, do find jobs, although he has declined to produce figures to document this. I got to Lacaze and found that the have complaints. Joan Mitchell, 26, who has been studying fachion merchandising at the school since last June 19, said she is getting a "great" education. She said students at Lacaze-Gardner are given an opportunity to "learn and accomplish something."
"Sure, I was a little suprised when I gott o Lacaze and found that the classrooms were not as pretty as they showed them on the commercial," Mitchell said. "But at Lacaze I'm learning something that will help me to go out and get a good job."
Mitchell, who lives on welfare, said she expect to graduate next March 30. Then she said she plans to get a job as a sales clerk at a local department store.