But school leaders say the former employees’ portrayal of Ingenuity Prep is inaccurate, and they insist that students are safe on campus.
The charter board, which oversees the city’s 123 publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, said it is auditing special-ed services at the school.
The board said it has received seven complaints from Ingenuity Prep families this academic year.
“Since learning about the allegations, [the charter board] has sent staff to inspect the school,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter board. “We met with their senior leadership and will conduct a special-education audit.”
Candace Davis, a former vice principal at Ingenuity Prep, told the charter board that special-ed services at the school are not being administered properly. She said some students are constantly crying and distressed, and some children run through the halls unattended. One small child was able to slip out of the school building, she said.
Davis and the three other vice principals were fired Nov. 1. The four administrators led an academy at the school that serves kindergartners and first- and second-graders. The principal of the academy was terminated as well.
“I am here with other former leaders to give voice to the students who are currently suffering in an unsafe and toxic learning environment,” Davis said at the charter board meeting. “We would like to provide an outline of our experiences this school year with the hopes that you will investigate the practices that are negatively impacting the immediate safety and long-term well-being of the Ingenuity Prep community.”
Peter Winik, chair of Ingenuity Prep’s board, and Will Stoetzer, the school’s founder and chief executive, said the former administrators started at the campus’s K-2 academy at the beginning of the academic year. Since then, behavioral issues in the academy had worsened dramatically, and teacher satisfaction declined, they said.
They said that the school has ample staff and that two additional special-ed employees are being hired.
More than 20 percent of Ingenuity Prep students require special-ed services. Sixty-five percent of Ingenuity Prep students are defined as at risk, which means they are homeless, in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance.
Stoetzer said the school made changes to special-ed services this academic year. The school moved many students with significant special-ed needs from smaller, contained classrooms to mainstream classes. School leaders said they hired an additional administrator ahead of this change. Still, they said, it proved challenging, but they think it is best for the students.
“The school is healthy across the board, and in this one academy, we weren’t living up to our expectations,” Winik said. “We made a leadership change and we have already started to snap back, and we are well on our way to meeting our standards.”
The dismissed administrators said there were not enough properly trained teachers to transition students with special needs to larger classrooms.
Stoetzer and Winik confirmed that the administrators were dismissed Nov. 1.
The administrators were required to sign a contract stating that they would not “disparage or criticize” Ingenuity Prep if they wanted to collect severance pay. They opted not to sign the contract.
Several charter schools in the District require employees to sign similar agreements.
“We always wanted what was best for students, and we want to ensure that no matter what, the students receive the support and services needed,” said Aiyana Belguda, former vice principal of special education at Ingenuity. “We wanted to put students first.”
Ingenuity Prep was founded in 2013 as a “no-excuse” model charter school, a type of campus that typically serves students from low-income families. Those schools are often characterized by an insistence that students adhere to discipline policies.
But in recent years, Stoetzer said the school has moved away from that model and taken a less punitive approach, hoping to address the root cause of any behavior issues. He said suspensions have dropped and reenrollment rates have increased.
The school previously had a designated room where disruptive students were secluded while being monitored, but Stoetzer said he got rid of the room this academic year.
Ingenuity Prep — in the Washington Highlands neighborhood near the Maryland border — uses a blended learning model, which means students use online programs for part of the day and are often pulled into smaller groups with teachers for individual attention.
Students who are struggling or need a break are sent to a small room with toys and furniture where a behavioral specialist provides supervision.
The school performs near city averages on the English portion of standardized tests. On math, it scores slightly above average. Special-ed students at Ingenuity perform below citywide averages when compared with other students with special-ed needs. Students who are considered at risk scored well above city averages for at-risk students in math and English on the standardized exams.
According to city data, teachers at Ingenuity are generally less experienced than employees at other schools. Forty percent of the teachers have one year or less of experience. Fifty-four percent of teachers have between two and five years of experience.