To throw someone under the bus is usually an abstract metaphor. On Tuesday, it was as visible a reality as it comes, short of an actual bus running over victims.
When Heritage Academy’s top staff, some of its teachers and some of its students appeared before the Flagler County School Board in a formal hearing to argue against the board’s revocation of the school’s charter, the academy’s CEO, Doug Jackson, was absent. His second-in-command—his son and COO—was absent, though both emblazon the school’s website with their pictures, ahead of the school’s staff. Not a single member of their board was present. They all left the task of defending the school to Cynthia Erickson, the dean of students, with Nicole Richards, the latest in a long string of principals, as the school’s chief witness, aside from two parents and three students.
That left Colleen Conklin, the only school board member willing to give Heritage another chance at saving itself, stunned. “Governance of the school is a real issue,” Conklin said. “We are having a hearing about the future of this school, and not one board of director, not one member, is here, to defend their organization and their school, which I just absolutely, if I was a parent, a teacher, an administrator, I can only imagine your level of frustration, because I feel frustrated with that lack of support being there for you.”
She might as well have been making the prosecution’s closing argument, because the issues with Heritage’s governance aren’t new: it has suffered from poor oversight from its board, bad turnover and inconsistent involvement from its parent company’s executives for most of the eight years it’s been around, in one guise or another.
Still, Conklin tried to save I and floated a motion, after more than six hours into the hearing, to compel Heritage to restructure its board, and to wait until June, when FCAT scores come out, to see whether those scores improve, or warrant sealing Heritage’s fate. Conklin’s motion did not get a second.
Board member Trevor Tucker followed it with a motion of his own, what amounted to his very first words all day (he had not asked any questions of the witnesses). “I move that we shut down Heritage Academy,” Tucker said. The motion was seconded by Andy Dance. It passed, 4-1, with Conklin in dissent.
On Jan. 12, the Flagler County School Board voted to close Heritage Academy, the Bunnell pre-K-12 charter school that got two failing grades in the last two years. Heritage serves 180 students. It is one of the county’s three charter schools—privately run but with public tax dollars. The district board charters the schools, and has the power to revoke that charter when the schools don’t meet certain criteria. Heritage’s is the first planned revocation in Flagler County. The school has the right of appeal, and on Tuesday morning, made its case in a hearing before the school board.
The hearing unfolded just like a trial: Heritage and the school district each had their witnesses. Shawn Schmidli, the district’s director of assessment and accountability, prosecuted the case. Cynthia Erickson defended. Board members asked their own questions. Then deliberated. Then made their decision.
“Any growth is good growth,” Dance said, “is not a healthy attitude to have.” He was citing words Richards had used, and that were repeatedly used against her through the day by the prosecution.
Heritage had started its defense by bringing out five witnesses—two parents and three students—who provided anecdotal and emotional rather than hard evidence. Then Richards took the stand in the longest testimony of the day, interpreting students’ learning gains differently (and more favorably) than the district did, though she conceded that, for example, in math, gains fell short of what was required, but described added emphasis on math tutoring and other means of improving those standards. Richards also cast doubt on the way the district compared grades (comparing different group’s of students) as opposed to the school’s own more accurate way of “graphing the same students” as they progress, in Erickson’s words. Richards also pointed out learning gains in some categories that rivaled other schools’.
But the criteria Richards was using were not the state’s criteria. In other words, Heritage had its own definition of learning gains, separate from the state’s. And when asked by Schmidli if she was familiar with one of those state definitions, Richards said no. The district’s strategy in sum was to show not only the disparity between what some students said of their experiences at Heritage and what the actual overall academic achievement numbers show, but to show the disparity between the way Heritage defines achievement, and the way the state and the district does.
“My definition of learning gain is any type of learning gain,” Richards said. The district had a different definition. Using different baselines than those Heritage provided, for example, Schmidli asked, “is it fair to say that students are not really improving much, on their performance matters?” Richards described it as “slow progress.”
“How do you get past to bringing down the standards to any growth is good growth when the standards are much higher than that?” Dance said during Richard’s testimony. Richards replied that goals are set to meet standards, but that any improvements are taken into account. Dance was unconvinced: “It seems like the philosophy is settling for any growth is good growth.”
“Not all of our students are going to meet the standards. That’s the type of students we have,” Richards said. Board members were not convinced.
During the parent and student portion of the testimonies, Aaron Rushing, a Heritage parent, spoke about homeschooling his children, then discovered that “our homeschooling efforts were drastically lacking.” He said he looked for a small school that wouldn’t overwhelm his children. “Heritage fit that bill perfect, it was like a godsend,” he said.
“Would you say that it is in your best interest that you would want the best academically for your children?” Schmidli asked.
“Absolutely,” he said, but “it would be a very sad thing to do,” he continued, if that meant sending his children to another charter or non-charter school. Schmidli and a board member asked him if he was aware of the two failing grades Heritage got in the last two years.
“They haven’t failed in my regard,” Rushing said, referring to his children.
Cheryl Trujillo has one child at Heritage. She started out at Bunnell Elementary. Because of divorce, Trujillo was looking for a smaller school “where I could have a lot of eyes on her.” At Bunnell, there were some bullying issues in VPK, so she took her to Heritage. She spoke of dismal experiences with the school district itself when it came to seeking out a counselor or a psychologist, as opposed to the “one on one hand-holding” that she received at Heritage. Absent that opportunity, she said, Trujillo would have to home-school or look for grants to send her child to private school.
The hearing began at 9:30 a.m. Just after 4 p.m., the two sides made their closing arguments. “We are raising student achievement every day, in every way,” Erickson said, using the district’s own mottos and asking that the district allows the charter to finish out the year (which it will), examine the FCAT scores, and only then make its decision on the charter. “You may have the right to cancel the charter, but is it the right thing to do?” she asked, in more of a statement than a question.
Schmidli’s summation was simple, too: “Although we’d have liked to have seen the school succeed, the evidence clearly shows that the students are not achieving high standards at Heritage Academy.” He, too, asked, in an effective retort against the school’s emotional witnesses, whether it was better for students to leave a school happy, or to leave it well equipped to take on a global economy.