By Tommy A. Purvis
At a Victorville charter school, critics say cheating on tests, extravagant spending and questionable academics are part of the curriculum
Most of the tweets about Excelsior Public Charter School in the High Desert with the hashtag ExcelsiorProblems are about far more than typical hormone-induced drama on the 7th-12th grade campus. The award winning charter school—a tuition-free, typically non-union, non-religious, publicly funded school that skirts most of the California Education Code provisions to manage curriculum and budgets—is known in some social media circles for big spending and the easy access students have to answer keys and schoolwork samples. Still, Excelsior won a bronze medal in the current U.S. News and World Report rankings for being one of the “Best High Schools in America” for the second time in the past four years.
But, records show, graduates from the charter school are remarkably unprepared for college. To even enlist in the military, recruits must first complete 12 units at Victor Valley College. The superintendent’s office—Michael R. Hayhurst and his assistant William Flynn—continues to take advantage of the California Charter School Act to manipulate textbooks and fix student demographic analysis in a slush fund business model that looks to be the future of public education.
“We deserve to be heard”
As Excelsior Eagles continue to fall behind in academics, frustrated parents and jaded students took to Facebook and Twitter to drop the dime on the quality of the charter school education they were receiving.
On April Fools’ Day, the Excelsior Parent Union Facebook page was made by a group of anonymous parents to spark a dialogue about finances and academics among other pertinent issues on campus. A treasure trove of documents from the Executive Governing Board was posted for public consumption to encourage discussion. The parents who chose to remain anonymous out of fear of blowback to their children posted this statement: “We deserve to be heard and our concerns should be taken seriously.”
“Hayhurst views our children as dollar signs,” says a parent that was instrumental in creating the Facebook page to expose the Excelsior misconduct. “[Hayhurst’s] answer to everything is that if parents don’t like things at Excelsior they have options for other schools.”
Students have also been using social media (#ExcelselsiorProblems) to raise red flags about campus conduct. An Instagram from Twitter user @wheel_u_uhm near the end of last school year was a note from the red pen of facilitator Diana Wright on an Excelsior pad. It read, “William was playing the guitar for tips in the quad—please excuse him for being late to math.” Excelsior student and Twitter user @Jay_Reezyy80left the tweet: “#IGoToASchool where everybody cheats on there [sic] homework.” Another tweet: “#ThingsISAYDuringSchool can I copy your packet?”
Go to twitter.com/excelsiorprobz and you’ll see the following note of explanation—and perhaps encouragement: “For all whose who currently go to or have gone to Excelsior, let it out. We know what it’s like!”
User @SammieHernandez tweeted: “#Everyonehasthat1freind that you can count on to copy packets from. And pass unit tests for you.” User @sallyjayy_ tweeted: “What Excelsior kids mean by ‘I’m doing homework’ with a picture of an answer book for the 5122 Economics class.”
Plus, the final tweet: “#seniorconfessionhour I don’t know how to study for a test, how to write a paper and what are finals? #excelsiorproblems #screwedforcollege.”
A Beleaguered District
In 2010 the California Charter School Association (CCSA) announced the largest one-year growth of new charter schools in the nation.
“This is an extraordinary time in the history of charter schools in California, as we are seeing unparalleled growth as the result of parents and communities clamoring for more choices,” Jed Wallace, the president and CEO of the CCSA, said in a press release. The Sacramento-based firm that lobbies for charter schools made the announcement as the content friendly documentary film Waiting for “Superman”—which purports to analyze the failures of America’s public schools—kept a lure on audiences across the nation. “We have surpassed expectations, and it’s a clear sign of the change in the education landscape our state is experiencing.”
Statewide there are currently 982 charter schools with 412,000 students due to the nearly 20-year old California Charter School Act. Five of the 115 new charter schools that opened their doors here in California a few years ago were in San Bernardino County. Oxford Preparatory Academy in the Chino Valley Unified School District was granted a charter and the rest—Garden Virtual Academy of California, Crown Ridge Academy, Excel Prep Academy and Hardy Brown College Prep—were all established in the San Bernardino Unified School District (SBUSD).
The increasingly beleaguered SBUSD is the center of the charter school movement in Inland Empire. In fact, 12 of the 34 current charter schools that operate in the San Bernardino County fall inside SBUSD’s boundaries. New Orleans Public Schools is the only district in the nation where the majority of students go to charter schools as part of the larger Recovery School District of Louisiana.
Keys to Success
The latest Score Accountability Report Card (SARC) for Excelsior’s 2010-11 school year, released in January, is the result of the The Classroom Instructional Improvement and Accountability Act from the ‘80s. The act—also known as Proposition 98—is an effort to guarantee accountability for tax dollars spent on public education through a snapshot that compares schools’ numbers in the district and statewide. It requires that “excess state funds be used directly for classroom instructional improvement by providing for additional instructional materials and reducing class sizes.”
Information on school finances, demographics and educational achievement contained within Excelsior’s 25-page executive summary account for the 62 teachers or “facilitators” with full credentials—and the seven without—responsible for the 1,244 students that make up the school. Most of the students attend class at the main facility in Victorville—on the campus of Victor Valley College—in a brand-new state-of-the-art 87,000 square foot building that cost $35 million to build. There are also two small satellite school sites in nearby Barstow and Phelan.
The mission statement and purpose in the report reveal an educational plan known as the “House of Excelsior.” A three-fold process to “prepare students to be successful adults” through a personal life plan that blends classroom, independent study and online classes. Teamwork, enthusiasm, communication, integrity, compassion and commitment are listed as keys to success. But if test scores and college admission data are indicators of progress, then the keys of success for Excelsior’s students could be simply measured by how they’ve mastered the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“Expenditures Per Pupil” at Excelsior—money that is not controlled by law or donor except for general guidelines—shows that an average of $5,812 was spent on each student. The amount is substantially more than the $4,284 spent per pupil for Victor Valley Union High School District’s non-charter students and also above the state average of $5,455 with far less success. The average pay for “facilitators” at Excelsior is $51,031, or about $13,000 less than the average teacher in the same district.
Superintendent Hayhurst—a retired Barstow police officer that moonlights as a rodeo clown—is paid $175,000 per year. Executive Assistant Lynn Micken makes $300 per hour, according to financial documents.
In 2008, the Victor Valley Union High School District approved a new charter for Excelsior that eliminated parent representatives and incorporated the charter school as a California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation with a tax-exempt status for social welfare purposes.
Additionally, Excelsior pays CCSA $35,000 in annual dues.
The Weekly made several efforts to interview Hayhurst for this story—Excelsior staff told us, on one occasion, that the superintendent was preparing for a conference in Minneapolis. On another occasion, the Weekly was told Hayhurst was on vacation. Several email inquiries regarding Excelsior’s finances were not returned, too.
The dashboard metrics the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has on file to sort students by race and ethnicity at Excelsior shows an odd trend. The “White” student population on campus took a steep drop from being nearly half of the student population in 2007 to only four percent, or 54 students, last school year. The student enrollment numbers in the Excelsior SARC also show a downward spiral of “White” student enrollment during the same time frame with similar numbers. Either of these data sets can be visibly confirmed as being suspicious if one watches students stream out of campus at the end of the school day.
An anomaly can also be found in the “Graduates by Ethnicity” data for Excelsior in the Educational Demographics Unit of the California Department of Education files. Out of last year’s 227 Excelsior graduates, only 12 were listed as being “White, non Hispanic.” The ethnicity of another 141 were “Not Reported.” In comparison, out of Victor Valley Union High School District’s graduation class of 2,115 persons for the same year, only 12 graduate ethnicities were “Not Reported”—and that’s from a total of six other institutions.
Criteria for U.S. News and World Report’s “Best High Schools in America” rankings take into consideration minority enrollment and scores from state exit exams. The grants and loans that charter schools get can also be based on enrollment of minority students in the name of closing the ever-widening achievement gap. In other words, the more minority students a school can claim on paper, the more benefits—money, grants, prestige—a school can get.
Ready for College?
The Excelsior shot callers are rather proud of the 762 score from the most recent state Academic Performance Index (API) results. The total is 38 points short of the California goal used to measure performance and growth of schools on a variety of subjects.
The Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) results were far less impressive. Of the entire student body, 55 percent of the students were found to be proficient and above for their grade in English-Language Arts. The rest of the results went down from there with 46 percent of the same students to be found proficient in Science, and 38 percent in History-Social Science and 23 percent in Mathematics.
Both the SARC and the Victor Valley Union High School District report that while 80 percent of students graduate from Excelsior—none of them have completed the core requirement of classes to enter the California State University system. Of the four charter high schools in the district only Options for Youth reports any numbers in the category with 90 graduates ready for college compared to 342 graduates in the non-charter schools in the rest of the district. There were 32 students at Excelsior that were able to finish a career technical program along with their diploma.
The administration boast of having had a valedictorian who was able to graduate with a year and a half worth of college credit and move on to Stanford could not be verified by the Weekly.
A new report released last week from the the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University claims students in charter schools are not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.
The Excelsior Governing Board has approved 14 conferences for Excelsior higher-ups at cost of $120,000 since last October. Assistant Superintendent Bill Flynn and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Alicia Anderson went to Harvard Negotiation Training for $8,000 in April. The dates of the events often coincide with expensive dinners and other extravagant spending on corporate credit card statements. The Excelsior Leadership Team had a $1,500 feast at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Palm Desert last December as part of a planning workshop in Palm Springs.
Mitt Romney’s former education policy advisor turned president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools was a keynote speaker at the end-of-the-year conference for Excelsior managers. The corporate sponsors for the four-day event in Minneapolis—the birthplace of the charter school movement—include investment bank and management firm Piper Jaffray and Charter School Capital. Workshops and seminars included the topics Replicating Success: Elements of Success Replication and Key Financial Metrics for Charter Schools.
The out-of-control spending and bland conference topics should be of concern for taxpayers and parents of struggling students looking for educational options. Sources tell the Weekly that Excelsior’s Governing Board is looking to expand their business model down the hill to San Bernardino or Upland.