Family Foundations Academy doesn’t have a permanent, acting school leader, a new charter, or many reassurances about its future.
But it does have spirit.
Students performed chants, skits, and dance routines in support of their beleaguered charter school during a Thursday pep rally. Some wore eye black. Others recited poetry. All seemed giddy–perhaps at the prospect of supporting their school, or perhaps at the prospect of a free period.
The pageantry was meant to promote unity at a school reeling from accusations of mismanagement and dysfunction.
“That’s what school spirit is all about,”said Monique Dolcy, the school’s director of school climate. “Sometimes we need that extra boost.”
Family Foundations has been dangling in the bureaucratic breeze since last month, when the Delaware Department of Education declined to renew the school’s charter. Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said the department had become aware of allegations that the school mismanaged funds and needed more time to decide the school’s fate. The state now says it will rule on the school’s charter at its January 15 board meeting.
An independent forensic audit conducted in spring 2014 uncovered repeated misuses of a school credit card by Family Foundation’s co-leaders, Sean Moore and Dr. Tennell Brewington. Combined, the two spent roughly $94,000 on personal items. They paid for most of those expenses with the leftover funds from a loan that was intended to pay for two capital projects. The co-leaders have since been suspended for 90 days each.
The state says it did not receive the full contents of that audit until early December, after the state’s charter school accountability committee had recommended the school for renewal.
“The family is the best here”
Indeed, when the committee made that recommendation in November, Family Foundations seemed a safe bet to have its charter renewed. The school has met financial and academic standards in each of the past two school years.
The school’s test scores have also grown considerably over the last few years, going from below district average to slightly above. In 2013-14, for instance, 72.2 percent of Family Foundations’ students were deemed proficient on the English Language Arts portion of the state tests. Compare that to just 51.1 percent in 2010-11.
Teachers and parents attribute the growth to a family atmosphere that permeates the 825-student school. “The family is the best here,” said first-grade teacher Tracy Kohl. “When I first came here everybody was willing to help me, from the janitors to the lunch ladies.”
Henry Naylor, who sent three children through Family Foundations, lauded the school for its academics. During the public comment period at a recent school board meeting, he compared Family Foundations, which serves students K through 8, to a thriving pizzeria. “I come for the pizza,” he said. “I don’t care how they clean the floors.”
A distinct dilemma
That metaphor, in part, captures the distinct dilemma facing state officials who will authorize the school’s future. Unlike other Delaware charters threatened with closure, Family Foundations appears to be an academic success. And despite its high spending administrators, Family Foundations is in good financial standing.
School supporters insist that Family Foundations’ problems extend no further than the misdeeds of its co-leaders.
“Do not penalize the lives of many for the faults of a few,” said Patricia Brooks, the school’s satisfaction officer.
There are signs, however, that months of investigation have damaged the school climate. At a recent board meeting, several parents and teachers said they felt forced to side with either Moore and Brewington as facts crept out about the case.
“The morale is low,” said sixth-grader teacher Surell Holley. “It is low.”
Initially, only Brewington was suspended, even though the audit stated that Moore outspent Brewington. The school’s board said it penalized Brewington because she made personal expenditures on a state-issued purchase card, or “p-card,” after Family Foundations had instituted new internal financial controls.
That move, however, proved unpopular with some community members. One month later, Moore was placed on a 90-day personal leave.
With both co-leaders gone, the school promoted director of curriculum Amy Novosel to interim chief academic officer. She and her fellow administrators are now responsible for rallying the school community and proving to the department of education that Family Foundations can function and, eventually, thrive despite recent turmoil.
“Our teachers and our students are just flourishing,” Novosel said. “They’re growing year to year to year. They’re learning more and more. And they’re happy here. They want to stay.”
Meanwhile, parents are left wondering whether they need to find new schools for their children. The state will not decide on Family Foundations’ charter until January 15, one day after the state’s choice enrollment deadline passes.
The state sent a letter to Family Foundations parents in early January reminding them of that deadline, according to Alan Wohlstetter, a lawyer who is helping the school with its renewal. Wohlstetter then sent a letter back to the state saying he was “deeply concerned” about the letter and its potential to unsettle parents.
Department of education spokesperson Alison May has said the state can extend the enrollment period if it chooses to shutter Family Foundations.
That decision figures to be unlike any the department of education has faced in recent years. And it may well hinge on whether the school’s latest displays of solidarity trump whispers of dissension.