circling back

With board uninterested in principal's lies, little accountability for Urban Dove principal

When Chalkbeat reported in February that the leader of a transfer charter school in Brooklyn had been forced out of previous jobs in education for his dishonesty, some of the school’s board members seemed stunned.

“I’m very disturbed,” Urban Dove Team Charter School board member Patrick Fagan said then. “I’m not making any excuses. I’m at a loss for words.”

But the board of trustees is now carrying on business as usual, and the school’s principal, Lewis Thomas III, appears to have faced little further scrutiny from those who hired him and who hold the power to evaluate him.

“I understand that people in the past make mistakes, just like the students that we serve,” Fagan told Chalkbeat recently. “I want to get deeper into this. I can’t find the time out of my schedule.”

Fagan was speaking for himself, not the board, which has declined to comment on its hiring or vetting processes or to say whether it looked more deeply into Thomas’ past in the last two months. Teachers at the school said that the school’s founder, Jai Nanda, told the staff in a meeting that the board stood behind Thomas, and board members greeted Thomas warmly at their meeting this week.

In February, Chalkbeat reported that Thomas had been forced to resign as principal of a charter school in Ohio after telling elaborate lies about his past employment, including that he served as a senior adviser to Barack Obama. His exit was reported by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 2006.

Thomas was also fired from Phase 4 Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that operates alternative education centers in Pennsylvania, according to the organization’s CEO.

But those jobs are still alluded to and exaggerated on Urban Dove’s own website, which says Thomas served as “chief academic officer” at a charter school management company overseeing 15 schools—though Phase 4 says he was a regional director overseeing one site and sent him a cease-and-desist letter after he repeatedly inflated his job title in public.

The Urban Dove website also claims that Thomas was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for his leadership as a principal in 2006, though Thomas declined to provide any evidence of that award. His experience in the two years prior was being forced out of the Ohio charter school after four months in 2005 and, according to the Plain Dealer, spending just two months at a charter school in Washington, D.C. in 2004.

At the school’s board meeting this week, members were congratulatory as they discussed the school’s progress. Disciplinary incidents were down, and attendance was up from 66 to 73 percent, Thomas told the board members.

If they had any questions about Thomas’ leadership, they didn’t ask them at this week’s meeting—or answer them when asked by a reporter. “It’s not a forum for discourse back and forth,” board chair Michael Grandis said of the meeting.

One staff member said that teachers at the school were too focused on getting their students to come and stay at school to focus on the school leader’s continued bold claims of past employment. The school serves ninth and tenth graders who have accumulated so few credits that they are at risk of not graduating, and uses an innovative schedule focused on sports to keep students engaged.

“He told me he was a lawyer. Then he told me that he was a doctor,” said one staff member, who requested anonymity because they were told not to speak to reporters. In February, Fagan noted that Thomas’ résumé had included a line about being a member of a board of trustees at the University of Illinois—a claim he backed away from when questioned by Urban Dove.

But Fagan said he’s heard no recent complaints.

“No parent has reached out to me with a concern that their student is not being served,” Fagan said. “I have chosen personally, I will look into it after the school semester.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.