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19 charter schools to be investigated for years of misconduct
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19 charter schools to be investigated for years of misconduct

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 

Ex-teachers testify before state education board

The State Board of Education ordered an immediate investigation yesterday of a chain of 19 charter schools in response to sweeping allegations of test cheating, attendance tampering, improper sexual conduct and other misdeeds.

Four former teachers from the Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School in Dayton testified at the board’s monthly meeting in Columbus about years of questionable behavior, some saying they were afraid to come forward until they found new jobs.

One teacher said he made an earlier complaint to the Ohio Department of Education but had not heard back from agency officials. Another teacher said she filed an anonymous complaint with the agency.

“Your concerns have not fallen on deaf ears,” promised board President Debe Terhar of Cincinnati. “We hear you, and we will move forward with making sure this is investigated.”

Kellie Kochensparger, who taught at the school for three years before leaving last year, said one of the disturbing incidents she witnessed involved students suspended for having oral sex while other students watched. The incident occurred at a school festival and was caught on surveillance cameras.

“The school told parents the suspensions were handed out because the kids were outside of their assigned areas,” with no mention of the sexual activity, she said. “As a teacher and parent, when I questioned further, I was told that I ask too many questions and the situation was being handled."

Other allegations involved state standardized testing and social promotion.

Kochensparger said she was asked to make sure students completed all questions on the exam before allowing them to be turned in. When she told an administrator that it was not permitted and she would inquire of the Department of Education, she was forbidden from contacting the state.

“I know of one student who failed the seventh grade and then had to repeat the year with the agreement with (an administrator) that she would be promoted to the ninth grade if she passed seventh grade during the second attempt. She indeed completely skipped eighth grade and all associated curriculum,” Kochensparger said.

“I don’t think parents had any idea what was going on at the school. There was great emphasis on keeping parents happy, and there was a culture of intimidation intended to discourage teachers from doing anything that could adversely affect the school’s relationship with parents. Any teacher who asked too many questions was at risk of getting fired.”

Other teachers testified about empty classrooms and failure to follow standardized testing protocol, raising questions about attendance records and test results. In addition, they said, computers, desks and cafeteria tables were delivered well after the start of school, and there were no working science labs despite the school’s focus on math and science.

The Dayton school is one of 19 Horizon Science academies in Ohio, including four in Columbus. The schools, publicly funded and privately operated like all charter schools, were founded by Turkish scientists who continue to manage them.

Yesterday’s allegations involve only the Dayton school, but it appears the state probe will look at the entire chain.

Richard Storrick, a math teacher, said discipline was biased, favoring Turkish teachers and students.

“A Turkish student missed more than a month of school ... and paid no consequences,” he said. Likewise, administrators did nothing about complaints that a Turkish teacher called African-American students “monkeys” and “dogs” and promoted another known for sleeping in the classroom.

After the testimony, several board members said they were outraged. Others were taken aback because they’d visited the schools and saw nothing questionable.

“Inside, my blood is boiling. It is to me almost incomprehensible,” said Deborah Cain, a board member from Uniontown. “We have got to get to the bottom of this, and every single allegation needs to be investigated to the fullest.”

Michael L. Collins, a board member from Westerville, asked that the board receive within seven days a timeframe and structure of how this issue will be investigated from Department of Education officials.

“I would like that to happen quickly,” he said, adding that he was reminded of the data-scrubbing scandal that has rocked Columbus schools.

Ohio’s Horizon schools are among 30 in the Midwest operated by the Chicago-based Concept Schools. Some of the schools also are part of a separate probe by the FBI, reportedly about the use of federal technology grants.

A statement released by Concept yesterday did not respond to the latest allegations but defended the schools.

“Like any public charter school, we are accountable to the families we serve. As part of that, we prioritize ensuring a school environment that is safe, professional and one that supports students, faculty and staff.”

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