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The Best And Worst Practices

March 25, 2006

The Chinese-food delivery man nearly dropped the soy sauce after he arrived at Karen DuBois-Walton's New Haven home and 10-year-old Kevin greeted him in Chinese.

"The man looked at me like `Who is this little black kid talking to me in Chinese?"' DuBois-Walton said laughingly. "I loved that."

Her son is one of the 300 attending Highville Mustard Seed charter school in Hamden, where the theme is global studies. Each classroom represents a country with its native flag. Students learn about culture, people and language.

Parents such as DuBois-Walton, whom I met Friday at the school, chose to apply to the charter school because of small class sizes, a nurturing environment and a curriculum that is not only diverse but global.

Highville is yet another high-performing state charter school. But it's in the news these days because of past slipshod financial practices that are being investigated by the state Department of Education and the attorney general's office. As a result there are whispers that maybe the books weren't the only things being manipulated at the school, where test scores have soared.

That's the shame of all this. For those who have never warmed to the idea of state-funded, independently run charters - not bound by union regulations - this gives them ammo. You can almost hear them saying "Aha."

But with its school uniforms, extended school day, mandatory six-week summer program, early-bird enrichment hour and high parental involvement, Highville has attributes worthy of "best practices" recognition in narrowing the academic achievement gap. When it comes to managing its money, well, the school was a textbook example of how bad habits can lead to chaos.

The school's executive director wasn't paid his salary in the first year and was allowed to use the school credit card for personal use. Staffers short on cash could be advanced their salaries on request. A co-founder was granted paid professional leave while she pursued a nursing degree. There was later confusion about whether she was granted a leave or a "loan."

Co-founders Lyndon and Nadine Pitter opened the school in 1998. Serious cash-flow problems occurred soon after. Lyndon Pitter said Friday that his school wasn't reimbursed by the state for more than $200,000 in school lunches. The money had to be taken from other accounts, Pitter said, adding that there were several times that he and other board members used their own money to keep the school afloat.

"The perception may be there to say there is widespread embezzlement and abuse taking place," said Pitter, 40, a native of Jamaica. "But you are here. You walked in this building. You see a clean facility. You see computers. You see textbooks in the classrooms. ... I'm not trying to defend the previous board or the previous actions. It's not the best practice, but there were legitimate attempts at all times to facilitate a process where we would not have this questionable situation."

Pitter, whose salary is $120,000, has put three of his children through Highville.

Parents visiting the school Friday for World Food and Vegetable Day were extremely pleased with the academic progress of their children. They expressed confidence that a new school board, new finance director and newly adopted regulations would eliminate the past accounting lapses.

The beauty about charters is their license must be renewed every five years. If they're cutting corners academically - or financially - the state can shut 'em down.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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