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
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.
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