'A factory of excellence'?

Charter school’s international basketball team raises oversight questions

A Winston-Salem charter school has become an unlikely basketball powerhouse in recent years, winning three national high school championships and sending more than a dozen former players on to Division 1 colleges.

But the success of Quality Education Academy‘s boys basketball team rests on a strategy prohibited at most public schools—recruiting top players throughout the nation and world.

It also offers a window into the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s struggles to hold charter schools accountable as the schools become a larger piece of the state’s public education system.

QEA recruits basketball players from all over the country and world. Click to see a sampling of students’ home states and countries here.

An N.C. Policy Watch investigation found two-thirds of the players on Quality Education Academy’s basketball rosters from 2008 to present came from other states and nations to attend the K-12 school. Their educations were subsidized by taxpayers who sent $13.2 million in state, federal and local funding to the school for the same time period, according to state education estimates and budgets provided by the school.

The investigation also found that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction failed to follow up on its own 2011 probe into funding and enrollment issues at the charter school.

Questions about Quality Education Academy’s basketball program highlight criticisms and challenges DPI faces in overseeing charter schools, the privately-run and publicly-funded schools poised to grow rapidly with strong backing from the Republican-led state legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Building a ‘factory of excellence’

The basketball program at Quality Education Academy (QEA) is a set-up impossible to recreate at most North Carolina public schools.

North Carolina specifically prohibits recruitment of students for athletics across school district lines, much less state and national boundaries.

But QEA’s status as a charter school means it can opt out of joining the N.C. High School Athletic Association, which enforces the N.C. recruitment rule for public schools. Instead, QEA and a handful of private high schools with strong basketball programs formed their own athletic association in 2011, the Greater Carolina High School Athletic Association. The new league allows coaches to recruit players from elsewhere, just not from the six schools that form the association, according to the association’s rules.

Even though the small charter school has fewer than 100 high school students, QEA has attracted basketball players from countries like Nigeria, Serbia, Canada and the Bahamas and states including California, Michigan, Georgia and Virginia since the basketball program began in 2008. Parents signed over temporary guardianship to Isaac Pitts Jr., a basketball coach with a criminal past and a side recruiting business, according to documents obtained from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction through a public records request.

Simon Johnson, QEA’s founder and chief executive officer

In 2010, state education officials realized QEA, which became one of the state’s first charter schools in 1997, requested and received state education funding for 20 basketball players that came from outside North Carolina to attend the school, according to DPI records. The state stopped directly funding the charter school for those student athletes.

But the school continued to run its recruiting operation with the knowledge — though not necessarily the blessing—of the state education agency tasked with overseeing public charter schools.

Simon Johnson, QEA’s founder and chief executive officer, defends his school by saying DPI hasn’t pointed out any wrongdoing. The school, he said, isn’t a basketball factory but fills a needed role by educating talented athletes other schools failed to reach.

“We are a factory, we are a factory of excellence,” Johnson said. “We produce excellent students. And yes, we also produce excellent basketball students.”

Foreign players seek help

Serbian students beg for help, spark DPI interest

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction launched a probe into Quality Education Academy in January of 2010, after three Serbian students wrote a panicked letter to Atkinson begging for help with the public charter school the three left their Balkan nation to attend. Read more here.

The state education agency began looking at QEA closely in January of 2010, after three Serbian students sent June Atkinson, the state superintendent of schools, an email begging for help. The students, who left their Balkan nation to attend the Winston-Salem school, were instructed to pay Pitts, the coach, $4,000 each to attend the school, according to a copy of the email obtained by N.C. Policy Watch. Johnson, the school’s CEO, responded that the students came as part of a “cultural diversity and exchange” program and had agreed to the fee associated with a separate recruiting operation Pitts was involved in.

The Policy Watch investigation found DPI failed to fully address subsequent “critical concerns” a DPI consultant outlined about the school’s international and national basketball program in several visits she made following the Serbian student complaints.

“Based upon records reviewed, it appears QEA is operating a basketball recruiting and training service as adjunct to its basic academic mission,” wrote Jackie Jenkins, a consultant for DPI’s Office of Charter Schools in a Feb. 2011 memorandum. She added, “This service recruits national and internationally- partly or mainly through the service of Next Skill Development Services.”

Isaac Pitts Jr., basketball coach at QEA.

Next Skill Development Youth Services is a non-profit recruiting agency started by Pitts in 2006, according to filings at the N.C. Secretary of State’s office. IRS records show the non-profit lost its tax-exempt status in May 2010 for failing to file required tax returns for the previous three years. Pitts, who served more than a year in North Carolina’s prison system in 2000 and 2001 for common-law robbery convictions, declined requests to speak with N.C. Policy Watch.

DPI staff also left hanging questions raised in a stern letter written in April 2011 by Philip Price, DPI’s chief financial officer. He asked QEA to explain why it had out-of-state players on its basketball team not listed as being enrolled at the school as students.

QEA sent a response, stating that the school charged tuition for the students, and was entitled to take in players from outside the state. Public records obtained by N.C. Policy Watch show DPI never acknowledged nor responded to the letter.

“No one seems to know why” DPI never followed up, said Joel Medley, the head of the Office of Charter Schools. “It very well may have slipped through the cracks.”

As questions lingered, the N.C. State Board of Education also granted Johnson, QEA’s chief executive officer, permission in March 2012 to open another charter school with his wife in neighboring Guilford County, despite the thorny issues at QEA.

Then, in July, the state education agency accused QEA of overbilling the federally-funded school lunch program for $95,000 worth of meals served at the school, resulting in QEA paying back $52,000 of that money this past fall.

As charter schools increase, oversight may lessen

School’s goal from beginning to help black youth

Simon Johnson, QEA’s chief executive officer, said he founded the school because he saw the failings of the Forsyth County schools to reach African-American students unacceptable. Read more here.

The state’s 107 charter schools, including QEA, receive public funds but are run by separate non-profit organizations and intended to develop innovate teaching systems that don’t exist at traditional public school systems. Interest in charters is growing, with 156 groups indicating they’ll apply to DPI this year to open charter schools.

But questions remain as to whether the state has the resources to ensure that existing, and future, charter schools are offering quality educations to students of all backgrounds, races and incomes. A Duke University study released earlier this month found economic disparities in North Carolina schools are growing, with particular concerns noted about emerging racial segregation in the state’s charter schools.

Janet Cowell, the Democratic state treasurer and state education board member, said charter schools need to be more transparent and accountable, especially as their numbers grow in the state.

“We’ve talked about charter schools and making sure charter schools are as accountable as other public schools,” Cowell said. “There’s improvement needed right now.”

Cowell said she didn’t know enough about QEA to specifically comment about the school.

DPI’s Office of Charter Schools has six positions, one currently vacant, to monitor the state’s 100-plus charter schools and usher prospective charter school founders through the application process. The office was staffed with as few as three people because of vacancies when the agency lost track of its probe into QEA in 2011. That was the same time that the state legislature lifted the cap on charter schools, giving DPI staff dozens of new charter school applications to review on top of an already heavy workload.

“We were also in the throes of removing the charter school cap,” Atkinson said, a Democrat serving her third term as the elected leader of North Carolina’s K-12 public schools. “The charter school workload increased during this past year.”

Charter schools must accept any students from North Carolina through a lottery process when requests for admission exceed the set number of open spots, but is silent as to whether that means the school is open to only North Carolina residents, Atkinson said. QEA has never had a lottery, and Johnson said the school has been able to accept every student who applies.

June Atkinson

Atkinson said her department has worked under the assumption that non-North Carolinian children can attend charter schools as long as other laws regarding the ban on tuition and admission through the lottery process are followed, she said. Legislation from the N.C. General Assembly could change that, and limit charter schools to North Carolina residents, she said. She didn’t know whether she would ask lawmakers to address the issue in the session beginning Wednesday.

“The charter schools are to be used for North Carolina students,” Atkinson said, given recent budget cuts to the state’s education system. She later added, “They were not designed to be places where we would recruit students to come and then to be recruited to (collegiate) basketball.”

Atkinson said in an interview earlier this month that DPI plans on sending an auditor from her department to the school in coming weeks, as a response to some of the questions raised by N.C. Policy Watch.

Among other findings in the N.C. Policy Watch investigation were:

  • Out-of-state players live in a residential house owned and across the street from the personal home of Johnson, who initially denied knowing where players attending his school lived
  • The school’s basketball coach, Pitts, was previously listed on DPI records as guardian to several players, though North Carolina laws require students to live with their parents or a court-recognized guardian to attend a public school.
  • The small school’s website lists employing five teachers for it high school of fewer than 100 students, but had four coaches for the basketball team earlier this year
  • QEA has no varsity girl’s sports teams, despite federal Title IX rules that require schools to pay equal attention to sports for both genders. The school does have co-ed club teams for volleyball, soccer and track, but no varsity sports for girls.
  • The school belonged to a league for Christian athletes, the National Christian Sports Athletic Association, and won national championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

QEA’s Fighting Pharaohs continue to bring in players from outside North Carolina to attend the public school. On this year’s team, seven of the 11 players are at least 6-feet-7-inches and hail from places like Canada, Senegal, Georgia, New Orleans and New York, according to the school’s posted roster and news accounts.

Johnson suspects students are attracted from afar to the school because of its academic reputation, but the school has also developed a reputation for sending players to top collegiate basketball teams.

Baylor, Georgetown, Hampton, St. John’s, Bradley and Wake Forest universities have all had past QEA players on their basketball rosters.

Click to see where players went after QEA.

The NCAA has kept the high school under an “extended evaluation” status since the team’s beginnings. The NCAA examines QEA players’ transcripts before they can play at the collegiate level. It’s an unusual designation, only about 50 high schools a year out of the 39,000 the NCAA keeps track of are put under the review, according to Christopher Radford, an NCAA spokesman.

Grady Crosby, the former chair of QEA’s board of director who now practices law in Minnesota, said the school started its basketball program in 2008 to increase the school’s reach and because the opportunity presented itself.

“The whole deal was kind of new to us,” Crosby said. “We were starting what we were calling a national basketball program and recruiting kids from across the country and internationally.”

The team since made a quick ascent into the world of elite boys’ basketball.

QEA has played national basketball powerhouses like Nevada’s Findlay Preparatory, Virginia’s storied Oak Hill Academy and Raleigh’s Word of God Christian Academy, all of which have had top college recruits on their teams.

Pitts, QEA’s basketball coach, declined through Johnson to talk with N.C. Policy Watch, but did give an interview in 2011 to the amateur basketball website “Coaches Aid” in which he described how quickly his team emerged in the national scene.

“Texas, Georgia, West Virginia, Jersey, New York, Philly, South Carolina,” Pitts said. “We play all over.”

This year’s roster includes Michael Tucker, a Georgia native and senior who signed to play at Illinois’ Bradley University next year; Harold Givens, also of Georgia; Jordan Robinson, a Canadian senior who plays on that nation’s Cadet national team when not in school in Winston-Salem; and Jason Boswell, of New York, who spent four months playing at QEA this fall before leaving again to rejoin St. Patrick’s in New Jersey, a basketball powerhouse.

Tyrek Coger of Raleigh transferred to QEA this fall when Raleigh’s Upper Room shut down its high school, and basketball program. Coger only lasted a few months at QEA and is back in Raleigh, playing for Word of God.

The school’s basketball team attracted attention when featured in a 2011 New York Daily News article questioning whether the school was legitimate or just a basketball factory.

“But on the Internet, the first thing people say is this is a basketball factory,” Pitts is quoted as saying in the article “The school was here 18 years without basketball. So what [were] we doing then?”

One former player, Lekan Ajayi, 21, said he had a positive experience at the school. The 6-feet-11-inch Ajayi left his home in Nigeria to attend Quality Education Academy from 2009 to 2011.

“They gave me a scholarship and I came out there,” said Ajayi. “It was a really good school.”

Ajayi was recruited to play for the University of Wyoming before transferring to Florida International University, where he’ll play after sitting out last semester per NCAA rules.

QEA travel bus for the basketball team sits in front of the school. Photo by Ricky Leung

The school, which enrolls just under 400 students from kindergarten to high school, has evident pride in QEA’s basketball program. The team’s travel bus with QEA’s name sits outside the high school campus, and glossy posters with pictures of players adorn the foyer of the school’s elementary school, where the team practices in the school’s only gymnasium.

On a recent visit, the gymnasium painted in the school’s purple and gold colors had championship banners displayed while elementary school students filed into an attached kitchen to pick up their lunches. The young students returned to classrooms to eat, with no large space other than the unused gymnasium to stand in as a cafeteria. Johnson said the space is also used for physical education classes, and he hopes to have a cafeteria for the young students once a $3 million project to build a new gymnasium and auditorium at the high school annex is finished.

The $3 million building will feature a basketball court, bleachers, weight-training room, locker room showers, several classrooms and a combined auditorium and cafeteria, according to plans filed with the city of Winston-Salem.

It will be a big investment for a school that took in a total of $2.7 million in federal, state and local education dollars for the 2011-12 school year, according to DPI funding estimates.

Who pays?

The cost of running QEA’s basketball program to North Carolina taxpayers is not clear.

QEA doesn’t keep a separate budget for its basketball team or athletic department. Johnson maintains that no public funds go to fund the program, even though public dollars pay for teacher salaries, building mortgages and other costs associated with running the school.

In an interview with N.C. Policy Watch to discuss the school, Johnson gave conflicting and evasive statements about how the basketball program was run, and how associated costs were covered.

Johnson said QEA now charges tuition for out-of-state players, but couldn’t recall in a Dec. 11 interview what the tuition amount was. There is no mention of tuition on the school’s website, nor in the application for admission put on the school’s website.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Johnson said, about tuition. “We know that no public funds or state funds go to that purpose.”

The school’s attorney, Stephon Bowens,* sent an email on Jan. 16 indicating that the school charged $2,000 annual tuition for eight out-of-state basketball players this past year.

The school has yet to produce a copy of QEA’s board policy regarding tuition, which N.C. Policy Watch requested under state public records law.

North Carolina’s charter school law states that the schools “shall not charge tuition or fees,” but Atkinson said she wasn’t sure whether QEA was allowed to charge tuition for out-of-state students, something the school contends it has the right to do.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Atkinson said.

Federal rules also indicate that foreign students are required to reimburse the public for the full cost of their schooling, if they attend a public high school, according to U.S. State Department.

Jenkins, the DPI consultant, found that wasn’t happening in 2010 when she examined the student visas for 20 of QEA’s international basketball players and found students were listed as personally paying nothing while QEA offered an $11,025 scholarship to each student. The Carver Road Church of Christ, a church instrumental in QEA’s founding, provided $3,000 in funding, according to an April 28, 2010 report by Jenkins. The immigration forms were signed by Johnson, Jenkins wrote.

“Question: How does this comply with federal law that requires all secondary students from out of country who attend a secondary school in the U.S. to pay the amount of public funding that is provided for them back to the district/state,” Jenkins wrote. “This was not done.”

Johnson was also evasive when it came to where the out-of-state players lived, many of whom had school properties listed as their home addresses or QEA staff members put down as guardians, according to DPI records.

Johnson initially responded in the December interview they lived in “different places around the city” and he didn’t know where. But when asked about a house he owned that’s located across the street from his own personal residence, Johnson conceded “players may have lived in” the house. In January, Johnson said he allows the players to stay there as a “donation” he personally gives to the basketball program.

The family of one former player says QEA was ill-equipped to board the students, who lived in the house owned by Johnson without constant adult supervision.

House owned by Johnson in which some players stayed. Photo by Ricky Leung

“This school should totally be shut down,” said Pam Williams, a Charlotte woman whose son went to QEA in 2011, and withdrew after the basketball season ended.

Williams said her son, in his senior year, only took one to two classes a semester, and she felt it was unsafe to have so many teenage boys living in a house together without an adult to supervise.

“He was coming from a two-parent home where his parents were always there and he was going to a home with twelve boys,” Williams said.

DPI plans on taking a closer look at QEA, by sending an auditor to look at the unusual pairing of an elite basketball team with students from afar with a K-12 charter school with a mission to close the achievement gap for local black youth.

The emergences of athletic-centric program in high schools like QEA has created an unsettling reality for many involved in high school athletics, with questions about how much students can benefit in the environment.

“High schools have never been intended to be factories to feed colleges and the NBA,” said Charlie Adams, the retired longtime director of NCHSAA.

The school’s basketball coach, Pitts, offered this take on how his basketball team operates in the Coaches Aid interview about his philosophy on steering young basketball players.

“Be accountable. Accountable for each other and accountable for (oneself),” he said. “Minimize mistakes and take advantage of opportunity.”

 

Note: *Stephon Bowens, the attorney for Quality Education Academy, is also a board member for the N.C. Justice Center, a non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is a part of. Neither he nor any other Justice Center board members had a role in the reporting or writing of this investigation.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

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