'A factory of excellence'?
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.
"We are here in Winston Salem now and we have big problems!!!," read the email in imperfect English and obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request. "Please we need to speak with somebody we need a help as soon as possible."
Quality Education Academy first opened its doors in 1992, as a private school affiliated with the Carver Road Church of Christ.
QEA's elementary school shares a parking lot with the church and its close ties to the school remain, with half of the public charter school's board members past or present deacons or pastors at the church prominent in East Winston-Salem's African-American community.
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. He wanted to apply a business ethic to the school, and the students come every day in uniforms, save one day a week where they come in formal dress.
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.
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.