Folks will be looking at Michigan (particularly Detroit) for the immediate future, as it’s the state where Education Secretary-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos has purchased the power to implement many of her beloved education reforms, in particular, the unfettered proliferation of charter schools accompanied by little or no oversight. But it’s not the only place where DeVos has helped spread the charter love– as a friend of Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, she also had a hand in turning Florida into the mighty education trash fire that it is today.
Let’s look at just one example of what you get when you let any shmoe open a charter school and nobody ever tells him, “Hey, you can’t do that!”
Let’s travel to the Eagle Arts Academy in sunny Palm Beach.
|Male model Gregory James Blount
To talk about Eagle Arts Academy, we have to talk about Gregory James Blount, because Eagle Arts Academy is his show, top to bottom. Greg (that is apparently what he goes by– I may have corresponded with some folks on the scene) became an Eagle Scout in 1987, which is apparently the source of the charter school’s name. Blount graduated from the University of South Carolina-Columbia in 1991 with a Bachelor of Applied Media Science, Film Production / Fashion Photography.
He then moved to New York City to begin a modeling career, signed to the “then-famous” (actually, it looks like they were the ten-years-earlier-famous) agency ZOLI. After a few years of that he went to work for the Peter Glenn Publishing company, and then bought company. He later branched out into becoming an independent producer and a motivational speaker– that was right after he declared personal bankruptcy in 2010.
Clearly the next move was to open a charter school.
Though his LinkedIN account lists his founder/executive director credit for Eagle Arts as starting in April of 2011 (the same month he launched his motivational speaker career), the school didn’t open until the fall of 2014. And Blount immediately ran into all sorts of trouble.
Andrew Marra of the Palm Beach Post has been covering this story like a boss, and the story is loaded with special Only In Florida flavor. Blount had managed to pull off two of the more common methods of using a charter school to line your own pockets. First, set up an organization to “support” the school and milk that for money (in this case, EMPPAC, which claims, as one of its success stories, Joel Osteen’s niece). Second, if you’re a multi-preneur, let all of your various business accounts marinate in the same big bowl.
|Charter school whiz Greg Blount
Blount hired his own company to produce an arts curriculum, even though Blount had no educational experience or training. He also required students to buy uniforms from his company, which charged far more than the going price (the Eagle Arts Academy parent page still has a conversation about ordering difficulties from this summer). And he hired a third of his own companies for other consulting work.
And as Jim Pegg, county charter schools monitor for the Palm Beach County School District, told Marra, “Do we like it? No. Is it legal? Yes.”
But wait– there’s more. To get the school and curriculum up and running, Blount brought on Liz Knowles, an actual education professional and former administrator of the private Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. Knowles was to do the grunt work, but a recurring theme in stories about Blount is that he’s not really a team player. Knowles told Marra that the last straw was discovering that Blount had set up a company named after the curriculum they were developing (Artademics). Artademics was paid, but the curriculum didn’t appear for months (and there’s reason to doubt that it was any good when it appeared).
It also turned out that Blount was repaid by the school for a loan that he never gave them — maybe twice.
Blount’s side firm also provided tutoring before and after school for a price– though faculty were expected to work the extra hours for free. That went into Blount’s big Bowl O’ Money as well. Blount’s defense when talking to Marra was that sure, he made some mistakes, but he also worked super-hard and he should get something out of all that.
And all of these shenanigans are accompanied by a regular dance in which Blount comes on and off the school’s board so that he’s always on the right side of the law. Blount would resign from the board, take a payment from the board, and then be reappointed to the board after the payment had been made so that technically he was never a board member profiting from the school.
This fall Blount finally repaid that mystery loan— not, mind you, because he had done anything wrong, but so the school could get its focus back on doing its work.
That has proven to be difficult. Eagle Arts Academy has now burned through three principals in as many months. Last year’s principal resigned during the first weeks of the year over a reported conflict with Blount. An assistant principal was the promoted, and Blount fired that one within two months. A third principal was hired who actually inspired some faith in the staff, but as he promised to look into some “issues,” he was suddenly “out sick” for a week. At the end of that week he was gone as well. Greg named himself interim principal.
And that’s just the top job. Assistant Principals come and go as well (including a field promotion for a third grade teacher with no administrative experience). Reportedly no gifted teacher, and a new special ed teacher brought in to single-handedly teach all special ed in a school of over-600 students. A phys ed teacher fired in front of the students, one of a reported eight teachers who have either been fired or who have walked away so far this year. Classrooms with no supplies or materials. Subs who get hired full time reportedly keep getting sub pay until they raise a stink, and the pay scale in general appears to be “whatever Greg feels like paying you.” And through all of this, hiring and firing and dictating pedagogical techniques (yes, this former model allegedly does that, too) and covering for missing staff and letting everyone know just how hard he was working and sacrificing, is Blount.
Eagle Arts is supposed to be a performing arts school. Blount proudly notes that his is the only school with a license to use Walt Disney’s likeness, which they do repeatedly. And perhaps that is a hint at another part of the school’s sales pitch. Here is a parent review from Great Schools:
OMG was I fooled. The first year, no rating, which was expected and acceptable. Their second year, a D SCHOOL!!! Not one third grader scored a 5 on the math FSA – not one. This is unacceptable. I didn’t put my kids there with the hopes of them becoming Disney stars (which obviously a lot of parents believe will happen to their kids). I put them there for the arts, and there are no “arts”. No ballet. No music classes. Every year, they say that 300 new students have signed up and will be attending – I say horse sh**. If you’re willing to devote 20 mandatory hours of volunteer time for each child you have there, and you’re willing to spend $25 a piece for the required school uniform shirt and you believe your kid will be discovered by some Disney wannabe, go for it. My kids are OUT!!! ACADEMICS MATTER AND THIS SCHOOL HAS FAILED MISERABLY.
And then there’s this:
Terrible school never fulfill their promises, it’s going through financial hardship, it’s being audit by the IG, they have two lawsuits against them for over $500, 000, teachers did not have the support, the founder’s only interest is money, not the children. Administration was terrible no communication with the parents this year they were rated D
The Eagle Academy facebook page now carries a Thanksgiving greeting from Blount, in which he thanks “the children who come here each day and see their beautiful faces.” I think something got lost in delivery there. He notes that “over the next few weeks we’ll be adding additional support to our team” which will include a curriculum specialist and an ESE coordinator. In other news, gradelink, the parent portal system, is “nearly operational.”
This is all more than just the story of one more disastrous Florida charter operation. Because one has to ask– how does the free market tolerate such baloney? Why would anyone send their children to Greg Blount, and double why would anyone go work for him? The answer is that Florida has discovered the secret of building market demand for charter schools– just keep making your public schools worse and worse. One Eagle Arts teacher finds the charter intolerable, but initially took a job there to get out of what they called the worst elementary school in the country. Low pay, lack of support, crazy rules, no resources, bad management– if you starve and cripple public schools, guys like Greg Blount start to look like saviors and not narcissistic scam artists without even the rudimentary skills or knowledge needed to operate a school.
This is why Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos are so simpatico– they embrace the same model of crippling public education and then allowing anyone with a pulse to open a charter, free to rake in the money without fear of law or regulation that will slow them down. This is how you break public education so that you can get all the money to fall out.