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Willimantic Charter School Faces Potential Closure Amid Questionable Management Practices

WNPR/David DesRoches
Students, teachers and parents at Path Academy in Willimantic, expressing concern about the potential closure of their school.

The state Department of Education has voted to consider closing a charter school in Willimantic, after the department found several problems with how the school has been managed. 

Path Academy is a charter high school that teaches older students, or those who aren’t on track to graduate on time. The state claims that Path has operated two satellite locations in Hartford and Norwich without being authorized to do so. The school also enrolled many students who weren’t regularly attending, and it was teaching some students part-time while getting grant money as if these students were full-time.

State records show that the school lacked documents for 128 students over a two-year period. This means the state may have overpaid Path Academy by over $1.5 million during this time.

State education department Commissioner Dianna Wentzel fielded a stream of questions and comments from students and parents at Path Academy on Tuesday. She says if the state Board of Education revokes Path’s charter, each student would be placed in another school according to their needs. In the meantime...

“Please keep coming to school it’s very important," Wentzell said. "Keep working, keep studying, keep fulfilling the graduation requirements. Any action that would be taken would be taken after the school year.”

But those words confused 18-year-old student Samantha Marley, who was expecting to graduate over the summer, after the school year ends.

“I’m scared," she said. "I’m scared for my future and I think a lot of other kids here are.”

Enid Rey runs the non-profit Our Piece of the Pie, or OPP, which manages the charter school. She said the school is aware of the problems and has been working to fix them over the last few months.

“That there are issues that need remedying, I’m not disputing that," Rey said. "We’re working on them actively.”

The state became aware of the problems back in October of 2017 -- only two months after Rey took over at OPP. The school has had since January to fix the problems, but the state has pointed out that not enough has been done over the last five months. Rey says that’s surprising.

“We have been responding to the state, we have submitted corrective action plans, and we’ve been in back-and-forth dialogue with the state," Rey said. "This was not where we thought the conversation would end, however.”

The original charter might need to be revised to reflect the challenge of teaching older students who are under-credited, Rey pointed out.

“We all, including the state," she said, "may have underestimated how much it really takes to engage and serve students who are disconnected.”  

Many of the students have jobs, take care of children, or both. That’s reflected in the high numbers of absences -- nearly two-thirds of Path students were absent 50 or more days, and a third missed at least 100 days of school. And that’s for this school year, which isn’t over yet.

Rey said these students we missing even more days before they came to Path.

“For us, if a student attends 50-percent of the time, that’s a huge win," Rey said. "That’s a huge level of engagement. But that may not translate for what we need it to, in terms of the state’s measures.”

The state’s largest teachers union issued a statement, urging the school’s charter to be revoked, and calling Path’s practices, “shocking” and “unacceptable.”

“Unfortunately, closing down Path Academy is the beginning, not the end of what is needed,” said Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, in a statement. “The legislature must pass stronger laws that govern charter school management companies to ensure that they follow the law, and not defraud the public.”

Path Academy will have an opportunity to be heard at a state school board meeting set for June 19. The board then has 30 days to decide its fate.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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