ReadNet Bronx Charter School

When Yvonne Robinson heard that a small charter school with a focus on reading and computers was opening amid the weedy lots and graffiti-marked buildings of her South Bronx neighborhood, she thought it sounded like just the sort of place where her kindergarten-bound son, Warren, could flourish.

And for more than two years he did, she said in an interview. But in November, Warren's school, the ReadNet Bronx Charter School at Metropolitan College of New York, announced that due to mounting money problems and scant evidence of academic success, it would close in June. Now Ms. Robinson is school-hunting again, and 7-year-old Warren's anxiety surfaced in a recent nightmare…

"It's devastating," said Stephanie Alves, 34, who works in the ReadNet school office. "They're closing the doors just like it's a mama's and papa's restaurant. These are people's lives."…

So dire were ReadNet's problems that its board decided to close the school rather than face rejection by the New York State Board of Regents later in the year.

Since then, things have gotten worse. Thirty-two of the 143 students who enrolled in September have transferred out. With fewer students, the school has been eligible for less taxpayer money, and at several points it has come close to not making payroll. In March, six employees, including two teachers and the part-time guidance counselor, were let go.

"We didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to the children," said JoAnne Faruolo, 45, a teacher's assistant who was among the six.

That reality is far from the dream laid out five years ago by Robin D. Hubbard, an Upper East Side architect known for her charm, enthusiasm and prominent friends like Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, and Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of "The Encyclopedia of New York City." …

The school was a charter pioneer in New York. According to a thick application that the State Board of Regents approved in 2001, it would use a curriculum developed by the ReadNet Foundation, which Ms. Hubbard had started several years earlier, after helping her own son struggle with learning problems. There would be computers in every classroom, an array of dance and arts programs, and a partnership with Columbia University's history department, one of whose most illustrious professors, Dr. Jackson, was listed as a board member.

But a spokesman for the university said recently that it had no record of any official commitment to the school. In a telephone interview, Dr. Jackson said he did not recall serving as a trustee and had never visited the school, although he praised Ms. Hubbard and called her a friend…

Soon after the school's plan was approved, things started to go wrong. The state frowned on the proposed school facility, at Audrey Cohen, now known as Metropolitan College of New York, saying that ReadNet's young pupils would be in too close quarters with college students.

The school had to cast about for space, and ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease and refurbish a building. Children who had signed up to attend ReadNet in September 2002 were told that it would not open until the following school year.

Even then, the building was not ready in time. In September 2003, ReadNet opened temporarily on the fifth floor of Public School 277, down the street.

There was so much huffing, puffing and prodding involved in getting the school's 79 kindergartners and first-graders up the stairs, said Cary Goodman, the school's director at the time, that they did not come down for recess or lunch. Also, he said, there was no way to use the ReadNet software.

"In August there were no computers, in September there were no computers, in October there were no computers," Dr. Goodman said.

More turmoil followed. Dr. Goodman was dismissed — for what Ms Roche described as unsatisfactory job performance, a characterization that Dr. Goodman disputed. He protested the decision outside the school, prompting Ms. Hubbard to hire a lawyer, Neil M. Frank.

The problems continued. Too many of ReadNet's teachers, six out of nine as of October 2005, according to the State Education Department, did not meet state certification requirements. The school also did not administer the tests necessary for a charter school to prove that it should be allowed to continue, the state found. And the school was bleeding money.

In the fall of 2004, Mr. Frank said, the school's finances were so grim that Ms. Hubbard asked him to join the board, to try to turn things around. He said his cost-cutting suggestions were roundly rejected.

Mr. Frank said he was never able to get to the bottom of where the school's money had gone. He said that consultants, including ones affiliated with ReadNet Systems, a business founded by Ms. Hubbard, were hired without contracts or board approval. Clear lines were not drawn, he said, between the school, Ms. Hubbard's ReadNet Foundation, and ReadNet Systems (now called Smart Learning Systems). He described the relationship among the three as "a bowl of spaghetti."

Mr. Frank said he did not suspect that anyone had personally profited from the school. But he insisted that a "forensic audit" be conducted, and ultimately resigned from the board…

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