Academic Leadership Charter School

A South Bronx charter school has been put on probation for what city education officials called “serious violations” of state law mandating random admissions, including possibly testing or interviewing applicants before their enrollment.

The school, Academic Leadership Charter School, opened in 2009 and is the first New York City charter to be disciplined for violating the rules for random admissions.

The violations go to the crux of the debate over charters, which are publicly financed but independently operated. Random admissions is a key tenet in most states, but critics have long contended that the schools surreptitiously weed out students who are unlikely to do well on standardized tests or are more difficult to educate.

In a letter sent to Academic Leadership’s board on Tuesday, the executive director of the city’s charter school office, Recy Dunn, accused the school of twice violating state admissions laws, and described a school in chaos from “a pattern of failed operational oversight by school leadership.”

Besides the admissions problems, the city found that two former staff members may have stolen from the school. The Department of Labor is also investigating Academic Leadership’s hiring practices, and the school is being audited by the city for unpaid food bills.

At most city charter schools, students are selected at public meetings where applicants’ names are picked from a box. But city officials found that at Academic Leadership, which has about 200 children in kindergarten through second grade, hundreds of applicants were left out of this year’s drawing. The lottery was supervised not by an impartial observer, but by a member of the parent association, the letter said. And while students who applied after the lottery should have been added to the waiting list, scores of them were not, it said...

...Interviews with five former employees and seven parents who applied to the school, along with documents they provided, point to a system of inappropriately testing students or reviewing their previous school files, with those who did not meet the standards of the principal, Norma Figueroa-Hurwitz, being shut out...

Santasha Malone, who applied to several charter schools for her kindergarten-bound son in early 2010, said she was told in February that her son was on Academic Leadership’s waiting list — though the lottery was not until April — and that she and her son were invited for an interview.

“They were basically the only school who had an interview before the lottery,” Ms. Malone, 32, said. After a teacher took her son to a classroom and asked him to name different objects around the room, they never heard from the school again.

While parents were being told they were on a waiting list, the school paid more than $16,000 its first year for marketing campaigns to drum up applications. After some students left and others were expelled, Dr. Figueroa-Hurwitz raised concerns about losing financing for underenrollment in a report to the board...

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