Serbian students beg for help, spark DPI interest

By: - January 28, 2013 3:33 pm

Letter from Serbian students. More here.

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 June Atkinson begging the head of North Carolina’s public schools for help.

“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.”

Letter from Serbian students. More here.

Staff at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction soon discovered the Eastern European trio arrived in the United States on what they were told was a scholarship to play basketball at Quality Education Academy, a public charter school that’s sent more than a dozen players to play at Division I schools since 2008. The trio was also told they would be demoted to juniors, instead of seniors and needed to pay Isaac Pitts Jr., the school’s basketball coach, $4,000 a piece to play, according to DPI records.

Simon Johnson, Quality Education Academy’s chief executive officer also said he knew nothing about an agreement that Pitts, the basketball coach, had with a Serbian athletic placement company that brought students to the United States to train in exchange for a fee.

Johnson and Pitts enclosed a note they said was from the three Serbian students, this time with their responses in near-perfect English—a dramatic departure from the rudimentary English used in emails directed to Atkinson.

“We appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about our concerns about our academic performance at QEA,” the three wrote in a letter provided to DPI by Johnson. “Now that we have spoken we feel that our concerns have been taken care of and we are happy to continue our education here.”

Jackie Jenkins, a now-retired DPI consultant, continued to make visits to the school to see if the school’s unusual basketball program was inappropriately using taxpayer money. In a series of visits she made to the school in 2010 and 2011, she found that QEA had enrolled up to 20 international and out-of-state students.

Photo by Ricky Leung

“Based upon records reviewed, it appears QEA is operating a basketball recruiting and training service as adjunct to its basic academic mission,” Jenkins wrote in a Feb. 2011 memorandum. She added, “This service recruits national and internationally- partly or mainly through the service of Next Skill Development Services.”

Records at the N.C. Secretary of State show that Next Skill Development Youth Services is a non-profit organization started by Pitts in 2006, but has since lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file required tax forms. Pitts, who declined to speak with N.C. Policy Watch, was convicted in 2000 of common-law robbery and spent more than a year in prison, according to records kept by the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Federal rules don’t allow foreign exchange students to attend American public schools without repaying for their cost of education, according to the U.S. State Department. In subsequent visits to the school that DPI consultants made, they found that many of the foreign basketball players had immigration forms where Pitts was listed as the guardian and indications that the school was paying for the education.

“These (11) students were from many countries but most in Eastern Europe or African countries,” Jenkins wrote in an April 28, 2010 memorandum. “The school information indicated that students paid zero for their education and the funds from the school was listed at $11,024 for each students (sic) and scholarships from Carver Road Church of Christ in the amount of $3,000.”

Jenkins went on to recommend that the school “be placed on Governance Warning Status as the concerns are so critical to following law and policy.”

She also encountered resistance at visits. During a December 3, 2010, site visit, Jenkins waited for three hours to see QEA documents, despite the requirement that charter schools make documents available to DPI staff upon request.

In another visit to the school in February 2011. Ozella Wiggins, from DPI’s financial and business services said she “feared for her safety,” according to the DPI report from that site visit. In that same visit, Jenkins said Johnson, the QEA principal, grabbed student files out of her hands, according to the report she wrote up about the incident.

In an interview, Johnson said he felt many of the issues stemmed from a difference of opinions and personalities. Jenkins declined an interview for this article.

The problems culminated in an April 1, 2011 that one of the education department’s top officials sent to school staff, demanding explanations for why basketball players were listed on state accounting system, and why the school had basketball players from places like Maryland, Michigan and elsewhere listed on their website that weren’t enrolled in the school.

QEA responded quickly that the school was charging tuition to these players, and that the school had a right to bring in out-of-state students, even if the students weren’t living with parents in the area.

But DPI never sent a response back to the school.

Instead, the N.C. State Board of Education granted Johnson and his wife permission in March 2012 to open up another charter school, the College Preparatory and Leadership Academy of High Point.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.