Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cornerstone "Audit" Did Not Investigate Students' Claims of Mistreatment

Cornerstone is concerned.  According to the Commercial Appeal, the current mood in Binghampton is "They don't care if another charter comes in; they just want Cornerstone out."  Tonight's article recounts the controversy surrounding Cornerstone's takeover of Lester School and their in-school policies since the takeover.  It also describes the actions that Cornerstone is taking to remediate the problems that have been alleged by students, parents, and community members.

Ms. Roberts continues to misreport the beginnings of the controversy:  "Anger first boiled over in a meeting Dec. 19 at the Lester Community Center."  As I've previously written, I became aware of the discontent (along with the School Board and large audience) at the December 18 School Board business meeting, when speaker after speaker spoke against Cornerstone's activities at Lester School.  Ms. Roberts' colleague, Michael Kelley, could have filled her in once she arrived at the School Board meeting, but he was likely busy writing about the resolution against David Pickler.  Based on the appearance of a number of individuals wearing matching shirts, as well as the entirety of the middle school basketball team with Coach Anfernee Hardaway, there must have been some coordination or meeting before that.  I, for one, would be interested to know when the "community" began organizing - but we know it was definitely before December 18.

Anyway, Cornerstone's Executive Director Drew Sippel states that Cornerstone has developed a three-pronged approach to address the allegations raised by students and parents.  Let's remember that the only students that Cornerstone is teaching are PreK through third grade kids.  First, Cornerstone "called more than 100 parents during the holiday break, sent letters to each family and scheduled grade-level meetings with parents, starting last week, to talk over their concerns." 

The second prong is that Cornerstone "self-reported to the Department of Children's Services".  Cornerstone, just like any public school, is obligated to report any allegations of child abuse of which it becomes aware.  This article, for the first time I've seen, mentions allegations of arm-twisting - on top of the bathroom-denying and shoe-confiscating allegations.  Arm-twisting would definitely include a teacher touching a student, which could possibly qualify as child abuse.  So Cornerstone definitely did the right thing in reporting these allegations, as it is required to do by law.

But this third prong is the most interesting (and suspect) prong.  Cornerstone has apparently decided not to investigate the actual allegations as part of its three-pronged approach.  The third prong consists of an "audit" conducted by Brundige Payne & Company, a local CPA firm.  I think of CPAs as accountants, but we know that they do all kinds of things, including conducting the voting for the Oscars.  So of course it makes sense that accountants would also be qualified as general management consultants to investigate the "internal procedures" of Cornerstone Prep.  Why not?

So instead of interviewing the students who are making the allegations, or the parents of these students, or the teachers who are alleged to have mistreated the students, instead, the "audit" interviewed "five or six" teachers over several hours last week.  The audit found that "No teacher reported seeing another teacher inappropriately handle a student; 100 percent said they scheduled five daily bathroom breaks and that children were allowed to go to the restroom whenever they needed. Each teacher also identified the proper process for responding to children who ask to use the bathroom outside the scheduled times."

I am underwhelmed that five, perhaps six likely newly-minted teachers at Cornerstone Prep are able to correctly identify the procedures in place.  That is the bare minimum of their obligation to the children they teach.  Whether or not these teachers choose to correctly apply them is, currently, in the face of student and parent complaints, an open question - an open question not in any way addressed by the "audit".  For instance, elementary teachers know to have a plan for the day.  At Cornerstone, this apparently by policy includes five bathroom breaks.  A relevant question would be "how often is a scheduled bathroom break delayed or skipped?"  This question, very relevant to the allegations being leveled against Cornerstone, was not asked as part of the "audit". 

I'm surprised, also, that the "audit" process did not seem interested in the teachers against whom the allegations are being leveled.  That "most" or "some" teachers at Cornerstone know the policies or follow the policies is not directly relevant to whether the teachers against whom these claims are made either knew or followed those same policies.  As I said, underwhelming.

We can only hope that Executive Director Drew Sippel was wrong when he described the approach as three-pronged.  There should, of course, be a fouth prong.  The fourth prong should include a full investigation of each claim by each student who has made one.  The allegations have been pretty public so far, but families (parents and students) must be given the opportunity to make their claims in a confidential setting so that teachers and administrators who may be the subject of the claims may not inappropriately retaliate in advance of the investigation.  Individual phone calls are a good step.  Grade-level meetings in rooms with other parents and possibly the teachers in question are not conducive to finding out all of the claims - if that is your goal.

Perhaps the ASD is conducting its own state level investigation of the activities at Cornerstone - perhaps even directing Cornerstone not to conduct its own investigation.  But as of this writing, it is unclear whether any such full investigation is taking place.  If it is, Executive Director Drew Sippel isn't talking about it.

The article mentions that "at least one of the principals" of the CPA firm is a member of Christ United Methodist Church.  Given the ongoing support of the church, and the several members in leadership positions at Cornerstone, that mention would imply some kind of conflict of interest.  Memphis is a small town for such a big city.  It might be hard to find a prominent accounting firm that doesn't have a member of Christ Methodist.  Now that the principal's church membership has been disclosed (though not his or her name), as long as that principal did not participate in the "audit" or does not have some direct relationship with the principals of Cornerstone (very possible in a 5,000+ member church), I don't see a conflict.  It's likely a difficult thing for both Christ Methodist and the Binghampton Development Corporation to be taking so much heat because of the allegations against Cornerstone.  But I don't see a "there" there on this particular issue.

Another tangent - I am glad to read that former Lester School Principal and current School Board Commissioner Sara Lewis has taken an interest in the goings on at Cornerstone Prep.  She really commits to her issues, so she will be a good advocate for the community and will follow up as needed.  I think she hits it right on the head when she says that Cornerstone lacks some "cultural competency".  Based on the allegations, I would say that that characterization would be the best case scenario of what has been alleged at Cornerstone Prep.

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