While many charter school advocates have denied that the practice of “cherry picking” students exists, evidence of what appears to be “cherry picking” has finally been captured on video. That video, taken by a parent who was attempting to enroll their child in Challenge Charter School, first appeared on the popular education website of Dr. Gene Glass.
In his article, A Citizen’s Encounter With a Charter School, the renowned education expert writes of the “incident of unprofessional treatment by the staff of Challenge charter school” captured on video. His article was then picked up by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, whose blog is a must read for all education activists.
In her review of the video, Gene V. Glass: An Ugly Look Inside a Charter School in Arizona, Ravitch concludes: “The school’s message seems to be, children with any kind of disability, no matter how mild, are not wanted here. The IDEA laws don’t apply to charter schools in Arizona.”
In his review of the video, Glass concludes that the behavior by the school staff is “shocking and regrettable.” He then questions if the behavior in the video is “an everyday occurrence in the charter school industry.”
“Simply business as usual”
The video was taken by a father of a soon-to-be kindergarten student, during the family’s visit to Challenge Charter School in Glendale, Arizona. As Dr. Glass notes in his article, Challenge Charter School is owned and operated by the Miller family.
Greg Miller, wrote Dr. Glass, “is the owner of Challenge charter school, from which he, his wife and his daughter draw more than $400,000 in salary annually. While this would set off conflict-of-interest alarms in nearly any other state in the Union, in Arizona it is simply business as usual. Last fall, the Arizona Governor decided he wanted to remove Miller from the State Board. Miller apparently could read the handwriting on the wall and he agreed to leave. As he walked out the door, Miller told the press that he agreed to quit if he got some assurances that the charter school he runs would get “political protections that I no longer could provide.” He doesn’t simply profit from his conflicts of interest, he’s actually proud of them.”
Governor Ducey is particularly sensitive to negative publicity. So after Miller’s brusque demeanor, aggressive physical behavior, and running feud with Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas had generated far too many negative headlines it was clear why Miller had to be sent packing.
The male Miller is not the only one known for a brusque demeanor and aggressive physical behavior. Miller’s wife Pam and his daughter Wendy, who serves as the principal at Challenge, had also created controversy during State Board of Education meetings. From preventing members of the public from occupying seats in the front row during State Board meetings, to audibly and physically trying to intimidate Doulgas and her supporters during those meetings, the two women had demonstrated that aggressive behavior and brusque demeanors were a family trait.
That cherry picking video
The parents of the soon-to-be kindergartner selected Challenge for their daughter based in part on the availability of half-day kindergarten and the school’s performance on Arizona standardized AZMerit test. The well-educated and affluent parents did not need or want the full day kindergarten offered by other schools in the area.
The parents had availed for their daughter every opportunity to ensure the best chances for educational success including play therapy. The voluntary therapy was aimed at reducing anxiety associated with loud noises. The child required no special services for any physical or emotional challenges.
So the parents were shocked when after receiving a letter of acceptance from Challenge, they received a voice message from Wendy Miller in which she advised them that the acceptance was rescinded. Miller gave no reason for the decision.
In response, the family thinking there must be some mistake, showed up at the Kindergarten Assessment Boot Camp the next day. The father described the encounter to Dr. Glass:
“So, yesterday we showed up anyway and signed in at the table in the gym where Wendy Miller was standing. She looked at our daughters name and just stood there. I said “Hi, are you the principal?” and she said “yes, I am, let’s go to my office.” As we were walking from the gym to her office, I explained that we were blind-sided by her voicemail and that I would compare this to being accepted to college and then being told by the dean the day before that your enrollment is not being honored. She replied in a hostile and defensive manner “Don’t you dare be disrespectful to me like that do you understand? I am not going to have this.” So I remained silent and we proceeded to walk into the main office where she stopped at her mom’s office and said “I need back-up.”
The father explained in Dr. Glass’ article what he believed happened:
“On the February updated information sheet we said “No.” But on the March updated (Wendy called it refreshed form) information sheet we said “Yes, our daughter has received private OT speech therapy [which Wendy Miller in the attached video calls “significant” – we are not sure how she arrived at that considering how we simply wrote that she receives OT speech therapy.] The OT therapy we recently acquired for our daughter was (a) for speech enhancement (not that she has a speech problem) and (b) to help her not be frightened of loud noises (i.e., blender, public toilet flush, etc.). This was allowed by our health insurance so we accepted these services. We never requested special assessment because our daughter does not require it. She was already assessed by her therapist and any special needs therapy or placement was ruled out. But apparently, Wendy and Pam Miller jumped to conclusions and made this off-the-cuff assumption. However, they never initiated a prior dialogue with us about this before jumping to their conclusion which is apparently why they took away our daughter’s space.”
Red flags and rules
Pam and Wendy Miller make several statements to the parents that require closer examination. The duo invokes Arizona Open Enrollment laws to justify their action.
From the Governor’s Office Public School District – Open Enrollment
Arizona state law allows students to apply for admission to any public school, based on available classroom space (A.R.S. § 15-816.01). The law requires that school districts develop policies regarding open enrollment that may include transportation and that the policies shall be posted on the district’s website and available to the public upon request. Transportation is available for special education students.
A school district may give enrollment preference to, and reserve capacity for, pupils who are children of persons who are employed by or at a school in the school district.
15-816.01. Enrollment policies
A. School district governing boards shall establish policies and shall implement an open enrollment policy without charging tuition. Tuition may be charged to nonresident pupils only if the tuition is authorized under section 15-764, subsection C, section 15-797, subsection C, section 15-823, subsection A, section 15-824, subsection A or section 15-825 or if two school districts have entered into a voluntary agreement for the payment of tuition for certain pupils. These policies shall include admission criteria, application procedures and transportation provisions. A school district may give enrollment preference to children who are in foster care. A school district may give enrollment preference to and reserve capacity for pupils who are children of persons who are employed by or at a school in the school district. A copy of the district policies for Open Enrollment shall be posted on the district’s website and shall be available to the public on request.
B. The governing board of the district educating the pupil may provide transportation limited to no more than twenty miles each way to and from the school of attendance or to and from a pickup point on a regular transportation route or for the total miles traveled each day to an adjacent district for eligible nonresident pupils who meet the economic eligibility requirements established under the national school lunch and child nutrition acts (42 United States Code sections 1751 through 1785) for free or reduced price lunches.
C.The governing board of the district educating the pupil shall provide transportation limited to no more than twenty miles each way to and from the school of attendance or to and from a pickup point on a regular transportation route or for the total miles traveled each day to an adjacent district for nonresident pupils with disabilities whose individualized education program specifies that transportation is necessary for fulfillment of the program.
As you can see, Arizona’s Open Enrollment law is very vague. Schools must set their policies and a “copy of the district policies for Open Enrollment shall be posted on the district’s website and shall be available to the public on request.” Challenge ‘s “Enrollment Policy and Procedures” are posted on the website as required by statute:
Challenge Charter School is an open enrollment school that follows all State & Federal open enrollment laws and guidelines.
Challenge Charter School is an equal opportunity school.
Challenge Charter School and Challenge School, Inc. prohibits discrimination against any potential student, and provides equal opportunity in the open enrollment process without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran status, gender identity, sexual orientation, or genetic information. This policy applies to all phases of the enrollment process.
Enrollment priority is extended to returning CCS students and their siblings up until a stated date.
Next, 80% of the remaining open seats in any grade are offered to students on a first-come, first-serve opportunity based on the date of their pre-registration. The remaining 20% open seats for students are determined by a random lottery. This procedure is dependent on a waiting list that exceeds the seats available.
Challenge Charter School may not accept children that are on a current suspension, pending expulsion, or have been expelled from another school. (A.R.S. 15-184)
Once a seat is offered at Challenge Charter School for your student based on these procedures, all incoming students must participate in a new student assessment to determine grade readiness. Several days and times are available. If a student does not attend one of these grade placement sessions, we are unable to place them in an appropriate grade and they forfeit their seat to the next child waiting for the seat.
If available, other records can be provided and it is at the discretion of CCS Administration if these documents and materials are comparable and can determine grade placement in the absence of assessment.
If a student does not place for the grade they have received a seat in due to open enrollment procedures, and the grade they do place for is currently full, they will be placed on the waiting list for the grade they have placed for.
It is only on the forms that any mention is made of any policy to which Wendy alludes as the basis for the rejection. In fine print on the bottom of the forms it reads:
Any pre-registration form that is illegible, incomplete or provides inaccurate information will be eliminated from the enrollment process. Furthermore, applicants who have been given an enrollment packet will be subject to these same terms and conditions should there be any missing information, inaccurate information or discrepancies amongst any of the enrollment forms or student records. Challenge Charter School and Challenge School, Inc. do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age in its programs and activities and provides equal access to all groups and programs. For contact information of individuals designated to handle inquiries about this policy, please visit Challenge’s home website page.
One education activist, who reviewed the document concluded, “That Pre-Registration Form has a strongly worded warning that if the pre-enrollment doesn’t exactly match the subsequent registration forms that a student’s “place in line/waiting list” is forgone. Parents better not have human error if that’s enough to exclude your child. Sounds like a carefully crafted “policy.”
Carefully crafted indeed, and if that was all there was upon which to judge whether cherry picking had occurred or not; one would have to give the Millers the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately for the dynamic Miller duo, while trying to “avoid a potentially disappointing awkward moment,” they created just that and more.
Wendy states, “You listed a significant amount of special placement testing. So the issue is not what that testing is or whether or not we can meet those needs but as was clearly disclosed to you here,” pointing to the fine print, “filling them out differently unfortunately null and voids the current spot that has been offered and puts you back to the beginning of the process.” Yet, Pam Miller admits that the duo has assumed the soon-to-be kindergartner requires special services, when she states: “All of the hiring for our kids was done a month ago,” referring to any Special Ed teachers the child might require.
Just like too many educators do today, Wendy Miller relies on parents’ ignorance of education laws in order to bully them. She boldly claims that “If it was up to my discretion the choice would be different, but it is an Open Enrollment school, and it is an Open Enrollment policy and it is being enforced the same for every family.” The lack of specificity and Wendy’s tone implies that the parents have somehow violated the law. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that too many of Arizona’s charter schools rely on fine print, coercion, and outright harassment to narrow their classroom populations. Without democratically elected school boards, and any meaningful oversight, charters can and do bully their way to achieving the higher rankings that attract parents when choosing schools. To be precise; they can cherry pick those students, who serve their purpose, until they get caught on camera. Hopefully for the Millers those “political protections” cover apparent cherry picking.