Mavericks High Schools Hope to Profit From Education – But at What Cost?

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Mavericks' academic failures are glaringly apparent, despite the upbeat assurances of company managers. When asked about the schools' graduation rates, Hollander declined to provide a hard figure. She says the numbers fluctuate when students transfer back to their home high schools. "Our actual percentages are very, very nice," she says. "But it's also unique to each school. We're doing a good job."

Biden says, "We just graduated almost 200 people in one location."

But figures from the Florida Department of Education paint a vastly different picture, showing that Mavericks schools have a worse graduation rate than traditional public schools in Florida. They show Mavericks' best school, in Kissimmee, graduated just 43 percent of the eligible kids in June. Other Mavericks schools performed far worse. Mavericks High in North Miami Beach had a 12.7 percent graduation rate last school year. In Fort Lauderdale, the rate was 13.1 percent, Largo's was 7.2 percent, and in Homestead it was 4.5 percent.

On Florida's state report cards, Mavericks schools in Miami-Dade, Pinellas, and Osceola counties have all scored "incomplete" because not enough students have taken the FCAT. Hollander says she expects the FCAT grade to change as more students enroll.

Deborah Higgins, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said there is no policy that requires a school to be disciplined or shut down if it continues to earn grades of "incomplete." That means Mavericks schools can keep operating with little oversight of its academic progress.

Part of Mavericks' problem may be the teaching model: Parking troubled kids in front of a computer and hoping they'll learn — instead of watching the latest Kardashian stunt on YouTube. Research shows that for virtual learning to work, "Students need to be very self disciplined and have supportive environments," Miron says. "If they're not self-guided and self-motivated, then it's gonna be a hard match."

Meanwhile, recent lawsuits filed against Mavericks raise questions about whether any of the schools' statistics can be trusted. In February and June of this year, two former employees filed whistle-blower lawsuits against Mavericks regarding its Homestead high school. Teacher Maria Del Cristo and career coordinator Kelly Shaw allege the school inflates attendance records to receive more money from the school district, exceeds class size limits, and "regularly fails to accurately post grades and report student enrollment" in the district's computer system, in violation of state law.

State school funding follows students, no matter where they are enrolled. When entering data into the computer system, the lawsuits allege, Mavericks often says students are enrolled in courses they're not actually taking in order to get more funding. Even more alarming, Shaw and del Cristo allege the school does not offer a "Florida High School Diploma."

Records show Mavericks schools are not accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. This means graduates can attend community colleges, but they may have trouble getting sports scholarships or federal grants.

Students would ask Shaw if they could check their records, to see what courses they were enrolled in. But the school principal, Candace Chewning, told her to "calm the wildfires" and deny students and parents access to the records, Shaw alleges.

Chewning also chastised Shaw for warning students they might not be accepted into certain programs with a Mavericks diploma. According to Shaw, her boss told her she was spreading "poison" in the school, and Mavericks might close because so many kids were leaving. Shaw was fired in February 2010.

In April 2010, Del Cristo called the Miami-Dade school district to complain about students grades and attendance records being altered, among other allegations. She was fired the next month.

Dale Morgado, attorney for Shaw and Del Cristo, declined to comment, saying he's in settlement negotiations with Mavericks.

Mavericks officials have filed motions to dismiss both lawsuits. Biden says Mavericks schools issue Florida diplomas, but not every child graduates. When New Times contacted Hollander to ask more detailed questions about the lawsuit and other issues, she never responded.

Mavericks' paper trail is also troubling. Accountability reports, submitted by Mavericks to the state, contain bizarre financial figures. In 2010, the reports show zero dollars in revenue for the school in North Miami Beach, while both Mavericks schools in Miami-Dade claimed to be paying most of their teachers less than $5,000 a year.

Tammy Lara, principal at Mavericks High in Homestead, says those salaries are no longer correct. "Our salaries are very competitive to Miami-Dade County public schools," she says.

But Lara was not head of the school last year when the reports were submitted and didn't know why the listed salaries were so low. Hollander said she was unfamiliar with the state reports and would have to review them before commenting. When emailed the reports, she never responded.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab