This Is Not Your Everyday School. This is Something Exceptional.’

Parents, administrators at war over soul of esteemed charter school

Damon Hodge

These are days of high contrast at the school Andre built. Just last week, the New York Times billed the Agassi Preparatory School as a model for other charter schools; it's been visited by bold-faced names—such as Bill Clinton—and lauded for the "commitment to excellence" contracts its pupils and their parents sign.

Also last week, a Clark County School District official confirmed that the academy faces a state investigation into alleged breaches of test security. This can't be good news for the school, which is already under a 90-day district deadline to fix regulatory violations uncovered in March. Agassi Prep is also smarting from allegations of demagoguery, teacher and student mistreatment and racism that came to light in February.

Tammy Wiggins, whose son attended the school, says she passed out tests and monitored pupils October 3 as they took the standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Her participation violated rules stipulating that those administering tests are trained by district officials. She wasn't. Wiggins claims principal Kimberly Allen has since orchestrated a cover-up, demonizing her family among teachers and parents and hinting at litigation if the testing allegation becomes public. Wiggins suspects Agassi Prep supporters are behind a recent incident in which her car was broken into and a crucifix placed on the front seat.

"First, she [Allen] said I wasn't there. Then I was there, and I was certified. Now she says I wasn't there, and she has a videotape to prove it," Wiggins says. "I was there. I volunteered there almost every day. Administrators saw me that day, teachers saw me, security saw me and students saw me. I sharpened pencils for the test."

Allen says the incident never occurred.

Now, the state will try to figure it out. Nevada Department of Education gumshoes joined the investigation at the behest of the Clark County School District, whose initial probe yielded conflicting answers.

"We had some initial conversations with teachers and administrators, and there was a discrepancy in the information," says Karlene McCormick-Lee, assistant superintendent for research, accountability and innovation for the school district. Nevada Department of Education officials didn't return calls for comment; McCormick-Lee affirmed their involvement. "It could have been an honest mistake—an administrative gaffe or poor knowledge of testing procedures. [But] we may find out different."

The testing security issue is but Agassi Prep's latest controversy, following a February rally by hundreds of parents distraught over numerous teacher firings and resignations (15 since August) and what they describe as an environment of racial intolerance and administrative insouciance. A March school district investigation found that the campus failed to report required student data or record employee evaluations or classroom observations for 2003-04 year; that a person licensed as a substitute teacher was listed as a school psychologist; that an unsupervised, nonlicensed employee had led a social studies class. The Agassi Parent Activist Organization formed to address the problems, some of which were outlined in a January 27 letter to parents from "A Concerned Educator." The author blames Allen for an atmosphere that's "tense, repulsive and reeks of harassment."

"From one day to the next, the students cannot be sure who their teachers will be. ... Somewhere in the midst of hiring and firing professional after professional, the Agassi Foundation and Ms. Allen have forgotten that Mr. Agassi's goals for the school were centered on the children—that their emotional development is as equally important as their academic growth."

So which is the real Agassi Prep: a model charter school or Allen's personal fiefdom?

"I don't know who's giving you this information," Allen says. "My sources from the school district told me there's no indication there was a breach of anything. It's a nonissue. If this stuff were true, it would be a concern for hundreds of parents. We've only had two children withdraw this year."

One of them was Aaron Wiggins, in February. Demetria Williams couldn't wait that long. She transferred her son, Job, a year earlier. Williams says Allen inherited a fractious campus and has made it more so. She describes teachers as ill-equipped to instruct and discipline minority students; teachers giving grades based on their opinions of a pupil; draconian punishments, such as making kids scrape scuffmarks off the floor; and malevolence toward black boys. It was so bad, she says, Job wanted her to come with him to school for security. Other parents talk of perpetual staff backstabbing—who can run fastest to snitch to Allen about traitors—and indifference to their complaints.

"I talked to administrators, the [Agassi] foundation and the school district about all the problems, and nothing happened," Williams says. "I sent letters to the [U.S. Department of Education] and filed a formal complaint with them. I was told they didn't find any kind of racial discrimination."

According to an April 8 letter to administrators, Chris Goodloe Sr. removed his son in part because administrators never addressed harassment of his son. Wiggins says administrators have disparaged her Hispanic heritage. Aaron's transfer form cites "racial discrimination and harassment, unsure of curriculum, lack of teachers ... comments about my race."

Allen denies being a racial imperialist and offers point-by-point explanations of Agassi Prep's woes. The regulatory mistakes: due to a learning curve. ("Everything that was an issue has been or is being taken care or we're finishing up on it.") Teacher attrition: Not everyone's cut out for the job. ("Just because you graduate [from college] and teach several places, that doesn't qualify you as a great teacher.") As for the negative perception some parents have of the school: "I can't guess about the motives ... This is not your everyday school. This is something exceptional."

Tammy Wiggins will hear none of it. "Agassi is a colorful brochure," she says, clutching a pamphlet featuring smiling children. "That's it."

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