So, just how bad are things at the middle school portion of Turning Point Academy, the only alternative school for troubled students operated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?
Other than teachers quitting within weeks of being assigned to work there, consider there have been official complaints made to federal and state education agencies about the school, many parents have taken up legal counsel and are considering lawsuits, and staff members are willing to risk their job security to speak candidly to WBT News about the bevy of injustices and violations they say are happening to children there.
Staff and parents say violence is standard practice and that the students aren’t receiving the federally mandated services for those with special learning and emotional needs.
All in all, each adult interviewed said TPA middle school is essentially a gateway to jail, if not already a jail-like place.
“This is literally a pipeline-to-prison system,” said a staff member speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by CMS. “We’re setting them up for failure, especially given the fact that most of them are people of color.”
The enrollment at TPA generally ranges from 93%-98% minority, according to numbers obtained by WBT News.
According to TPA’s website, it’s, “available as an alternative education option for students with long-term or 365-day suspensions and/or as a disciplinary reassignment for students who have committed serious violations of the Code of Student Conduct.”
Per data obtained by WBT News, as of May 20, there were 194 students in the middle school section and 245 in the high school portion. That may not sound like a lot, but especially at the middle school, should every student attend, that’s roughly four times what the N.C. Department of Instruction recommends (NCDPI).
There were 38 students in sixth grade, but only one classroom. There are 56 students in seventh grade, but two classrooms. But there are 100 students enrolled in eighth grade with just two classrooms. Simple math says if all students show up, then that’s 50 per class.
According to NCDPI’s published recommendations pertaining to teachers and students at alternative schools:
• Make teacher assistants available to the classrooms.
• Maintain a low teacher/student ratio – preferably 10:1 but not to exceed 15:1.
• Ensure that a high level of instructional support services is available to provide support and guidance for students and other staff (e.g. counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses).
None of these recommendations are a regular occurrence at TPA, according to staff.
CMS says claims by staff of having so many students are inaccurate. And when pressed about the 100 students enrolled in the eighth grade, CMS stood by its statement.
“While enrollment is up, there are no classes with 40 students or more at TPA,” it said. “That is incorrect information.”
When told of the response, a staff members got upset and said CMS is trying cover how bad the situation truly is. But another staff member said what CMS and the school is banking on is that enough kids will be suspended for serious things and not-so-serious things (wrong dress code attire) to keep the numbers down.
“There was a day this year when 76 students were suspended,” the staff member said. “The administrators are always suspending kids, even for the littlest of infractions.”
Parents and staff also say the immense overcrowding at TPA has transformed the school into anything but a place of learning.
When a student is sent to TPA due to a violation of the student code of conduct (smoking, fighting, stealing, etc.), whatever Individualized Education Program (IEP) they were receiving at their regular school must, by law, be given at TPA.
Herein lies one of many problems.
According to published information, in North Carolina, “the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that each student with a disability who is enrolled in the Exceptional Children’s (EC) program have an IEP. The goal of IDEA is to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible. IEPs describe how the school plans to educate each EC student while accommodating the student’s disability. IEPs often specify modifications to be provided by teachers.”
Moreover, an IEP requires the following:
• The student receives counseling in the guidance office for 30 minutes at least once a week.
• During class time or testing, the student gets preferential seating, a word processor, or testing in a separate room.
• Determine if the student needs alternate assessments.
• Determine which regular classes the student will take.
• Determine how much each day the student will spend with non-disabled students.
According to parents and staff at TPA, very few, if any, of the above requirements are being met. They add, if they are being somewhat met, they only started recently.
If this is the case, which staff and parents say it is, then the failure to provide students with their mandated IEPs is a direct violation of federal and state laws if the allotted amount of time is never done or completed.
“My son has a plan that he hasn’t received anything from his IEP,” a parent said. “He’s been on this plan from the first grade. Now, he’s in the seventh grade and since the sixth grade, CMS has been behind on giving him the proper IEP plan structure that they’re supposed to be giving.
“When I went to the orientation for Turning Point, they made it seem as though he would be receiving the IEP plan if he had a plan. They never sent anyone to reach out to me and say, “We don’t have a teacher available to teach the students on IEPs.” I had no idea he wasn’t getting his plan until one of my son’s teachers reached out to me and told me that my son wasn’t receiving the plan.
“Turning Point still has not addressed it.”
The teacher that informed this parent, as well as many others about the failures of TPA, is Ted Kostich, a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate who was the only middle school math teacher until resigning at the end of March, due to massive amounts of frustration with school administration and CMS in the way the students were being treated.
Prior to his joining CMS, Kostich was a United States Army Infantry Officer who resigned his commission as a Major to enter the ministry. He currently serves as the Senior Pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church.
Kostich said he was so dismayed by the fact none of the students were receiving the educational nor the emotional and behavioral support stated in their IEPs, he thought parents should be made aware of such things.
“I started contacting parents of students who I knew weren’t getting their support that they needed to be successful in the classroom,” Kostich said. “Every parent that I contacted did not know that their child wasn’t getting the support that was specified in their IEP.
“So, no parents knew and that’s really concerning because not only is Turning Point not providing what they should be providing, but in my humble opinion, they’re trying to hide the fact that they’re not providing what they should be providing.
“And I think that’s very, very, very concerning.”
According to Kostich, school officials weren’t happy with him informing the parents and told him he wasn’t allowed to contact them unless otherwise approved by senior staff.
“Whenever I brought these issues and many others to the attention of the administration, there were always excuses,” he said. “It was either because of COVID or shortage of teachers or shortage of funds. They even tried to say it was because of the teacher’s classroom management. …
“When I pointed out the fact that they were violating federal law by not providing students with the support that was specified in their IEP, it all fell on deaf ears. It actually got to the point, believe it or not, where I was told I was being disrespectful and insubordinate and that I couldn’t send out anymore emails without first having them cleared by my assistant principal.
“I was just flabbergasted.”
Despite many parents and staff members saying the students never received their mandatory IEPs, CMS said students either have or will receive their IEPs in due time.
In a statement to WBT, CMS cited the lack of having enough teachers specifically for Exceptional Children, which encompasses students with either physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities, for the issues at TPA middle school.
“TPA has been short an EC teacher much of the year,” CMS said. “EC teachers were dispatched to TPA to accommodate Individualized Education Programs. Any student who has not received the full extent of their IEP will receive compensatory time. …
“We understand the important work of EC teaches for our students throughout the district and are prioritizing recruitment and retention.”
CMS also said parents were made aware.
“Parents were notified of any changes affecting IEPs as required by law,” CMS said.
A staff member said not only have the students at the middle school not been receiving their IEPs, but also their 504 plans, which gives adaptations for kids who struggle in class with behaviors. For example, students with diagnosed ADHD or anxiety might have adjustments that allows them to go for a walk during class or fidget with something while sitting at their desks.
“These kids with IEPs and 504 plans are entitled to a certain amount of one-on-one time or to have a special accommodation. This week is the first time I’ve laid eyes on a guy who was supposed to be there to help with the kids,” a staff member said in April. “But we’re so understaffed that he ended up basically having to assist with de-escalation because five fights broke out his first day.”
Another parent said officials at the school have refused to give specific details as to what services her son is and isn’t getting.
“I’m asking them for actual information regarding exactly what my son is receiving and they’re not being clear on it,” said another parent. “My issues and frustrations are they will try to gaslight you or shut you up before you could ask anything. … There are a lot of things that needs to be addressed that they clearly aren’t addressing, and I want clear answers.
“I’m tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie. I’m tired of playing games. They’re (BSing) me. I’m tired of them saying one thing and nothing is being done. No one is reaching out.”
This parent, and others, have retained legal counsel as a result.
For his part, Kostich has filed formal complaints with the Department of Education and with NCDPI.
“IT’S LIKE JAIL”
One of the most common complaints from staff, parents and even some CMS officials is that Turning Point Academy isn’t so much of a school as much as it is a jail.
Students are sent to TPA for a minimum of eight weeks, with the stays usually much longer, for all sorts of violations, which could include fighting or even vaping. And while at TPA, if by chance they violate any of the rules, like bringing their phone, or not wearing the proper attire – which applies to extremely poor children, too – extra days and weeks are added to their time required to be there.
According to staff members, girl students have been suspended for having scrunchies on their wrists. They add that even students that are exceptionally poor that can’t afford the proper uniform – khakis, black or navy pants (can’t be too tight or too loose or jean material or jogging pants), navy blue or white polos, white or black shoes with no other color or designs, and a belt – are subject to discipline, such as suspension`.
Red or blue socks and jackets, and jackets with hoods or designs are strictly forbidden.
All this can be very difficult for students of little to no means.
Moreover, staff and parents say when a student arrives TPA that they rarely leave the same and that the school has a very lasting negative effect. Usually, they say, the student leaves traumatized.
Violence and bullying are extremely commonplace at TPA, according to staff. In fact, fights are the norm and not the exception.
It’s so bad, that one CMS official told a parent not to send their child to TPA and to just to take the five-day suspension instead.
“It’s the safety of the students that’s the primary concern, not the safety of the adults,” a staff member said.
“I also agree that there are students there that are traumatized by the environment, because many of these students are sent there for something innocuous or nonviolent, such as a drug offense or a vape pen. Suddenly these students are exposed to the events and situations that they might not necessarily be exposed to otherwise and that’s also a concern.”
Violence isn’t just at the school, but off campus, too.
“I also believe transportation is a big black hole where students are definitely not safe,” a staff member said. “There are incidents that happen on the bus, where students are assaulted by multiple other students. There are quite a few fights and because of the reduced amount of staff, sometimes those fights aren’t broken up in time to prevent the students from being injured.”
A parent said many times a week, her son comes home emotionally shaken by what he’s seeing on a continuous basis.
“My son didn’t come home last night until after 6:30, because he told me that the bus had to go back to Turning Point school twice,” she said. “Not once, but twice, because there was fighting on the bus. He sits in the front of the bus so that way he won’t even get mixed in the crowd of who’s fighting in the back of the bus.”
As stated previously, one of the main issues, which is even acknowledged by CMS, is the lack of staff at the school.
The principal of the middle school retired in September. Reggie Coles, an executive administrator with Student Discipline and Behavioral Support, was named the interim. However, staff members say that from October 1, 2021, through the spring he only stepped foot on campus one time.
CMS said, “Turning Point Academy’s new principal, Eric Puryear, started last week. He encourages and invites ANY parent with a question or concern to ask to speak with him or even meet with him at TPA. He is committed to making sure every TPA student receive an excellent quality of education as well as individualized support.”
Also, a special education teacher left just days after being hired because she said administration failed to truly paint an accurate picture of what the school was like.
When Kostich resigned at the end of March, that left the school short a math teacher, a position that hasn’t been filled since.
“There is a national teachers shortage and TPA has worked ardently to replace the math teacher,” CMS said. “Since March, a certified math instructor has acted as a substitute teacher and provided students lessons respective to their curriculum.”
There are disputes by staff as to whether the replacement is actually certified.
Parents also say their children haven’t received any math instruction, and that seems to be supported by members of the staff.
“At first, a counselor was covering the class and then a sub was brought in, but they just sit there,” a staff member said. “They haven’t received instruction the entire time. One sub actually told them that they’re on their own for math.” …
“They were given their math on computers and packets, which is useless if you aren’t taught how to do the work.”
The students are expected to pass their end-of-year-testing, regardless.
“In addition to the substitute, students have been provided with a multitude of preparatory material for state tests,” CMS said.
Kostich believes without significant changes in how CMS views and staffs TPA, there is little hope for the students or teachers who work there.
“The one word I would use would be travesty,” he said. “Turning Point isn’t about education. It’s really not about rehabilitation for the students. My experience there, it was about punishment for students who break the student code of conduct. …
“When they get sent to Turning Point, in my experience, they didn’t receive any of the support they needed to be successful, and in some cases, support they were entitled to by federal law. It was just a travesty for those students.”
“Teachers don’t receive the resources that they need to safely and successfully instruct their students. Classes are too big. When I left, I didn’t have a teacher’s aide and I had no support in the classroom.”
For another staff member, the situation at TPA has caused stress virtually every day and led to consideration of resigning and moving to another school district.
“They think that they’re bad kids,” a staff member said. “That’s the thing that makes me so angry. I tell them they’re not bad kids, but they just do stupid things, but they’re not bad. Then they tell me, “Well, we’re here at Turning Point and everybody else thinks that we’re bad.”
It truly was unanimous with the many staff and parents spoken to that TPA is a place of no hope and the lives of children can be and are negatively altered for good.
One middle school student at TPA had this to say when asked what the worst part is about going to school there:
“Really, just walking in the doors is the worst,” he said.
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