State says BlueSky online school hasn't followed graduation requirements.
A public online charter school in Minnesota is under heavy scrutiny after state officials said it handed out diplomas to students who did not meet state graduation requirements.
BlueSky Online School has broken the law by graduating students who fell short of the state's requirements for course credit and testing, possibly as recently as this spring, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The charter school, based in West St. Paul, has about 700 students in grades 7-12.
The school also faces a lawsuit served last month by two former employees who claim they were wrongfully laid off for reporting violations of state law at BlueSky.
"I personally think [the school] should be shut down," said Kyra Campbell, a former social studies teacher and one of the suit's plaintiffs. "This has been going on so many years."
This month, the department is reviewing data that BlueSky submitted in response to an order that the school show it's following the law by Aug. 31.
Both the state and the nonprofit authorizer that oversees BlueSky are tracking the school's moves, said education department spokesman Bill Walsh. "We're on it, and the authorizer is on it, and we're reviewing 2010 graduation data to make sure that diplomas were given to people that deserved them," he said.
BlueSky's board chairwoman acknowledged that state audits turned up some violations, but she said the school has made changes. "We have an entirely new state-approved curriculum in place right now, so any concerns they had there are already being addressed," said Jlayne Torma, who is also a teacher at the school.
"We've fixed many, if not all, of the concerns," she said.
BlueSky also says a recent audit report of the school's curriculum included many errors. All of BlueSky's 2010 graduates met state requirements, the school says.
State officials aren't convinced. "The jury's out while we go through this 2010 information," Walsh said last week.
That review will be complete in a matter of weeks, he said. If state officials find that problems remain, they will press the school's authorizer to take action that could include shutting down BlueSky, he said. "We are losing patience."
Problems come to light
State officials undertook a curriculum audit of the school in February 2009. That review uncovered issues the school was ordered to fix, but state officials said BlueSky missed a deadline to respond. Then new complaints came in, and the state did a second audit this spring.
In April, the state told the school that it was violating state law by graduating students who had not earned required credits in math and social studies. The school also failed to ensure that graduates passed state math tests or met alternate testing requirements, the state said.
Some evidence in the audit came from interviews with school counselors and a random sample of student transcripts. Among other things, an analysis of 20 transcripts of students who were on track to graduate in 2010 showed that 19 appeared to fall short of math credit requirements, state officials said.
Many issues were reported by former teachers, Campbell said. Last month, Campbell and Misun Bormann, a former guidance counselor and school board member, served BlueSky with a wrongful termination suit in Dakota County District Court.
BlueSky said last week that it would not comment on pending litigation.
Reports of persistent violations at BlueSky frustrate lawmakers such as state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, who worked on legislation passed last year in an attempt to prevent abuses that have plagued some charter schools. "What's happening to the kids, while we're waiting and giving these schools a second or third chance?" she asked.
One parent of a former student said BlueSky promised her son plenty of personal attention when he enrolled two years ago. "It didn't happen," said Cyndi Chetrit of Spicer. "He's a great writer, but all of his abilities fell when he was at BlueSky."
A counselor at the school gave such bad guidance, she said, that if the family hadn't switched to a new BlueSky counselor, it's likely that "we would have been at the end and he wouldn't have had his requirements met."
BlueSky has argued that some problems were the fault of a former director who was fired in mid-2009.
Its latest director, Jeffrey Schulz, left the school last week. Schulz said he resigned to take a private-sector job in accounts management, though he wouldn't say where. BlueSky said he was not pressured to resign, and Schulz said he wasn't leaving because of the state investigation.
Came close to closing
BlueSky is under new oversight this fall after its previous authorizer, the Brooklyn Center school district, cut ties with the school this summer. The district didn't have the time or money to track the school, said Superintendent Keith Lester.
The Brooklyn Center school board initially tried to end its contract with BlueSky for cause, saying in April that the school had not followed the state's orders to comply with graduation requirements.
If that had happened, BlueSky would have had to shut down, Walsh said.
But BlueSky threatened legal action, Lester said, and the school district couldn't afford a costly legal fight. Plus, shuttering the school mid-year would have caused major upheaval for families, he said.
Instead, BlueSky and the district terminated their contract by mutual agreement.
Last month, the Education Department approved a new authorizer for the school, a nonprofit group called Novation Education Opportunities.
Asked why, given its concerns, the state didn't reject BlueSky's application for a new authorizer, Walsh said, "We could have." If problems aren't fixed, "then yes, eventually the authorizer will have to shut them down."
For now, the state has required the school and Novation to adopt a "very rigorous" action plan, he said.
"There's a lot of parents that have chosen this as the school for their kids," he said. "We can't make an arbitrary decision about, 'Well, we're going to pull this' and leave all those parents in the lurch."
State officials have reminded the school that all students have the right to an education that prepares them for college or a career. "They're getting one more chance," Walsh said.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016