In a permutated form, Oxford Preparatory Academy, which soared into the stratosphere of academic achievement only to come to a shattering and ignominious crashing to earth over the last two years, has found rebirth of sorts in the form of Thrive Charter Academy.
Thrive, the full name for which is Allegiance Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math Academy – Thrive, also referred to as Allegiance STEAM, is to be located at the El Rancho Elementary School campus, where for the seven years ending last June the academically successful but financially challenged Oxford Preparatory Academy had been located.
With Thrive functioning from the same location and with the lion’s share of those involved in its creation having in some way been affiliated with Oxford, it is not only perception but reality that Thrive is a continuation of Oxford. Some consider that a good thing. Others see it far less positively.
The paradox of Oxford is grounded in, and reflects the same dichotomy, as the serpentine perambulations and traversions within the heart, mind, personality and character of its founder, Sue Roche. The issue descends into the province of perhaps unanswerable questions: Was Sue Roche a truly gifted and inspired educator who possessed a formula for stimulating students beyond the staid strictures of traditional academic pursuit in a way that they came to value learning and pushed themselves to their ultimate level of achievement? Did her own performance merit greater recognition than could be granted to someone working within the confines of the public school system? Did she come to resent the limitations to the way in which her merit was not matched by the financial rewards that system had to offer? Did such resentment fester in her until it transformed into greed, which then drove her into a questionable, perhaps even illegal, exploitation of the splendid institution which she had created? Do the parents of the students whose academic progress was advanced by Oxford now want to see a remanifestation of that institution in the form of Thrive so that it can be of benefit to the Chino Valley Community and serve the coming generation of the community’s students? Or do those parents simply want to exploit the opportunity that Thrive presents to benefit their own privileged children at the expense of the other students in the district who will be turned away when they seek admission there? The answers to these questions vary depending upon who is asked.
In 2009 an effort to create a charter school under the auspices of the Chino Valley Unified School District was initiated by both parents and teachers. The California Education Code provides for the formation of charter schools under the aegis of a sponsoring local school district. Charter schools function outside the established parameters of normal schools and can offer a curriculum and educational smorgasbord unavailable in traditional public schools while meeting the requirements of both special needs students and accelerated scholars.
In 2010, the Chino Valley Unified School District, at the urging of superintendent Wayne Joseph, entrusted Sue Roche with $3 million in taxpayer funds to make a go, in conjunction with others, of creating a charter school. Joseph was willing to make that gamble based upon Roche’s record of achievement beginning in April 2003 as the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, which was consistently the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District. After considering establishing the campus at the former Los Serranos Elementary School site in Chino Hills, the district opened Oxford Academy at the shuttered El Rancho Elementary School, located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue in Chino. Utilizing Roche’s recipe of a rich curriculum, old-fashioned book learning, an intensified classroom focus, heavy doses of parental involvement, and constant teacher-parent interaction, Oxford exceeded all expectations.
In 2011, students at Oxford Preparatory Academy collectively outperformed their counterparts at every other elementary and junior high school in San Bernardino County, as measured by their scores on California’s Standard Testing And Reporting exams, which measured students’ progress toward achieving California’s state-adopted academic content standards in English–language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social science. They repeated the feat in 2012 and 2013. Oxford had an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 958 in 2011 and improved to 972 in 2012, a rating which put it safely within the top two percent of schools, public and private, in the state. Enthusiasm for the Oxford undertaking was so high that the number of student applicants to attend the school routinely outran the number of desks and classroom space for them by as many as 600 per year, requiring that the district hold a lottery as a means of granting admission to it. Joseph had to take the extraordinary step of forging a memorandum of understanding between the district and Oxford Preparatory, preventing the academy from poaching the district’s highest performing teachers.
Under California law, charter schools are sponsored by a public school district and are supported by taxpayer funds but are given autonomy, within certain parameters, to carry out their educational missions in compliance with each school’s declared educational goals and according to its curriculum approved by the sponsoring school district’s school board. Each charter school has its own internal corporate board, which is independent of the district board. Charter schools are not given indefinite license to operate, but are chartered for a defined number of years. To continue beyond that point the schools must have their charters extended.
In December 2011, the Chino Valley Unified School District’s board unanimously extended Oxford’s charter for five years, from 2012-13 through 2016-17.
In the meantime, Roche expanded the Oxford model, convincing the Capistrano Unified School District to sponsor another campus, the Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo. Roche transferred Jason Watts, who had been the principal at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Chino to Mission Viejo, where he served as the Mission Viejo campus’s inaugural principal/chancellor.
In Mission Viejo, students rang up an impressive 993 academic performance score on the 1,000-point maximum index during the first year the school was open.
In early 2015, with Oxford due to again seek an extension of its charter, the widespread assumption was that it would be routinely granted. But Joseph and other Chino Valley Unified officials, who had looked past the limelight of the academy’s spectacular scholastic accomplishments, had found that Roche had made a number of changes in the academy’s management structure by which Roche stood to profit – and profit handsomely. A first step Roche took to cash in on the institution she had created was done quietly and nonchalantly when in 2012 she incorporated Edlighten Learning Solutions, based in Yorba Linda and identified as a for-profit “charter management company.”
In 2014, Roche withdrew from the position of executive director of Oxford Preparatory’s corporate entity and promoted Barbara Black to that position, while assuming an undefined administrative role in the academy. She then arranged to have Oxford contract for the administrative services she was providing not directly with her but through Edlighten Learning Solutions. Upon Roche’s direction, Black had Oxford Charter Academy enter into a contractual arrangement to pay Edlighten $5.3 million to, essentially, employ Roche as the school’s contract administrator and operations director over the next four years and simultaneously employ a coterie of Roche’s associates in various capacities over the same timeframe.
When the issue of renewing Oxford’s charter came before the school board on March 17, 2016, Joseph dropped a bombshell on the community, recommending against the charter renewal. To support his position, Joseph presented an analysis of the charter renewal petition done by the accounting firm of Vavrinek, Trine & Day, which stated in its conclusion “the petition presents an unrealistic financial and operational plan.” Roche was, Joseph asserted, seeking to exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy and line her own pockets. He accused her of creating and then engaging in a financial conflict of interest which would shortchange Oxford Preparatory’s students while enriching herself. Roche had engaged in “arrogance, overreach and greed” in the administration of the academy which victimized Oxford’s students and parents, Joseph told the school board, while employing “machinations” by which she fired dedicated educational professionals who were beginning to question the direction Oxford was taking or her efforts to otherwise advanced herself. Roche, the superintendent said, was cynically relying upon the reputation Oxford had attained and was manipulating the academy’s reliance on consultants, of which she was the primary one, to profit. He said that “renewal of the Oxford Preparatory Academy’s petition is not consistent with sound educational practice.” In compliance with Joseph’s recommendation, the school board declined to renew Oxford’s charter.
Initially, Oxford’s internal board asserted the school district’s action was unjustified. Joseph was attacked personally, as Oxford’s supporters suggested that he was acting out of resentment toward Roche because the performance of students at Oxford so convincingly outdistanced the performance of nearly all of the other students in the district. But, as the district marshaled evidence of the financial depredations Roche had engaged in, the Oxford board rethought this approach and terminated its relationship with Roche and Edlighten in May 2016. It then appealed the district’s decision to the county school board and San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre, asserting that closing down Oxford because of a few financial transgression of its founder, especially given the impressive academic performance of the academy’s students, was shortsighted. The county school board declined to take any action, maintaining the appeal pertained to a rejected application, and that Oxford’s relationship to Roche and Edlighten no longer existed, thus making an appeal unwarranted. Oxford took a dual track approach, turning to the State Department of Education, seeking to get a charter from it, and submitted a revised application to the Chino Valley Unified Board. In the meantime, Alejandre had made a request for an audit.
The Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, an adjunct to the California Department of Education, carried out that audit and in early December 2016 delivered a 45-page audit summary and report, highlighting the conclusion that Roche’s action may have crossed the line into criminality. The audit cataloged how Roche created a system that involved Yorba Linda-based Edlighten and another entity, the Nevada corporation Educational Excellence, in dodging accountability through what was characterized as a “daisy chain” of payments between for-profit companies which employed her family, friends and associates. Roche purposefully hid or obscured financial transactions and operations in such a way that the auditors, not to mention Chino Valley Unified officials and even Oxford’s own in-house employees, could not easily track them, according to the audit report. Ultimately, public school funding was diverted to bank accounts controlled by Roche and her associates, according to the audit. Oxford Preparatory, Edlighten and Educational Excellence employed several of Roche’s relatives, including her husband Terry, daughter Rebecca Baty, son Brian Roche and cousin Nick Califato, all of whom were paid through the organization. The Chino Valley Unified School Board, provided with an advance copy of the audit, rejected the renewed application in November 2016.
Oxford officials were thus reduced to putting all of their eggs in the basket of hope represented by the petition for rechartering made to the California Board of Education. Having already parted ways with Roche and Edlighten, they attempted to further distance the academy from her. Several of the academy’s board members associated with her voluntarily resigned. The academy board adopted new bylaws and policies meant to prevent any future financial abuse. The academy moved to quantify the funds it believed had been misdirected by Roche, determining that Roche had been the recipient of $125,435.39 in payments that had not been authorized by the academy’s board. The academy succeeded in recovering $15,900 of that amount from Roche and sought full reimbursement of the remaining $109,535.39 from her. On March 17, 2017 it went even further, filing a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against Roche and Edlighten Learning Solutions. The lawsuit alleged breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, and violations of business and professions code Section 17200.
Preparatory toward the California Board of Education’s ultimate determination in the matter, Oxford came before the California Board of Education’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools on April 5, 2017 seeking to make a case that Oxford deserved to soldier on. And indeed, Andrew Vestey, the newly appointed chairman of the board of Oxford Preparatory Academy and several other Oxford proponents, including board vice-chair Sandra Garner, made a compelling case that the academy’s board and management had remade the institution, keeping the academic elements that were so worth preserving and salvaging the core values that Oxford represents, while making crucial and salutary changes by supplanting the previous management at Oxford that had sullied its name. Those assertions and arguments were made in the face of Chino Valley Unified’s attorney, Steven Chidester, who countered them by belaboring the difficulties Oxford had experienced and the results of the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team audit. Chidester referenced two different account and security loan agreements, each for one million dollars, between Oxford and the California Credit Union, signed by executive director Barbara Black on August 31, 2016, which he insisted raised doubts about Oxford’s claimed strong financial position. The advisory commission voted 4 to 3 in favor of making the chartering extension. According to the commission’s bylaws, however, such a recommendation cannot be made on a simple 4-3 majority vote, but must be done by a 5-to-2 margin or greater. Thus, the matter came before the California Board of Education on May 11, 2017 as something of an orphan.
On May 11, Oxford board president Andrew Vestey and Denise Pascoe, who had been brought in to serve in the capacity of acting director of Oxford, pleaded with the California State Department of Education’s board to allow Oxford to continue, insisting that all ties with Roche had been cut and that financial reforms had been made. They suggested the students at the school were being scapegoated for Roche’s action.
But they were countered by Grace Park, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction with the Chino Valley Unified School District, and Chidester, who said Oxford’s charter should not be renewed.
While it appeared that California Board of Education members Bruce Holaday and Sue Burr, in particular, were favorably disposed toward allowing Oxford to recharter, they were able to get just two more of their colleagues to support Holaday’s motion to approve the school’s appeal, contingent upon an oversight protocol. With six votes against the motion, Oxford’s prospect of staying intact in its original form died.
Oxford’s sponsors did not give up the ghost entirely, however. Though Oxford did not reopen in August for the 2017-18 school year, a number of parents of former Oxford students, working in conjunction with Oxford employees, put together and presented to the Chino Valley Unified School District two proposals to revive Oxford, one in the form of an entity called Oxford Rise Academy, and Thrive being another. Those proposals were presented to the Chino Valley Unified School District in October. In November, the school board took up the Oxford Rise application.
The district brought in La Verne-based certified public accountant Paul S. Horvat to make a critical examination of the proponents’ claim that Oxford Rise would perform financially in accordance with state guidelines. Horvat’s verdict was Oxford Rise was essentially a new version of Oxford Preparatory Academy that was virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. District staff made a further finding that many of those involved in the Oxford Rise proposal had connections to the now-discredited Roche and were what was referred to as her “loyal followers.” By a vote of 4-1, with James Na dissenting, the school board rejected the request to charter Oxford Rise.
It thus appeared that the Allegiance STEAM–Thrive alternative to be considered in December had little prospect for success. A resolution prepared for the board’s endorsement that was indeed ratified by the board laid out reason after reason why the charter school should not be permitted to operate under the district’s auspices.
According to that resolution, “The Allegiance STEAM–Thrive charter petition, as submitted, presents an unsound educational program for the pupils to be enrolled in the proposed Allegance charter school, and supporting documents appear to be copied from a variety of internet sources without consistency of purpose or any sense of how it all fits together as a whole, and Allegiance STEAM–Thrive’s ‘Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math-focused instructional program’ is not likely to be of educational benefit to Thrive pupils without adequate professional development for Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive’s teachers… The Thrive charter petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive charter petition because the charter petition presents an unrealistic financial and operational plan for the proposed Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive charter school… The Thrive budget presents a Year 1 reserve of 0.3%, which fails to meet the legally required financial reserve of 4.0%… The August 24, 2017 charter asset management funding commitment letter of $4.5 million is based on receivable factoring, is not a legally binding commitment, and is specific to the 2018-2019 school year only… Because successful factoring for amounts budgeted by Thrive is dependent upon Thrive’s likely overstated enrollment, Thrive may have insufficient cash flow to meet Thrive’s Year 1 financial obligations… The Thrive budgeted special education encroachment is understated by $100,835, which increases Thrive’s budgeted expenses an equal amount, thereby reducing Thrive’s 2018-2019 Year 1 fund balance to a financially flawed deficit/negative ending fund balance of $89,650. As a result, Thrive’s Year 1 fund balance reserve is reduced to a negative 2.0%… The Thrive charter petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the Thrive charter petition because the Thrive charter petitioners personally lack the necessary background in California kindergarten to 8th grade charter school curriculum, instruction, and assessment… The Thrive charter petition fails to contain a reasonably comprehensive description of the proposed Thrive charter school’s governance structure because Thrive’s governance structure fails to ensure there will be active and effective representation of Thrive parents and guardians… The Thrive charter petition fails to contain any description of the qualifications to be met by Allegiance-STEAM–Thrive’s speech language pathologist assistant, instructional aides, PE aide/proctors, and world language teachers, in addition to the Thrive charter petitioners’ failure to provide a reasonably comprehensive description of the qualifications to be met by Allegiance-STEAM–Thrive’s teaching staff and director of business services.”
The resolution also took issue with the charter school’s admission requirements and its public random lottery preferences for admitting students.
Nevertheless, on a 3-2 vote on December 14, the school board, after hearing Sadie Burroughs, Andrew Vestey, Troy Stevens, Vanessa Okamoto, and Eric Hasanoff implore the board to grant the charter, approved giving Allegiance–STEAM–Thrive Academy conditional clearance to operate as a kindergarten through 8th grade school, the administration for which will initiate in July and which will open to students in August for the 2018-19 school year.
According to the resolution, “The Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education recognizes the extensive public support for the charter petition at the November 9, 2017 public hearing, and that charter schools may assist the district in offering diverse learning opportunities for district students. The board of education has carefully considered the potential of the proposed charter school to provide Chino Valley Unified School District students with an education that enables them to achieve their fullest potential.”
The resolution states, “Whereas, despite the Allegiance–STEAM–Thrive Academy charter petition’s material failures as set out above to comply with Education Code 47605 and California Code of Regulations, Title 5, Section 11967.5.1, which the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education hereby finds are sufficient for denial of the charter petition, the board of education believes that all of the deficiencies in the Thrive Academy charter petition can be addressed and remedied to the board of education’s satisfaction in separate memoranda of understanding to be entered into between the district and Allegiance–STEAM–Thrive Academy.”
One of those memoranda states, “Thrive Academy shall hold harmless, defend, and indemnify the district, its officers, agents and employees, from every demand, liability, claim, cause of action, suits, or liabilities of whatever nature or kind, including, but not limited to actions or investigations by state and federal agencies to recover funds, attorney’s fees and litigation costs, that arise out of or relate to any actual or alleged act, omission, or crime on the part of Allegiance–STEAM–Thrive Academy, or its current and former officers and employees.”
Another memoranda states, “Thrive Academy shall not have the legal authority to enter into any contract that would in any way bind the district, or to extend the credit of the district to any third person or party.”
Among other commitments, the Allegiance–STEAM–Thrive Academy proponents said they would credentialize the director of educational programs and employ an educated and experienced director of business services, submit to the Chino Valley Unified School District staff an employee recruitment plan, a student recruitment and enrollment plan, job descriptions including employee qualifications for speech language pathologist assistants, instructional aides, physical education aides and proctors, and world language teachers, along with certificated job descriptions including employee qualifications for elementary teachers, math teachers, science teachers and classified job descriptions for secretaries, custodians, clerks, health technicians and instructional aides.
The board voted 3-to-2 to grant the charter, with members James Na, Andrew Cruz and Sylvia Orozco prevailing and Pamela Feix and Irene Hernandez-Blair dissenting.
In approving the Thrive school plan in December, the district had not committed to precisely where the campus would be located, though having Thrive use the El Rancho campus was considered conditional and provisional, based upon the proponents meeting all of the conditions outlined in the memoranda and resolution.
Last week, the Chino Valley Unified School District assented, under the terms of Proposition 39 which mandates that school districts make facilities available to charter schools, to allow Thrive to function out of the El Rancho Campus. The school will host 480 students in its first year. Thrive is now employing Sebastian Cognetta as an operating and executive consultant and is committed to extending to Cognetta employment beginning on July 1 as Thrive’s chief executive officer under a formalized arrangement.
While those affiliated with the effort officially maintain there is no connection with Oxford Preparatory Academy, which yet exists as an entity and operates the two charter schools in Orange County, there is a multitude of de facto connections between Thrive and Oxford. Andrew Vestey, the board president of Thrive, is the former board president of Oxford. Virtually all of the founding members of Thrive are former Oxford parents or were in some way associated with Oxford. Already, the cult-like status of Oxford has descended over Thrive, as parents of students who did not attend Oxford report that they are being discouraged from applying to have their children enroll there, and are being told that former Oxford students will be given priority in their application for admission to Thrive.
Those affiliated with Thrive officially dispute that.
Meanwhile, neither the district, nor those associated with Thrive have evinced any show of concern over the set of circumstances, including the lack of clarity with regard to a merit system having been built into the semi-public/semi-private nature of the charter school system, which left Roche dissatisfied with her remuneration as the head of one of the highest performing scholastic enterprises in California, instigating her move to profit by entering into a questionable consultancy with the academy. District board member Irene Hernandez-Blair spurned the opportunity to engage in such a discussion, telling the Sentinel, “Those are things you will need to address to the charter school’s board.”
State documents show that in 2013, while Roche was one of the most successful educators in California, she was being paid through the Capistrano Unified School District in her official capacity with Oxford $82,944 in regular pay, another $8,298 in other pay and was provided with $2,128 in benefits for a total pay and benefit package of $93,370. In 2014, she received $88,469 in salary, $4,951 in additional pay, and $24,408.50 in benefits for $117,828.50 in total pay and benefits. In 2015, she received $94,552 in salary, another $5,915 in add-ons and $25,854.60 in benefits for a total pay and benefit package of $126,321.60. In 2016, she received $108,156 in salary, $11,429 in other pay, along with $30,896.20 in benefits for a total compensation of $150,481.20. This money put her in the mid-range for top level school administrators in California. It was through extracurricular activity – by exploiting her position of authority within the Oxford hierarchy – that Roche was able to maneuver to put herself into a position as a consultant, wherein she was able to rein in the big bucks.
Troy Stevens, a parent of a former Oxford student and one of the ten founders of Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive Academy who is the academy’s lead point liaison with the Chino Valley Unified School District, insisted to the Sentinel that former students at Oxford Preparatory Academy are not being given admission priority at Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive Academy over students who did not previously attend Oxford.
“No, they are not,” Stevens said. “Actually, it is quite the opposite. Those living in the neighborhood [i.e., within walking distance of the El Rancho Elementary School campus, located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue] have a 3-to-1 preference in the [admissions] lottery. Those in the district have a 2-to-1 preference.” Those from outside the district who apply for admission to Thrive will get a straight 1-to-1 shot in the lottery, he said. “We’ve already tried to reach out to students who live by the school,” Stevens continued. “We went through the neighborhood to tell parents their children have the opportunity to attend Allegiance. Once enrollment starts, we are going to go door-to-door again to encourage them to fill out intent to enroll forms.”
Stevens insisted, “We have no ties to Oxford. We are a different charter program.” Pressed, however, he conceded, “Several of the founders of the school are parents of students who attended Oxford, correct.”
Queried as to why, if there were no pre-set priorities on admissions to Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive other than the students’ proximity to the campus and registration within the district, the parents of many former Oxford students held a sense of their children’s entitlement to admission, Stevens asserted, “Every single student who applies to enroll will be considered fairly. The only preference is based on where they live and if they are registered within the district. All of the students will be chosen through a lottery and the lottery is done through the use of a high tech software system that cannot be manipulated. No one has preferences with regard to attending the school more than the next kid other than the 3-to-1 weight given on where they live or 2-to-1 if they already attend school within the district elsewhere. Outsiders will be considered on a 1-to1 scale.”
With regard to Sebastian Cognetta, Stevens said he has “no ties to Oxford.” Stevens said Cognetta currently “has another job” with another charter school, while working as a consultant to Allegiance-Thrive, for which he is not presently being remunerated. “He is contracted as a consultant, but our budget is tight,” said Stevens. “He is not being paid right now because we can’t afford to pay his salary.” Stevens said that the agreement in place will have Cognetta begin “as CEO on July 1. After that he will leave his other position and he will be 100 percent absolutely committed to Allegiance. That will be his only job.”
Stevens dismissed reports that Cognetta was functioning under an agreement that he would be provided with a salary before benefits of $180,000 annually. “His actual salary has not been agreed upon,” Stevens said. “His contract is in negotiations.” Cognetta’s annual pay, Stevens said, “will be nowhere near $180,000. That’s not even close. His annual pay, when it’s available, will be made public.”
Cognetta is to receive full benefits as an employee of the academy. “All staff, full time employees, are offered benefits like any other school district employee,” Stevens said.
Stevens resisted being drawn into making any comparison between Cognetta and Roche, and shied away from acknowledging that the success achieved at Oxford which Thrive is now seeking to emulate was in large measure based upon Roche’s educational formula. Nor would he entertain any discussion about what factors had motivated Roche’s action which redounded to the dissolution of the once-proud institution she had created and to the detriment of Oxford’s students. He likewise eschewed questions as to whether the chief operating officer and members of the faculty at a charter school such as Thrive should receive merit pay based upon student academic performance.
“It is up to the board to decide what to pay or not to pay,” Stevens said. “I’m not interested in talking about Sue Roche. She isn’t relevant to Allegiance-STEAM, not at all. We are an independent charter school formed by parents who just want a quality education for our students. We have no ties to Susan Roche or Oxford. We are not trying to be second best. We are trying to be the best.”
Allegiance-STEAM-Thrive is to be, Stevens said, “a 100 percent public school. Anybody can apply. It is a free public school.”
Asked if Cognetta’s role as CEO is more comparable to a superintendent or a principal, Stevens finessed the question.
“He is both,” Stevens said. “In year one, the budget is tight. We don’t have a principal so the CEO is the principal.”
Despite the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office’s review of Roche’s actions for any criminal implication, no charges against her have yet been lodged.
In a permutated form, Oxford Preparatory Academy, which soared into the stratosphere of academic achievement only to come to a shattering and ignominious crashing to earth over the last two years, has found rebirth of sorts in the form of Thrive Charter Academy.