TALLAHASSEE —The Orange County school system is investigating a charter school that wrongly threatened to dismiss students for failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, or FCAT.
The school, Cornerstone Charter Academy, retracted the threat Thursday, blaming a "poorly written letter" from the principal to parents.
Still, the move was enough to spark a new round of allegations that charter schools, which are privately managed but receive taxpayer funding, inflate their state-issued school grades by "cherry picking" students.
"If a child does not pass FCAT and the school discontinues that child's enrollment because of it, then they are rigging their own school achievement scores by dismissing students who may bring down the school's grade," said Sandy Stenoff, who withdrew her child from Cornerstone last year.
Cornerstone Charter Academy is run by the Miami-based school management firm Academica, which manages more than three-dozen charter schools in South Florida, and has ties to top state lawmakers.
Like other charter schools in Florida, Cornerstone cannot exclude or remove students based on their test scores.
But in an Oct. 28 letter to parents, Principal Renee Pancoast wrote that students would risk losing their seats if they failed to perform.
"If your child does not attend (after-school test prep) and does not receive a passing score on the FCAT exam, their continued enrollment for the 2014-2015 school year may be in jeopardy," she wrote.
Neither Pancoast nor Academica returned calls from the Times/Herald.
Late Thursday, however, the principal penned a second letter to parents seeking to clarify her original letter.
"Let me be very clear, the results of standardized testing are not a factor in being denied continued enrollment at Cornerstone Charter Academy," Pancoast wrote. "We were attempting to inform parents that failure to achieve state-mandated scores in specified grade levels could affect a student's matriculation to the next grade level. We apologize that we did not communicate this effectively."
Christopher Bernier, who oversees charter schools for the Orange County school system, declined to comment, citing an "active investigation" into the school.
State Department of Education officials said they would leave the probe up to the district.
Charter schools have long been accused of skirting state rules to select certain students.
A 2011 Miami Herald investigation found that the number of poor children enrolled in South Florida charter schools was disproportionately low compared to traditional public schools, even though most schools said they used a lottery to select students. Miami-Dade and Broward charter schools also served far fewer children with profound special needs.
Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools spokeswoman Lynn Norman-Teck said Cornerstone had no intentions of cherry picking.
"I know Cornerstone, and they would never do anything like that," she said. "This was definitely a mistake."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.