Thursday, September 20, 2018
Education

FCAT scores at Pinellas charter school that used Scientology 'study tech' are among lowest in Tampa Bay

DUNEDIN — When Hanan Islam and her management company took control of the struggling Life Force Arts and Technology charter school here last summer, she passed out lesson plans based on the work of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

She said Hubbard's "study technology" would enlighten children and help save the school. But grades from Florida's standardized FCAT test released Thursday show that, in one year under Islam's management, Life Force students' education suffered.

Life Force's third- and fourth-graders scored the lowest or second-lowest passing rates in math, reading and writing of more than 300 elementary schools across Tampa Bay.

"It's a classic case of how a management company mismanaged this school, was paid an extraordinarily large fee for dismal services, and the ultimate victims were those poor children," said Dot Clark, the Pinellas County school district's coordinator of partnership schools.

Islam's company, Clark added, "promised the world and gave them nothing. ... It breaks my heart."

Third-graders took a more difficult test this year than last, resulting in lower average scores statewide. But even adjusting for the different standards, Life Force's FCAT math and reading scores worsened year-to-year.

Only one of 14 third-graders at Life Force passed this year's reading test. Eight students scored in the lowest achievement level, leaving them at high risk of being held back. None of the third-graders passed math.

Life Force fourth-graders fared just as poorly. Only five of 17 students passed the writing test. Last year, all of Life Force's 12 fourth-graders passed the writing portion.

Life Force third-graders had Tampa Bay's second lowest passing rate, with only Pepin Elementary, a Tampa charter school for children with learning disabilities, scoring lower. Life Force fourth-graders had Tampa Bay's lowest passing rate by far. The second lowest, from students in Pinellas' dropout prevention program, was 13 percent higher.

For those results, Life Force paid Islam's companies — her charter school management firm, Art of Management, and a study-tech promotional group, the World Literacy Crusade — more than $100,000 in public funds over a span of five months, bankruptcy records show.

"I'm just disheartened. We had every disadvantage you could think of," principal Lenor Johnson said Friday. "The funds we needed ... we were unable to use because our management company said no."

The Pinellas County School Board voted to revoke the school's charter in March, due in part to its use of an unauthorized curriculum. Islam's company left the school later that month.

Neither Islam nor her second in command at Life Force, former director of operations Vikki Williams, responded to messages Friday. Life Force teachers believe Islam has moved to California or Puerto Rico but intends to open another school in south St. Petersburg.

Teachers blamed the poor performance on Islam's forced instruction of Hubbard's study tech as well as the school's lack of funding for basic classroom materials like paper, pencils and textbooks. Fifth-grade teacher Jason Lowe, who was fired by Islam but rehired after she left, said teachers "were definitely set up for failure."

Some blamed students' poor marks on instability due to Islam's repeated firings of, as third-grade teacher Lynne Kittredge said, "good, certified teachers, because they wouldn't accept her Scientology stuff."

"We worked our butts off. We did after-school, we did tutoring; we weren't even being paid. But I'm not a miracle worker," said Kittredge, who was hired in February. "By the time we came in, the best we could do was damage control."

Life Force board chairman Louis Muhammad, appointed by Islam in January, defended her management of the school, saying students' scores would have drastically improved if study tech had been given more of a chance.

He also blamed the low scores on the Tampa Bay Times, saying the newspaper's coverage of Life Force's problems "caused confusion and, in other words, hindered the school."

"You all put out this confusion on religion, and we're not talking religion: we're talking technology," Muhammad said. "If you all had left the school alone, it would have been better."

On its last day, June 7, Life Force will become the first Pinellas school to be forcefully closed by a revoked charter. The approximately 50 remaining students, down from nearly 100 in August, will move to nearby public and charter schools.

But for some students, their low marks at Life Force could haunt them for years. Several will need summer school to keep up with their peers, while others, including kindergarten students, may need to repeat the grade.

In recent weeks, some teachers say they have seen some student growth. They hope the small improvements, not visible in FCAT scores, will carry on to their next school.

"Did they get a full year's growth? No," Kittredge said. "But we have eight days. Eight days. We're all teaching to the very bitter end. We'll be teaching our way out the door, because that's what we do."

Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.

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