Rutherford County, NC, Western North Carolina, News,arrests, RC Catalyst, Judicial District 29A New revelations point to additional violations at troubled charter schools – Foothills Catalyst

New revelations point to additional violations at troubled charter schools



Torchlight Academy (Photo: Google Images)

State officials say student records were wrongfully altered at Wake and Bertie County schools by the daughter of the couple who ran them

The management of Three Rivers Academy and Torchlight Academy was a family affair when state monitors found “altered documents” in the schools’ exceptional children programs.

Shawntrice Andrews, the daughter of charter operators Don and Cynthia McQueen, was director of exceptional children (EC) programs at both Three Rivers in Bertie County and Torchlight Academy in Raleigh last June when monitors found changed dates and grades in the state’s electronic data management system.

The McQueens manage both schools through Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, a for-profit charter management company (EMO). Andrews owns and operates Exceptional Scholars Services LLC. Articles of organization for the business were filed with the Secretary of State on December 22, 2020.

Three Rivers has been ordered closed by the State Board of Education for numerous non-compliance issues and Torchlight Academy could face a similar fate after the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) meets on February 8 to discuss its future. The State Board has the final say and often follows CSAB recommendations.

The questionable record changes had the effect of making old student Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) look like new ones. IEP’s are required to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Three Rivers has been ordered closed by the State Board of Education.

System safeguards alerted DPI employees

Generally, educators must meet with parents and submit new data before IEP changes are made. State monitors viewing the altered IEP’s in ECATS (Every Child Accountability & Tracking System), the state’s electronic student data management system, found no evidence of parent conferences or new student data to support the changes.

“At that point, these altered documents, and again we can see on the backside [of ECATS] who has gone in and who’s altered those documents, and they were associated with Shawntrice Andrews,” Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children’s Division at the State Department of Public Instruction, told the Charter School Advisory Board earlier this month.

Andrews was the ECATS “superuser” for both schools, meaning she had the highest level of access to correct technical errors, such as a parent’s last name being entered into the system incorrectly.

“It [superuser access] is not to correct compliance errors, it’s to correct information that has been reported inappropriately; technical errors, typos, those kinds of edits,” Thomas explained. “Superusers have the ability to go in and fix those kinds of errors so that things which may throw them out of compliance, because it wasn’t the right date or the right information, can be cleaned up.”

Each public school has one superuser and their access to ECATS is carefully monitored by state officials, Thomas said.

Andrews’ “superuser” access was downgraded in July. She still had access to manage EC records but could no longer complete federal reporting, alter finalized documents, delete finalized documents, or inactivate students.

State officials didn’t notify Andrews about the downgrade right away. Thomas said monitors wanted to first “assess the scope” of the altered documents because the first review only included a random sampling of student records.

Executive Director Don McQueen and Principal Cynthia McQueen

A timeline created by state EC officials shows that Andrews asked the state EC Division for help in August after she realized her access to ECATS had been downgraded and she no longer could perform some activities.

It also shows a charter management organization largely unresponsive to the state EC Division’s request for student and fiscal records between April 21, 2020, and April 21, 2021, the year Torchlight was granted to correct noncompliance issues found during a February 26, 2020 site visit.

Hans Lassiter, a former principal at Three Rivers, told Policy Watch earlier this month that the McQueens were also unresponsive to his requests for information when he worked there the first half of the 2020-21 school year.

“I want to see student records; I want to see school improvement plans; I want to see examples of past teacher evaluations; I want to be able to look at teacher vacancies so I can begin to recruit and hire, and I got none of that,” Lassiter said.

Use of federal funds under scrutiny

The discovery of the altered documents in June 2021 triggered unannounced site visits to Torchlight by five NCDPI staff members in September. State staffers requested EC teacher schedules, fiscal information, and paper copies of EC student records and files.

Andrews and Torchlight’s EC staff were ordered to undergo ECATS training before any adjustments could be made to increase the level of access for new or existing staff. Torchlight’s staff completion of the required training was confirmed by the state EC Division in late October, nearly two years after Torchlight had falsely indicated the training was completed.

By November, Andrews was no longer leading the EC programs at Three Rivers and Torchlight. McQueen hired Dustin Squibb, who has overseen EC programs at multiple school, to fill the positions.

The timeline, however, shows that state officials also had questions about Squibb’s claims that 11 IEP team meetings were held between November 24 and Dec. 3.

“Dates around these events in ECATS and the school calendar suggest that TLA [Torchlight Academy] was on Thanksgiving break during that time,” state EC officials wrote on the timeline.

Torchlight is also under scrutiny for its handling and reporting of grant funds received under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The grant provides federal funding to ensure free and appropriate education is provided to students with special needs at no cost to parents.

Sherry Thomas, NCDPI

Thomas said the federal dollars must be used as intended.

“If we are in violation of not ensuring that a school or a district is providing a free and appropriate public education, then our federal dollars can be delayed, they can be reduced, they can be pulled back,” Thomas said. “So, we have a financial statewide obligation that could impact us if we are not vigilant.”