Demise of mismanaged charter school leaves some lamenting the loss

Carla Peralta (centre) is surrounded by three of her children. She has sent four children to Torchlight. (courtesy photo)

The state is closing Raleigh’s Torchlight Academy because of repeated and serious management failures, but some of its strengths and accomplishments will be lost in the process

Carla Peralta cried after getting the word that Torchlight Academy is closing due to fiscal and governance concerns uncovered during a state Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) investigation.

The K-8 charter school in Raleigh has become a lifeline for the Dominican mother of six. Two of Peralta’s children are currently enrolled at Torchlight and two others attended kindergarten through eighth grade before moving on to Wake County high schools.

The services that Torchlight provides such as transportation to summer school and afterschool programs run by the school have been a big help to parents who work, Peralta said.

“It helps me to be better,” Peralta said. “I’m able to go to school and I’m able to work. If you compare that with [traditional] public schools, it’s really hard to get.”

But over the summer, Peralta and hundreds of other Torchlight families must find new schools for more than 500 children currently enrolled there. The school will close on June 30 by order of the State Board of Education.

Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) will likely absorb most of the students attending Torchlight Academy. Education dollars follow the student. Torchlight’s 2021 audit shows that WCPSS paid the school $1.8 million, the largest amount among the 15 districts from which it drew students.

Durham Public Schools paid $43,000, Johnston County Public Schools $23,332, and Granville County Schools $11,766. Students from as far away as Craven and New Hanover counties also attended the school, presumably remotely.

The state board voted to terminate Torchlight’s charter earlier this year after NCDPI’s months-long investigation turned up serious fiscal and management concerns. The school was managed by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen through Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, a for-profit Educational Management Organization (EMO) McQueen launched in 2015. Torchlight’s Board of Directors quickly fired the EMO and McQueen, who was also the school’s chief administrator, after learning about NCDPI’s concerns. The board has faced criticism for its poor oversight of the school’s affairs. It offered to bring on all new members if the state board allowed the school to remain open.

Peralta only has a limited understanding of what led the state board to close the school. She believes trouble in an understaffed special education program led the state board to revoke the school’s charter.

“Due to the COVID situation, not everybody wanted to work,” Peralta explained. “I’m not trying to use that as an excuse for that situation, but if you go by the numbers, a lot of people decided it was better to stay home and receive unemployment.”

Don and Cynthia McQueen

In fact, understaffing in the special education program didn’t play a part in the charter termination. The NCDPI investigation found serious misconduct in the program, which was led by McQueen’s daughter, Shawntrice Andrews. State records show Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a student data management system monitored by the state, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Despite recent news accounts of McQueen’s unlawful management practices, Peralta remains fiercely loyal to the former Torchlight leader who, along with Cynthia McQueen, his wife and business partner and former Torchlight principal, had been the face of the school for two decades.

Peralta said the McQueens helped her family and others through tough times.

“I can speak for my own, and probably for some other parents, some of us who didn’t start from a good economic starting point, he [Don McQueen] helped us with school supplies and uniforms for the kids and things to help motivate the kids to keep studying.”

Peralta lauded Torchlight’s strict discipline policy, smaller class sizes, athletic and school lunch programs and its school uniform requirement. The school uniforms, she said, promote professionalism and reduce competition among students to show off designer clothes and sneakers.

Torchlight Academy will close on June 30th.

“I’m extremely sad and concerned about the closing of the school,” Peralta said. “I’m so glad that my kids went there. When my two older kids left Torchlight and went to high school, they were extremely advanced in math and some other classes.”

Despite the management issues that led the state board to close the school, few people questioned the school’s ability to educate students of color from economically disadvantaged families. The school is predominantly Black and Hispanic.

Torchlight earned state performance grades of “C” from 2016-to 2019 and its students exceeded academic growth expectations during that span. The US Department of Education and the North Carolina General Assembly waived testing requirements for the 2020-21 school year.

Stephon Bowens, the attorney for the Torchlight Board of Directors, said the school “definitely demonstrated that having high expectations” yields results for students of color.

“I would say of the McQueens, that you can take a lot of things from them, but one thing you can’t take from them is that they worked hard to ensure that the kids understood – and I want to be clear, I’ m not saying they were teaching to the test – but they understood that it was important for the children to have the basic fundamentals based on the expectation of the state and they did an excellent job of ensuring that those fundamental were met throughout the curriculum and making sure the kids were meeting those milestones.”

Bowens said the Torchlight board would agree that the McQueens are responsible for the academic turnaround of the school, which had been a “D” and “F” before the EMO began to manage it.

“They should be credited for that,” Bowens said. “It is the administrative side where the concerns are.”

Bowens’ sentiments about the McQueens come as he represents the Torchlight board in a growing dispute with McQueen over how the EMO spent state and federal dollars allocated to the school. Bowens has said that the board and McQueen could end up in court.

NCDPI records show that the McQueens paid their son-in-law, Aaron Andrews, $20,000 per month to clean a portion of the school being used by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Policy Watch previously reported. Such centers provide children in high-poverty, low-performing academic schools help during non-school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial firm, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.

Kimberly Muktarian is a former Torchlight teacher.

Torchlight’s audits show that the McQueens received $1.8 million in management fees in 2016 and 2017, which were by far the two most profitable years. The fee dropped dramatically in subsequent years to $340,000 in 2018, $357,000 in 2019, $347,125 in 2020, and $365,922 in 2021.

A recent audit also shows that the McQueens, who were both employed by the school and owned the firm that managed it, gave themselves hefty raises. Each was paid $160,000 during the 2020-21 school year, a $60,000 increase over the $100,000 each reportedly received the year before.

Kimberly Muktarian, a former Torchlight teacher now working as an education advocate, said that it’s unfair to punish the students and families over management issues beyond their control.

“Academically, we soared,” Muktarian said. “If you want to keep children thriving, then you don’t shut down the school to spite the management. The children, the teachers, and the staff have nothing to do with the management or the board. We’re talking about well over 500 children between the ages of five and 13 and you’re going to put them back into an educational system that has already failed them.”

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