Metropolis: Thursday, September 19, 2002
Drama: School

Parents and teachers are choosing between Pinnacle visions.

By Jeff Prince

Fort Worth’s Pinnacle School is billed as an academy of fine arts, which is fitting — a fair amount of drama is occurring behind the scenes.

Honors Academy of Dallas, a nonprofit company that operates Pinnacle and nine other charter schools across the state, has struggled financially and owes about $1.5 million to the state. Morris Drumm, a respected principal during Pinnacle School’s inaugural 2001-2002 school year, was dumped by Honors after he applied for his own charter. Now, Drumm is fighting mad, and accusations are being hurled from both sides.

Some teachers and students remain loyal to Pinnacle, which lost its lease at the old Justin Boot Co. building on West 7th Street and began the school year late in a temporary building. The school is planning to move to a new building on Camp Bowie Boulevard and currently has about 100 students.

Others said they will follow Drumm, who hopes to receive a charter from the state in 2003. He wants to open a competing fine-arts school and name it almost identically: Pinnacle Academy. “The name was mine, not Honors’,” Drumm said.

Some parents said they don’t want their children attending either school and that both Honors Academy and Drumm are guilty of mismanagement. “Some would say it was all Honors’ fault; some say it was all Morris’ fault,” said L.J. Pettijohn, whose son attended the school in 2001-02, and whose wife, Anne, was Pinnacle’s assistant choir director last year. The couple has decided to home-school their children this year. “I wouldn’t say Honors is innocent in all this, but what they’re telling you is probably closer to the truth than what Morris is telling you,” he said.

The Texas Legislature and then-Gov. George W. Bush approved the creation of charter schools in 1995. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush boasted of Texas’ push toward charter schools, and Gov. Rick Perry has continued to champion them. Charter schools receive state funding but operate free from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” — an agreement between the school and the state — is a performance contract, and charter schools must produce positive academic results. The state spends about $200 million a year on about 200 charter schools.

The charter-school concept is promising, but the evolution has been painful. One of the most troubled management companies has been Honors Academy of Dallas, which owns 10 charter schools in Texas, including Pinnacle, Montessori School, and Excel Academy in Fort Worth, and Youth Wave High School in Hurst.

Pinnacle’s problems began almost immediately after opening in 2001. Honors Academy was being accused by employees at some schools of defrauding the government by tampering with enrollment figures. The state pays about $5,000 per student. The higher a school’s attendance, the more money received. Some charter schools with small student bodies and large operating costs have been accused of padding enrollments. Two dozen of the state’s 200 charter schools have returned their charters or had them revoked, most because of financial improprieties.

Drumm leased the Justin building shortly before the school year began in August 2001, but he didn’t count on numerous and costly renovations needed to meet building code requirements. The building wasn’t ready when school was set to begin, and Drumm wanted to delay the opening. Instead, under pressure from Honors, he started the school year on time by busing students to temporary locations — a logistics nightmare but one that ensured the receipt of state money. “That was a red flag from the beginning,” said former Pinnacle teacher Mark Mahan. Promised equipment and supplies were also not delivered, teachers said.

By October, there was a problem with the Honors account at Wells Fargo Bank Texas. Teachers couldn’t cash their checks for several days and wondered if Pinnacle would close its doors.

Despite the woes, Pinnacle was popular among students and parents. The school served kindergarten through 12th grades, and some of the city’s brightest fine-arts teachers, including choir director Jack Noble White, worked there.

Student enrollment was limited by space restrictions in the old Justin building. About 320 students attended last year, and 1,000 others put their name on a waiting list. Pinnacle received an acceptable rating last year from the Texas Education Agency based on student performance.

This summer, though, Honors Academy didn’t make its lease payments and Pinnacle was evicted, Drumm said. With the school’s fate uncertain, teachers’ contracts weren’t renewed after they expired in July. Some teachers returned to public schools; others opted to try and follow Drumm, who was seeking his own charter. However, the application process is lengthy, and Drumm’s hearing isn’t scheduled until next year. State officials, having been burned by a number of failed or deeply troubled charter schools, are scrutinizing charter applications with keener eyes and ensuring that schools have building certificates and other paperwork in hand before granting charters. The Texas Legislature capped the number of charter schools at 215, and only 15 charters are currently up for grabs.

Trying to start his own school cost him his job at Pinnacle, Drumm said. He went to Austin in July to apply for the charter and was surprised to see new Honors Academy chief executive officer John Dodd in attendance. “I don’t know why he was there; he wasn’t applying for a charter,” Drumm said. Dodd spotted him in the room and then walked out into the hallway and made a phone call, Drumm said. “A few minutes later my wife called me on my cell phone and said she had just got a call from a person at Honors Academy and I had been put on administrative leave without pay,” he said.

Honors Academy decided to seek a new building and reopen Pinnacle School under new leadership. Former Dallas public school educator Duhrl Caussey was named headmaster, and most of the previous fine-arts teachers were rehired.

Dodd is leading a new management team charged with righting Honors Academy. So far, he has received mixed reviews. Some parents and teachers view him as dedicated and friendly, while others say he displays the same bluster and secrecy of previous managers.

Both bluster and secrecy were in evidence during a recent phone conversation with Fort Worth Weekly. Dodd praised new headmaster Caussey and Pinnacle School with the fervor of an evangelist in a revival meeting. “It’s the pinnacle of success,” he said. “It has come up out of the ashes. If you have good teachers, good students will follow.” He credited talented teachers and Caussey’s leadership in helping to revive student and parent interest and then started to quote the Honors slogan. “Our motto is to maximize the ability for each student ... uh ... let’s see ... uh ... (he speaks to an administrator standing nearby) ... How does our motto go again?”

When asked why Drumm wasn’t rehired as headmaster, Dodd said, “He wasn’t available.” Why wasn’t he available? “You’ll have to ask him,” Dodd said.

Dodd at first denied Drumm was let go as punishment for seeking his own charter and cited Drumm’s budget problems, lack of training, and frequent absences from the campus. Dodd said he was surprised to learn that Drumm was seeking a charter but added, “It didn’t have any effect on me.”

Dodd said he was attending a meeting in Austin when he learned Drumm was seeking his own charter. Only after direct questioning did Dodd say that he attended the meeting for the specific purpose of confirming that Drumm was seeking a charter. “I learned he had applied for a charter. I didn’t see him physically; I just saw [his name] on the agenda,” Dodd said. He denied that Drumm was fired. “Our position is he abandoned his job,” Dodd said.

Despite the troubles, Pinnacle School is once again attracting students and garnering support from parents, who realize charter schools are in the experimental stage and might eventually overcome their problems and be considered a superior alternative for education.

Meanwhile, Drumm is hoping for a January charter hearing in Austin. There could conceivably be two fine-arts schools named Pinnacle a year or two from now. That doesn’t bother parents and teachers, who lament a dwindling focus on fine arts in public schools. “Morris still has a passion for having a fine-arts school, and I wish him well,” said Judy Keller, whose children attended Pinnacle last year and this year. “You can’t have too many good schools in Texas. If he can start a school and fill it up with students, more power to him.”

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