State working to revoke charter of Path Academy attended by 31 local students

The state Board of Education made a rare move Wednesday, voting unanimously to start the process to revoke the charter of the Path Academy in Windham.

The move comes after an investigation and audit revealed that the high school, attended by nearly three dozen southeastern Connecticut students, violated its charter by opening satellites in Norwich and Hartford, failing to document that enrolled students attended classes and allowing part-time enrollment.

A five-page report by state Department of Education staff said the academy failed to provide adequate records on a total of 128 students in the past two academy years for which the state paid $1,573,000 in charter tuition payments — $11,000 per student in each year. Path reported total enrollment of 157 students in 2016-17 and 174 students in 2017-18 school years.

The report said the failure to maintain records on students for which the academy received state grant payments “constitutes, at minimum, failure to manage state funds in a prudent or legal manner” and is “inconsistent with the responsibilities” of charter schools spelled out in state statutes.

Enrollment records reported by the state Department of Education showed that Path Academy, a school that provides specialized programs for “over aged, under credited” high school students, enrolled 23 students from Norwich, six from New London and two from Ledyard this academic year.

An enrollment spreadsheet for this year showed eight Norwich students attended classes at the unauthorized Norwich satellite, and seven were part-time students, taking three or fewer classes, in violation of the charter. The school had no academic documentation for three Norwich students and no grade information on one other Norwich student. Three of the New London students attended part time, and there was no documentation for a fourth New London student. One of the Ledyard students attended part time.

Local towns do not pay tuition for regular education students attending Path Academy, state Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak said, but if students receive special education services that exceed the state’s per-pupil grant of $11,000, then Path can bill the towns for the cost. Norwich school Business Administrator Athena Nagel said Norwich paid $70,620 to the academy this year for special education placements.

Path Academy Principal Gino LoRicco, who started in the position two months ago following 10 years as principal of the Quinebaug Valley Middle College High School in Danielson, said Path Academy officials will work with state officials to retain the school charter.

“I want to have an opportunity to work with the state to resolve the concerns raised by the state, which are legitimate,” LoRicco said. “I want to sit down and communicate with the state on the issues.”

Wednesday’s vote was the first step by the state Board of Education to start the revocation process. The board or a designated committee will hold a meeting June 19 to hear Path Academy officials' plan to comply with state requirements. The state board will have 30 days from that meeting to make a final decision.

“I’m hopeful,” LoRicco said, “because this school means an incredible amount to this community, our parents and our students. There’s a great need for a school that can work with students who are over age and under credited.”

LoRicco said the satellite locations are closed and the academy is addressing the shortcomings.

Path Academy was granted a state charter in June 2013 and opened Sept. 5, 2014, with a mission to “re-engage students over age and under credited.” The report said the state launched its investigation after discovering in October 2016 that Path Academy had opened a satellite facility in Norwich without authorization. The Norwich facility was at Our Piece of the Pie youth services facility at 309 Otrobando Ave. Our Piece of the Pie is the charter management organization for Path Academy.

The discovery of the Norwich satellite location triggered an audit and wider investigation of Path Academy that revealed a second unauthorized satellite location in Hartford that operated even after the state ordered the Norwich satellite closed, the report stated. The audit confirmed 40 students attended either Windham or Hartford locations in 2016-17 and 42 were at the satellites last October.

State officials also reported lack of information on reported enrollment numbers, failure to issue report cards, enrolling students part time, also in violation of the school’s charter, high absenteeism and failure to account for dozens of students for which the academy received state per-pupil grants.

Yazbak said Thursday the vote was only the second time the state Board of Education has acted to revoke a charter school’s charter. The only other time was in the 1999-2000 school year, when the state revoked the charter for the Village Academy in New Haven.

Principal LoRicco said he hopes to start working with state officials to correct the problems long before the June 19 meeting.

“I have 10 years of history working with students who have not necessarily felt comfortable in a traditional high school setting,” LoRicco said. “I feel with the support system I’ll have from the Windham school corporation and my staff and my (school) families, I know that given time, this school can be a huge success and can be one that can meet the needs of these students.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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