Quest Leadership Academy files discrimination suit one day before vote to shut school down

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Quest Leadership Academy sits in the Belle Meade community of Greenville.

A predominantly black charter school in Greenville filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Public Charter School District alleging discrimination on May 8 — just one day before the district voted to revoke the school’s charter.

Quest Leadership Academy is a public elementary school that opened up in 2014 and sits off Augusta Road on the southern edge of Greenville in the Belle Meade community. According to a lawsuit filed by Quest’s board and principal, about 96% of the school’s estimated 235 students are black and more than 92% live in poverty.

Since Quest is a charter school, it must have an authorizer — also called a sponsor — to oversee it, which is the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD).

The lawsuit alleges the SCPCSD and Superintendent Elliot Smalley violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by recommending the school’s charter be revoked.

“By recommending the revocation of Quest’s charter solely or overwhelmingly because of Quest’s academic proficiency scores, the SCPCSD and Defendant Smalley have intentionally discriminated against Quest and the high-poverty, predominately African-American students that attend the School,” the lawsuit said.

It also accuses Smalley and the district of defamation, breach of contract, and breach of contract with fraudulent intent.

Quest’s state school report cards show its academic performance has lagged behind the state and district for years — the school’s 2016 report card shows about 28.6% of students meeting or exceeding the standards for the English language arts portion of the South Carolina College and Career Readiness Assessments (SC Ready), and only 7.1% of students passed the standards for the math section. In comparison, the state average was about 43% of students meeting the standards for both tests.

On the school’s 2018 report card, only 10.8% of students met the SC Ready English language arts standards, while 7.7% met the standards for math. In science, 5.3% of students met the SCPASS standards and no students met the standards for social studies.

The school’s academic performance is the lowest of the 13 schools in the area the SCPCSD compared on a report to its board, including Thomas E. Kerns Elementary School, which is three miles away and has 91.4% of students living in poverty.

Graphic by Stephanie Orr.

But in the school’s lawsuit, Quest points to its student growth as an indicator of success — the school had level three Education Value Added Assessment System (EVAAS) growth for 2018, which it said is equal to or greater than the growth of most of the schools under the SCPCSD. EVAAS measures student academic growth based on five levels, with level five growth being the highest indicator. Level three growth is considered average, meaning students met the projected level of growth, or performed as expected on tests.

“Defendant Smalley’s ‘academic performance’ argument is discriminatory because the SCPCSD’s one-size-fits-all academic model and the proficiency statements concerning Quest do not adequately account for demographic differences between schools or the academic growth of Quest’s students, most of whom are low-achieving students when they enroll at Quest,” the lawsuit said.

However, in a report, the SCPCSD said level three EVAAS growth didn’t make up for chronically low performance, and the school’s growth only applied to English language arts.

The SCPCSD submitted a report to its board on May 9 recommending Quest’s charter be revoked — the board voted 3-2 to revoke the school’s charter, with two members abstaining.

“For students with chronically low levels of achievement, simply meeting projected levels of growth will not significantly alter student trajectory,” the report said. “Additional analysis reveals that this aggregate level of growth is contained to English language arts. Growth in math fell far below the state growth standard. Students in poverty and students of color saw even lower EVAAS growth indices in math than their counterparts.”

The report cites chronic poor academic performance, financial performance, and operational performance as the primary reasons to close the school.

The report said the school’s finances have declined in the past three years, and that in 2018 Quest ended the fiscal year with a net loss of $79,811.

But the school’s lawsuit claims part of its financial woes come from the district not sending their Title I funding for this year.

“The reason that Title I funding is delayed is that the South Carolina Department of Education has significant concerns with the SCPCSD’s financial practices under Defendant Smalley’s leadership,” the lawsuit said.

Taylor Fulcher, a spokesperson for the SCPCSD, said the district didn’t miss any Title I deadlines and the state Department of Education approved the district’s Title I plan on May 1.

A letter from the state Department of Education to the district on April 1 said the SCPCSD was being put on fiscal watch because of significant deficiencies and material weaknesses in its 2018 audit. Fiscal watch is the lowest of three financial emergency levels a district can be issued.

“While we recognize the steps the district has taken to address the 2018 annual audit findings, this letter represents the official declaration of fiscal watch for South Carolina Public Charter School District,” the letter said.

A spokesperson for the department said there were no plans to take over the district’s finances, and Fulcher said the audit findings did not have an impact on its schools.

“’Fiscal Watch’ is unrelated to Quest’s funding or with the revocation. It is related to fiscal process issues from expenditures dating back to 2017. It has not resulted in any lost dollars to the District or to any charter school,” Fulcher said.

As for Quest’s operational performance, the SCPCSD report said only 50% of teachers at the school have returned between school years in the past three years, and nearly 40% of its students were chronically absent last year. In 2016, the school was issued a notice of noncompliance for special education accommodations — in 2017 and this year the school was issued a notice of caution for delays in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and not meeting federal requirements under the Rehabilitation Act.

The report said Quest has an average board member turnover rate of 50% each year and has struggled to keep at least seven board members.

“The SCPCSD acknowledges and commends the efforts of the school to reverse trends and improve the overall conditions of the school since inception,” the report concludes. “Unfortunately, these efforts have not yielded changes in school performance.”

Administrators with Quest could not be reached for comment.

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