Like hundreds of families before them, Jill Sheffield and her mother walked the halls of Eagle Arts Academy last summer with growing excitement.
Touring the sprawling campus, the shy 11-year-old and her mother followed the school’s director across the dance studio’s shiny wood floors, through the guitar-filled music room, and into the gleaming computer lab, listening as he explained the school’s focus on arts and creativity.
“Everybody walking out of there was just like ‘Oh my God, this school is going to be amazing,’” Jill’s mother, Ashley, recalled later.
But when school started in August, many classrooms had no textbooks. The principal resigned abruptly in the first week. The second principal was gone a few weeks later. The third one left two weeks after that.
Soon, teachers were being fired or leaving in droves. Mothers complained that their children were not being enrolled in art classes. And then a fed-up parent put together an online petition to remove the school’s director, who responded by calling police.
>>POST INVESTIGATION: School ordered to repay taxpayer money
Before long, Jill and her mother realized that instead of signing up for an idealized education in academics and arts, they were watching a school be consumed by chaos, an unraveling that many parents say made it impossible for their children to learn and — in some cases — set their educations back by a year or more.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When it opened in 2014, Eagle Arts – blessed with a compelling arts-themed marketing pitch and an enviable location on the campus of a former private school – had the makings of a marquee school.
But by the time classes started this year, educators say erratic leadership, financial mismanagement and constant staff turnover had left the publicly financed charter school — one of Palm Beach County’s largest — opening its doors with a D grade from the state, a trail of spending controversies and some of the lowest student achievement in the county.
Since then, parents and former employees say the school has been shaken by even more upheaval as its quick-tempered founder, Gregory James Blount, assumed direct control and drove it into deeper crisis, engaging in repeated confrontations with teachers, parents and administrators, including shouting fits that happened, in some cases, within earshot of children.
The school year is not over, but interviews with two dozen parents, former employees and school leaders suggest that the problems at Eagle Arts have only worsened.
The roots of the school’s crisis is, in some ways, a story particular to charter schools, which are largely free of the administrative controls of traditional public schools and the elevated expectations of private ones. In Florida, charter schools operate with little outside supervision and few immediate repercussions for failure, so long as enough parents continue to sign up.
Perhaps nowhere in Palm Beach County has this phenomenon been more evident than at Eagle Arts, where a swiftly rotating cast of students, teachers, administrators and board members cycles through, providing enough critical mass to keep the lights on and the tax dollars flowing but disgorging a long line of disillusioned families in the process.
Up to one-third of teachers leave
As the year unfolded, Eagle Arts burned through three principals in three months, each one resigning or being fired after clashing with Blount.
Blount, who declined to respond to questions for this story, eventually assumed the principal position himself despite having no teaching background or formal education experience, an unusual arrangement but one permitted by state law.
The churn at the top led to confusion in the classrooms. As teacher after teacher resigned, many of those hired to replace them were stunned to step into classes with no textbooks, no lesson plans and no records of students’ progress.
Firings became rampant as Blount clashed with his staff, terminating some teachers with little warning or explanation and berating some in front of students.
The school declined to say how many teachers have left the school this year. But former administrators estimate that more than a third of the school’s 70 staffers have resigned or been fired since August.
The tumult forced frequent changes to students’ schedules, sending them see-sawing between classrooms and teachers, often from one day to another. Maria Ironstone, a parent and former member of the school’s board of directors, said her son had three sets of teachers in three weeks before she withdrew him from the school in September.
“After a month, students had no books and were not doing any real academics in the classroom, just busy work,” said Ironstone, the school’s former parent liaison. “When speaking to teachers to confirm what my son was saying, I learned that the teachers did not have necessary books or tools necessary to teach students.”
Another mother whose daughter still attends the school said constant schedule changes prevented any consistency in the classroom.
“There is no structure,” said the mother, who asked that her name not be used in order to protect her daughter’s anonymity. “That puts the kids in confusion. And me, too. Who is her math teacher?”
Some new teachers say they were forced to throw together lesson plans with photocopies from other teachers’ textbooks or by reading off printouts of the state’s standard curriculum. Mid-year, the school was so short-staffed that teachers were ordered to clean up cafeteria tables after students finished lunch.
The unrest didn’t go unnoticed by parents. But some who complained about the school’s direction said they were met with threats and intimidation.
Blount shouted at parents regularly, former employees say. He threatened to expel an eighth-grader after his father criticized the school on Facebook. And he unleashed a sheriff’s deputy on a mother who organized an online petition to remove him, claiming without evidence that she had hacked into the school’s email system.
Arts promises empty for some
Though an estimated 200 students have left since the school year began, the campus still educates some 580 kids, replacing those who withdrew through aggressive marketing centered on the school’s focus on fun and creativity.
The school — which leases the former campus of Wellington Christian School, on a serene stretch in the middle of prosperous Wellington — boasts that the arts are infused into every subject through a special curriculum designed by Blount, who has described himself as a former model, actor and entertainment producer. On its Facebook page and website, the school displays photos of Walt Disney and offers regular paeans to the premise that “learning can be fun,” posting pictures and videos of its students singing, dancing, composing poetry and drawing.
Some parents say the promise never came to pass. The school’s dance studio, featured prominently in school tours, has no dance teacher. Instead, physical education classes use it as an exercise room.
Some children who took music classes never touched an instrument, parents say. Parents who wanted their children to do that say they were told to fork out cash for after-school “enrichments.”
Other parents and teachers say the infusion of arts into the regular classes often meant little more than watching Disney movies in history or English classes.
“Many kids have said they don’t consider it an arts school, and I agree with them,” said one former teacher.
Among the disillusioned parents was Ashley Sheffield, who said her daughter Jill had been excited to attend Eagle Arts after she wasn’t accepted into the prestigious Bak Middle School of the Arts, a public school in West Palm Beach.
“It just seemed like a miracle had been dropped into our laps,” recalled Sheffield, who also accepted positions at the school as a study-hall teacher and after-care counselor. “She was going to get all these beautiful things and all these wonderful opportunities. And she never got one thing. She had a computer class, but she never had an actual art class.”
In a statement, the school said that all students “receive arts enrichment classes,” although the school considers subjects like TV production and coding to be part of its arts-enrichments program.
Still, Blount’s philosophy – that learning should be fun — gladdened many parents. And many sing Blount’s praises, saying that they’ve never seen their children more excited to go to class.
“My kids love to go to school there,” said Lisa Kaplan, whose son and daughter have attended since the school’s opening. “They wake up and they want to go.”
But behind the school’s carefree veneer, state test scores indicate deep problems.
Few students perform on grade level
When it comes to teaching math and reading, Eagle Arts is, by some measures, among the most ineffective schools in Palm Beach County.
Take the school’s performance on the state’s language arts exam, which measures reading ability. Last year, Eagle Arts’ passing rate plummeted to 40 percent, well below that of most other county schools that, like Eagle Arts, primarily served middle- and upper-class students. (At nearby Elbridge Gale Elementary, two miles down the road, the passing rate was 75 percent.)
In math, the school’s students fared even worse. Just 24 percent passed the state’s math exams last year. Of the county’s more than 200 public schools, only 13 schools performed worse, and all of them had far larger populations of poor and minority students, who tend to face larger systemic barriers to learning.
In science, it’s a similar story. The students’ performance on the state’s science exams was among the county’s lowest. Outperforming Eagle Arts’ students were schools with far more students hailing from poor or non-English-speaking households, including Pahokee and Belle Glade elementaries and Riviera Beach’s John F. Kennedy Middle School.
The school had even more trouble when it came to teaching its most struggling students.
Countywide, not a single school had more trouble last year raising the reading scores of the bottom quarter of its students.
And in math, only two of the county’s more than 200 public schools – a pair of small charter schools in Belle Glade and Pahokee – had less success in creating learning gains for their most struggling math students.
In a statement, a member of the school’s board of directors attributed its troubled academic performance to “growing pains” typical of new schools and downplayed the importance of the test scores, pointing out that they are not the sole arbiter of learning.
“As a school with an arts academy, we recognize first-hand standardized testing is not the only way to determine a child’s talent or passion,” board member Colleen Kirk wrote in a statement to The Palm Beach Post. “There are creative visual children who simply aren’t great test-takers but excel at extraordinary levels.”
(Whatever their artistic talents, students at the county’s most selective arts-themed public schools also tend to be excellent test-takers. At Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Bak Middle School of the Arts, where all students are admitted on the basis of artistic ability, test scores indicated 94 percent of students were reading on grade level last year).
The school district, which last year placed the school on a mandatory school improvement plan, calls the quality of the school’s instruction “sub-par” and says it sees scarce sign of an upswing.
“I don’t think it’s a rigorous instructional program at all,” said Jim Pegg, director of the school district’s charter school department.
Not only do many of the teachers lack proper training, Pegg said, they face the double challenge of being led by an inexperienced administration.
A principal is supposed to be a school’s instructional leader, Pegg said. But in Blount’s case, he added, “It’s hard for him to be an instructional leader when he doesn’t know anything about being an educator.”
High grades mask struggles, some say
Yet some parents claim their children have had remarkable academic turnarounds at the school.
Marcel Fairbairn said that last year he briefly pulled his son out of Eagle Arts, only to see his son’s grades fall at nearby Polo Park Middle.
Alarmed, Fairbairn re-enrolled him at Eagle Arts. Almost immediately, he said, his grades shot up again, an increase that he credits to extra care and attention by the school staff.
“After a brief stint of total failure (and almost falling back a grade as well!) we returned [him] to Eagle Arts and witnessed immediate improvement in his grades,” he said in an email interview.
Some teachers and parents have a different interpretation of many students’ high grades. At Eagle Arts, they say, A’s and B’s often mask serious learning shortfalls.
“My son supposedly was doing great,” said Jennifer Tritch, whose two children attended Eagle Arts for two years. “He got all A’s and B’s.”
But when she enrolled her son this year in second grade at Wellington Elementary, she received a shock. Teachers there told her that he was below grade level in reading, math and science.
“They said he was significantly behind,” she said.
It wasn’t just her son. Wellington Elementary told her that her daughter, who had enrolled at Eagle Arts as a third-grader two years earlier, was still reading at a third-grade level when she transferred for fifth grade, she said.
“She was so far behind that they had to do tutoring after school to help her,” Tritch said.
As students leave Eagle Arts, surrounding schools have learned to expect transfer students with gaps in their learning.
Linda Terranova, principal of Western Academy, an A-rated charter school nearby, said that students who transfer from there “typically” are below grade level in key subjects and need remedial instruction.
Parents arriving from Eagle Arts “have told me stories of very high teacher turnover and poor math instruction,” Terranova said, though she said that she can’t be certain whether her transfer students’ struggles are the result of poor instruction at Eagle Arts or other factors.
Good grades vs. achievement
The stories of disparities between grades and achievement are often repeated by parents – and hardly surprising to some of the school’s former teachers.
“The grades are essentially fabricated,’ said Robert Douglas, who taught science at the school from August to November. “I was told a couple times, ‘Don’t rock the boat, don’t give anyone less than a C.”
Douglas said the advice came from fellow teachers, not from administrators. But other former teachers and school officials say it is part and parcel of the school’s approach.
“When your child isn’t being challenged academically and they seem to be getting A’s and B’s, to them that’s good – until they take the (state exams),” said a former school official who asked not be named.
The grades “are all based around keeping the kids and the parents happy,” said Hector Lopez, a veteran high school teacher who lasted for just two weeks at Eagle Arts.
Hoping for part-time work after retiring from Miami-Dade County’s public school system, Lopez said he entered Eagle Arts at an auspicious time – early October, when, he said, it was evident things were unraveling fast.
“In the time I was there, about two weeks, the principal resigned, the vice principal resigned, another administrator left and about six teachers bailed,” he said.
A former engineer, Lopez once taught pre-calculus and statistics to advanced high school students in Miami. But one day at Eagle Arts, a teacher called in to say he was never returning, and Lopez found himself assigned to a fifth-grade class teaching math and science.
Walking into the classroom the first day was unlike any other teaching experience he’d had. Not only did Lopez’s class have no textbooks, there were no lesson plans, no academic records and no paperwork documenting students’ performance on earlier tests and assignments.
Lopez had never taught science, but each morning he would duck into another teacher’s class, borrow a textbook and race to make photocopies of lessons and exercises before the students started filing in.
“I had to read it as class was starting and come up with some ideas and think up some questions,” he recalled.
He did his best to make a go of it, he said. After confronting Blount about the lack of textbooks and his concerns about the learning environment, he said received a call from him letting him know his services were no longer required.
Looking back, he says, he doesn’t know how the school managed to assess his students’ academic progress, given that there were no signs of records for the first two months of school.
“How the hell did they assign those kids any grades?” he said. “They had zero.”
Blount told: Stop ‘making people afraid’
Back in August, the school year seemed, to most, to have started off on a high note. Enrollment was at an all-time high in the fall, with more than 750 students by early September.
But the makings of a crisis had already been brewing throughout the summer. Blount had stepped down as the school’s volunteer chairman to take the executive director job, a new position that gave him direct control of the entire school and paid him $95,000 a year.
Replacing him as chairman: professional makeup artist Tim Quinn, a longtime friend of Blount.
While the rest of the staff worked to gear up for a turnaround year, Blount spent the summer plotting a different project: making plans to open a second campus in Boca Raton. The plan was quashed by the school district, but not before Blount signed a lease and started to line up contractors for a building renovation.
Ann Simone, the school’s principal since the previous summer, began hearing complaints from her staff that Blount had become verbally abusive, shouting and screaming at teachers and using foul language on campus. She was aghast, too, when he fired her assistant over the summer without consulting her or explaining the reason for the termination.
She and Ironstone, then a board member and the school’s treasurer, intervened in an attempt to curb his behavior. In July, Ironstone wrote an email to Blount after one blow-up, admonishing him to “change the way employees are treated and addressed.”
“A leader cannot effectively lead by making people afraid,” she wrote.
The pushback angered Blount further, and they say he began directing his screaming fits at each of them. Separately, each woman soon decided she had had enough.
In Simone’s case, the tipping point came in the first week of classes, as she sat in her office with two other administrators, listening to Blount shout at them over the speaker phone. She resigned that day, and Ironstone resigned from the board the same week.
“I believe in building staff up, not tearing them down,” Simone said in an interview. “As an educator, I felt I was unable to do my job effectively because of the constant chaos that surrounded Mr. Blount, which was so unlike any other educational environment I had been in.”
The clashes continued with the principals tapped to replace Simone: first, Michael Smith, an assistant principal who had left a position at a nearby public school. He lasted less than a month on the job before being fired after clashing with Blount.
His replacement, Paul Copeland, resigned after two weeks to take a job as a funeral home director.
Blount declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to questions. In an email declining to comment, he told a Post reporter that he would “pray that you see the light.”
“I am here to serve God’s purpose and work daily to instill His vision to make a difference in education,” he wrote. “God knows I am here to serve His children.”
Parent accused of hacking
By the time Blount assumed the principal role, many parents were fed up with the clashes and constant turmoil.
In November, one mother emailed parents an online petition calling for Blount to be removed as executive director. The move angered Blount, and three days later he called the sheriff’s office, claiming that the mother had hacked into the school’s email system and destroyed files.
Blount offered no evidence that she had done so, and the case was dropped after the mother denied the allegation, according to the sheriff’s office report.
The petition, which garnered just 11 signatures, was dismissed by the school’s board of directors, which employs Blount but is largely comprised of Blount’s longtime friends and associates.
When Skyler Goodwin’s son lost his cell phone at the school in January, the school declined to report it stolen to the sheriff’s office. Angry, Goodwin took to Facebook to criticize the school.
“Worst school I’ve ever had my son in,” he wrote. “This school is horrible. Teachers have been in and out. Losing staff every week. It’s a joke.”
Hours later, Goodwin got a phone call from Blount, who was in Los Angeles leading children on a paid trip to meet acting recruiters but had seen the comment. He demanded that Goodwin remove it. If he didn’t, Blount said, he would expel his son.
Goodwin refused to take it down, and Blount eventually relented after a warning from the school district that he had no legal right to expel a child.
Through all of this, Sheffield worked at the school as a study hall teacher and after-school attendant, while her daughter took classes in sixth grade. In October, her first month on the job, more than a dozen employees resigned, she said.
Florida requires teachers to be certified, but Sheffield said Blount got around her lack of credentials by designating her a permanent substitute. In the end, the study-hall job ended up being “a glorified babysitter.”
Students would file into her class and spent the entire period on computer programs designed to help them improve at math. As other teachers resigned, the school would add students to her class. To handle the teacher shortages, she said, some students were given two study hall periods a day.
“All they were doing was getting on their computer programs for hours,” she said. “I’d have 40 students mushed in my classroom, all doing different things.”
Shouting fit: ‘You could hear it in the classroom’
By then, the purges had begun. Blount would fire several people in a single day with no warning and no indication of what they had done wrong.
“From the time I started until the day I was let go, 11 people were fired or quit,” said one teacher who lasted less than five months before being among six fired in a single day. “The whole place was just a toxic work environment.”
Even after-care counselors weren’t spared. Nicole Mollison, who started as an after-care counselor in September, remembers Blount storming into the cafeteria one day where they were watching a group of young elementary students.
She had yet to meet Blount, and he didn’t bother to introduce himself. Instead, she recalled, he yelled at her and a co-worker: “Get up off your lazy butts!”
“I was so baffled at the way he decided to address us,” she recalled. “He’d just start talking to people like they weren’t people. I’d never had a boss like that before.”
Sheffield said she was never subjected to a screaming fit directly, but that she and her students would hear Blount reaming out teachers in the hallways.
“He would be screaming so loud you could hear it in the classroom,” she said.
In a statement, the school declined to address the accounts of Blount’s screaming fits. “Due to privacy and employment regulations, we are unable to answer this question,” Kirk, the board member, wrote.
Quinn, the school’s chairman, declined to respond to questions about the school’s staff turnover and falling enrollment. In a statement, he said the public’s focus should be on “the wonderful strides made by Eagles Arts Academy and its mission and the parents of those who are thriving.”
In March, after watching colleague after colleague laid off, Sheffield became a victim of a purge herself, fired during spring break along with another study-hall teacher and a group of after-care workers. There was no phone call, no explanation, no reason cited. Just an email from the assistant principal saying her services were no longer needed.
Another teacher who still works at the school said the teachers live in constant fear of being fired or screamed at in front of students.
“I’ve witnessed people in tears,” the teacher said. “You don’t know if you’re going to get hauled into his office. And if you do get fired, he’ll just trump up something.”
After being fired, Sheffield said she hired a private teacher to assess Jill’s reading ability. Her verdict: Jill was reading at a lower level than she had been a year earlier.
“Her education regressed,” Sheffield said. “She is further behind than when she graduated fifth grade.”
School district administrators have been watching the school closely all year. Monitors visit the campus frequently and were present to oversee administration of the state exams, the Florida Standards Assessments, last month.
If the school’s performance on those tests does not improve, district officials warn that they could force the school to close, though that decision would ultimately be made by the county school board.
By then, former employees worry about the effect on the educations of hundreds of students.
“Even the good students are going to be in for a world of hurt,” said Douglas. “They’ve got a three-year hole in their education.”
Why is Eagle Arts still open? It’s complicated.
Disillusioned parents and teachers who have left Eagle Arts Academy ask why the school district has not done more to intervene at the school.
Eagle Arts remains open despite persistent financial and academic problems, but school officials say they are aware of the issues and placed the school on a mandatory improvement plan last year.
Charter schools – which are privately managed but publicly financed – are designed to be independent. They are run by non-profit organizations and are not under the direct control of the school district or county school board.
Nonetheless, Eagle Arts and other charter schools have to sign “charters” with the county school board to open, and the district has authority to revoke charters when schools don’t comply with their requirements and state law.
Still, closing a school before its charter expires can be a complex and politically touchy process, one that charters can appeal to the state.
The insulation from school district scrutiny is supposed to give charter schools independence to innovate, and to compete with district-run schools.
But it also means that problems at charters can escape scrutiny for years if the school’s managers and board of directors fail to act.
Charter schools that earn F grades from the state in two consecutive years can face mandatory closures under state law. But schools can be closed for other reasons, including persistently low academics.
Jim Pegg, director of the district’s charter school office, said that if Eagle Arts continues to struggle to educate students, “it’s possible termination could be set.”