Parents Who Were Hopeful Now Feel Betrayed -- Many Will Move Kids To New School
KENT - Jim Fant worked two jobs to start sending his son to St. Christopher Academy three years ago, and was glad to do it when he saw 6-year-old Joey blossom despite learning disabilities.
Fant liked and respected the teachers. Its founder and director, he believed, "sat at the left hand of God."
But Fant's opinion of director Darlene Jevne recently plummeted, and he's taking his son out of St. Christopher. "I feel very betrayed, very resentful," he said. "I don't think a lot of an individual who's going to profit from my son's shortcomings and my love for him."
St. Christopher Academy, for years a premier school for kids with attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, is now in turmoil, its reputation tarnished, following a series of irregular financial transactions by Jevne and her unexpected purchase of the nonprofit agency to transform it into a for-profit business.
At last count, all but one of 22 teachers and even the school janitor were reportedly leaving the school. Ten teachers and numerous parents formerly associated with St. Christopher are starting a new school for learning-disabled children.
Called New Horizon School, it is expected to open in September in Renton's Dimmitt Middle School. It will offer kindergarten through ninth-grade classes, with plans to add high-school classes later.
A five-member Board of Directors was recently elected to head the nonprofit school, and it negotiated a $59,485 annual lease with the Renton School District.
Tuition is to be the same as that at St. Christopher: $6,900 to $7,900 annually. Sixty-three students have been signed up, including 55 who now attend St. Christopher, said Hugh Flint, a St. Christopher fifth-grade teacher for the past three years who is seeking either a teaching or administrative post at the new school.
Among those is Fant's son, now 9. "We're committed to New Horizon," Fant said.
Other St. Christopher students are going to different private schools next year or, as is Leslie English's son, back to public school. English, a single mother, said she had scraped together $7,900 for her son to attend St. Christopher last year only to find out the money "went maybe where it wasn't supposed to."
Parents were first alerted to problems at St. Christopher several months ago when they received letters from the school saying it was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. But at meetings with school administrators, parents said, they received few answers about what was going on, including why Jevne was buying the school.
A letter to parents from the school's Board of Directors said only that Jevne "intends to run the school after she purchases it in the same fashion that she has run it for the past 13 years."
Teachers say they are leaving St. Christopher because they don't want to work at a for-profit school, especially one for disabled kids.
"How can teaching be a calling if you're for profit? If you're running a business, you're in it to make money, not to serve a need," said Greg Eisnaugle, who taught two years at St. Christopher.
Steve Dinger, president of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools, estimates that only 1 percent of the 450 state-approved private schools in Washington are run for profit.
Jevne sent a letter May 11 to reassure officials from public-school districts, which send a few children to the private school, that all was well with St. Christopher.
"Right now we are busy selecting faculty for next year," the letter said. "Unlike new institutions which face uncertainty on many fronts, St. Christopher Academy will remain in its Kent facility providing stable classroom environments for all our students."
The letter didn't mention that many of the teachers are resigning or that the school will no longer be nonprofit.
Gary Burke, St. Christopher business manager, declined to say how many teachers had resigned or how many children were expected to attend next year. "St. Christopher is alive and well and will continue," Burke said. "We're in the process of expanding."
St. Christopher is one of 21 private schools in the area that this year contracted with public schools to provide services for students with special needs. Six students from public schools attended St. Christopher this year, their tuition and transportation paid by their districts, including Kent and Federal Way.
Parents can only get a district to cover such costs if they can persuade the school board or, in some cases, a judge, that public schools cannot provide an appropriate education, as is required by federal law.
St. Christopher was one of the first private schools to offer an alternative specifically for parents of learning-disabled children who believed public schools weren't serving their children - either because the students were being ignored or misunderstood.
It remains as one of perhaps a dozen schools in the state for young children with learning disabilities - and one of just two in the area for high-school-age children.
The school has been acclaimed by parents and educators as one of the best.
English said her son was labeled a troublemaker in public school, so when she found St. Christopher, "It was like, `Yea! Here's my answer.' "
Her son did well there. Still, she said, "I've been disillusioned."
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