October 30, 2015

For-profit Dade Medical College implodes


Dade Medical College, the homegrown for-profit school that rose from humble origins to become an educational juggernaut, announced Friday it is closing its doors, effective at the end of the day.

Majority owner Ernesto Perez issued an afternoon memo informing employees and students.

Perez once wielded enormous political power both locally and in Tallahassee. But amid heightened federal scrutiny and mounting debts, he was unable to keep his college from going out of business.

All six Dade Medical campuses, stretching from Homestead to Jacksonville, are affected. Also closing are the two campuses of Dade Medical’s smaller affiliate school, the University of Southernmost Florida.

“Since the school’s opening in 1999, Dade Medical College contributed to the community through the training of thousands of Nursing and Allied Healthcare workers that graduated and are working in their field,” Perez wrote in his memo, adding “I, for one, will definitely miss working alongside you and witnessing all the positive outcomes we’ve built together.”

Some former Dade Medical students don’t consider their outcomes positive. They accuse the school of selling an overpriced, poor-quality education. And Dade Medical’s graduates have low passage rates for license exams in nursing and physical therapy assistance — the 2014 nursing passage rate at the Hollywood campus was 13 percent.

The bad news for Perez is likely to continue. As early as next week, he is expected to be arrested in connection with alleged campaign finance violations, multiple knowledgeable sources told the Herald. Perez also remains under criminal investigation for financial irregularities involving student loans.

Perez is a high school dropout and onetime rock musician who saw his colleges as an educational alternative for students who might not prosper at a traditional institution.

He made powerful friends along the way. Dade Medical has contributed more than $170,000 to state and federal candidates, through Perez’s companies, relatives and employees at various affiliated firms. Nearly a dozen South Florida politicians were either put on the college payroll or hired on a contractual basis.

More here.

Former Citizens interim president, known for personal spending, appointed by Gov. Scott to State Board of Education


Republican Gov. Rick Scott has appointed his close friend, former state lawmaker and head of the Office of Financial Regulation, to fill a vacancy on the State Board of Education.

Tom Grady, 57, is a wealthy securities lawyer from Naples, who's perhaps best known though for his questionable travel spending during his brief tenure in 2012 as interim president of Citizens Property Insurance.

In less than two months overseeing the state-run provider, he spent nearly $10,000 on expensive hotel rooms, airplane trips, a limo ride and a three-night stay in Bermuda. Grady defended the spending, saying he was actually "very frugal." More here. He lost the permanent job to a Maryland insurance executive and returned to the private sector.

Before that, during his tenure running OFR, Grady also projected a stark contrast in leadership philosophy: a fiscal conservative who cut costs but also racked up hefty personal travel expenses on taxpayers' dime. More here.

Scott appointed Grady on Friday for a term that ends in December 2018. The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Dade Medical College showing signs of financial trouble


Only a couple of years ago, Dade Medical College was a stunning South Florida success story. Its charismatic owner, Ernesto Perez, was adding campuses, hosting black-tie Miami charity events, and riding the school’s chartered jet to Tallahassee to mingle with lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott.

Today, Dade Medical is showing signs of financial trouble, including bounced employee paychecks. The school recently chose to shut down its nursing associate’s degree program at three campuses — after multiple years in which its graduates struggled to pass the nursing license exam. The nursing degree was Dade Medical’s signature program, accounting for more than half its students.

Asked about the nursing program closures, Perez wrote in an e-mail that the college is shifting gears — with a new emphasis on training ultrasound techs.

“Our focus has and will continue to be allied health education,” wrote Perez, a onetime rock musician who fashioned a second career as an education entrepreneur. “And we will continue to try and fill the needs for students that don’t seem to find what they are looking for at other universities and colleges.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education placed Dade Medical on a status of “heightened cash monitoring.” The decision came after a September federal inspection at Dade Medical and its subsidiary school, the University of Southernmost Florida. This extra level of oversight means that Dade Medical now must cover the upfront cost of teaching students, and then later ask for reimbursement from the federal government through Pell grants and loans, instead of getting that financial aid money at the outset, according to the U.S. Department of Education website.

Asked about the change, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said “we do not have an official comment on the reasons as we do not acknowledge ongoing program reviews.”

This heightened federal oversight can delay a school’s cash flow by weeks, said Barmak Nassirian, director of policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He said the changed status was a signal of concern over the school’s finances.

Some Dade Medical employees had their paychecks bounce last week. Early this week, an email from the HR director to some employees stated “it has come to our attention that there has been an issue with last week’s payroll and we are currently trying to assess the situation … if you have deposited your check, please review your account and verify whether the funds have been honored.”

Dade Medical did not respond to a question about the returned checks.

Read more here

Dade Medical College hires investigator to trail Miami Herald reporter

via @DavidOvalle305

Shortly before Dade Medical College sued the Miami Herald over critical articles, a private investigator was hired to “follow” a reporter who authored the articles.

The contract for the surveillance includes a handwritten line: “Target: Michael Vasquez.”

The deal was aimed at digging up information on Vasquez, who in 2013 began chronicling questionable business practices at the for-profit college founded by Ernesto Perez.

The effort became public only because Hialeah private investigator Carlos de Varona, in August, filed a lawsuit against Perez, the majority owner of Dade Medical, in Miami-Dade small-claims court. He alleged that Perez failed to pay $4,971.87 owed on the contract to “follow a Miami Herald reporter and document his activity.”

The lawsuit was brought to the Herald’s attention on Thursday.

Backup materials included in his lawsuit show de Varona billed for 75 hours of work, which included producing an “investigative report” and surveillance video. After payment wasn’t made in full, the investigator sued, saying he had been “very patient and had made many attempts to collect the debt with negative results.”

More here.

October 28, 2015

Adjusted scores tell a different story about Florida student performance on national tests


The “gold standard” of student test results were released Wednesday, and one Florida Board of Education member called the state's performance “a disaster.”

Vice Chair John R. Padget was referring to eighth-grade math scores on the National Assessments of Educational Progress. Not only were results below the national average, but they plummeted from the last time the tests were given. Only six states performed worse than Florida.

“The present results are not acceptable to me,” he said at a board meeting Wednesday morning.

But Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. says there’s another way to look at the data -- and the results show Florida does “quite well.”

Chingos adjusted NAEP scores to compare similar students across states. When factors such as poverty, languages spoken at home and student disability are taken into account, Chingos found Florida ranks sixth in the nation across all grades and subjects tested. (That's down from fourth place in Chingos' 2013 rankings.)

“Demographics have a lot to do with how well-prepared to learn students show up at school,” Chingos said. “These demographic adjustments help us make more apples-to-apples comparisons.”

The NAEP is given to a randomly-sampled group of fourth- and eighth-grade students who are tested in math and reading every two years.

Florida’s fourth graders performed higher than the national average in both subjects, the 2015 results show. In eighth-grade reading, Florida students were on-par with the rest of the country. The math performance in eighth grade was down, mirroring a nationwide trend.  

Since NAEP results were only released Wednesday, Chingos cautioned that his 2015 state rankings are based on preliminary data. While he thinks the results will hold true, they may change if it turns out there were pronounced demographic shifts in any given state.

--with Kristen M. Clark

October 27, 2015

Education effort underway before next Florida Constitution Revision Commission in 2017-18



The next mandatory review of Florida's Constitution won't start for another year or so, but a partnership of organizations led by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University and the Florida Bar wants to start raising Floridians' awareness about the process.

A Constitution Revision Commission convenes every 20 years to review Florida's Constitution and propose changes for voters to decide on. The board was established by the Legislature in the '60s and has met twice: in 1977-78 and 1997-98. The next one will be appointed prior to the 2017 legislative session, so that proposed amendments can go to the voters in 2018.

"The purpose of this project is really to educate, engage and empower the citizens," said Carol Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute, "and we want to start early because we want to make sure that citizens know this is coming up and they are going to participate in this process.

"The worst thing that we thought could happen is that it comes along and nobody's paying attention to it," she said.

The group -- "Partnership for Revising Florida's Constitution" -- has launched a website, produced a citizen's guide and started accounts on Twitter and Facebook as part of its public awareness campaign.

Continue reading "Education effort underway before next Florida Constitution Revision Commission in 2017-18" »

October 26, 2015

As school testing debate gains traction, Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho meets with president Obama

Carvalho head to waist shot@cveiga

The debate over standardized testing in schools seems to have reached a tipping point after an organization of large school districts, the U.S. Department of Education and even President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue this weekend.

It’s a debate that brought Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to Washington, D.C. on Monday to participate in a panel discussion at the National Press Club and meet with the president to discuss how to move towards fewer, better tests for students.

“As a nation, we will not -- we will not -- assess our way to academic excellence,” Carvalho said Monday at the press club.

The Council of Great City Schools on Saturday released a two-year long study of testing in urban districts that found students spend up to 25 hours a year taking standardized tests. From pre-k through 12th grade, students will take 112 tests, according to the report.

Also Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education released a lengthy list of recommendations, including a call to scale back testing so that it only consumes 2 percent of the school year. Obama took to Facebook in a video message to say the pressure of tests has taken the “joy” out of learning.

“I want to fix that,” he said.

Though much attention has been focused on the department of education’s recommendation for a cap on testing time, education leaders at a National Press Club panel discussion sought to shift the debate to the quality of tests students take -- and doing away with duplicative testing. Among the panel participants were Carvalho, outgoing US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his replacement John King.

The question that should be asked of tests, Carvalho said at the press club: “Can they actually improve and inform teaching and learning in a classroom?”

Carvalho also highlighted the district’s move to eliminate 24 tests required by the district, along with about 300 final exams that had previously been required under state law.

After the panel discussion, Carvalho wrote in a text message that he hopped into Duncan’s official vehicle to continue the discussion at a meeting in the Oval Office.

October 24, 2015

Strippers, fake HS diplomas, and fraud: FastTrain College trial begins


Gabriel Hernandez was 15 years old. He’d hadn’t yet made it past the 10th grade. But none of that stopped him from enrolling at a Miami-based for-profit college.

Hernandez testified in federal court Friday that when he told the FastTrain College recruiter he lacked a high school diploma, “he told me that he could take care of it.”

Hernandez’s testimony marked the first day of a criminal trial against FastTrain’s former president, Alejandro Amor. A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, showed that the for-profit college industry in general has been plagued by allegations of fraud and deceptive recruiting practices. But criminal prosecutions of school operators are rare. And school operators who face charges typically agree to a plea deal rather than go to trial.

Amor’s case will provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the operations of a school that allegedly used former strippers as admissions recruiters, committed millions of dollars in taxpayer fraud, and left students saddled with massive loan debts and useless college credits.

Hernandez’s enrollment paperwork, presented to jurors on Friday, listed the 15-year-old as a graduate of a high school called American Worldwide Academy. But Hernandez testified that he had filled out only the name and address section in the top half of the form, and someone else wrote in the fictitious high school graduation information.

What about Hernandez’s signature at the bottom? A forgery, the former student said.

Hernandez, now 19, testified that he dropped out of FastTrain’s Information Technology program after only two weeks — he was turned off by the school’s atmosphere. Hernandez testified he was surprised to find out about 18 months ago that he owes $5,000 in student loans from his short time there.

“I went to buy a car, and my credit was really bad,” Hernandez said.

Read more here

October 14, 2015

Miami-Dade teachers continue to press labor contract concerns


Miami-Dade County teachers are not letting up with their complaints about a new labor contract passed in September.

On Wednesday, about 20 teachers showed up to the normally staid school board meeting to lodge their complaints with the district, United Teachers of Dade and state leaders.

The complaints centered around the contract but also touched on class size, teacher evaluations, lack of resources and an unpopular state bonus program.

“We are on the front lines,” said teacher Dominique Butler. “Why don’t you ask us what we need?”

Teachers spoke for more than an hour. School board members had to vote to extend the public comment portion of their meeting since policy calls for only 90 minutes of discussion.

Almost 40 percent of teachers voted against their labor contract, which does away with prescribed pay increases based on years of service. District and union leaders said the change was prompted by a state law that requires performance pay.

Some teachers say doing away with the salary schedule is illegal. District leaders have said the contract is legal.

Continue reading "Miami-Dade teachers continue to press labor contract concerns" »

October 12, 2015

Scott seeks $20 million more for high school technical centers

Gov. Rick Scott said Monday he will ask the Legislature for $20 million more next year for funding high school technical centers. Scott scheduled visits to technical centers in Orlando and Miami to promote the idea of a "rapid response start-up grant program" linking local labor needs with demand for jobs.

The Miami event is at Miami Lakes Educational Center at 2 p.m., Scott's office said.

"We know the workers of tomorrow are in our classrooms today," Scott said in a statement, "and this advanced workforce training creates an environment where our students are getting the skills and training they need to be competitive in the global marketplace. This increased funding will continue to give our workforce a competitive advantage and put our state on a path to become the global leader for job creation.”

Scott said he plans to roll out his complete budget in the coming weeks. The next regular session of the Legislature begins on Jan. 12, 2016.