Ceria M. Travis Academy Inc., a voucher school, is featured in an MJS article. Travis Academy’s operation and failings are not the exception for Milwaukee’s voucher program. The article exposes nepotism, questionable finances, unqualified teachers, dismal academic performance, and a fundamental lack of transparency.
What is the Republican answer? More vouchers.
Erin Richards Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 12/16/14
The operator of one of Milwaukee’s longest-running private voucher schools says her organization strives to give disadvantaged children the best shot they can get in life, even when they’ve been left behind by other schools.
But new documents and former employees have raised concerns about the internal workings at Ceria M. Travis Academy, a private school that’s received more than $35 million in state voucher payments through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program since 1996.
Complaints filed with the state in 2014 and obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through an open records request allege that the school has violated state law by employing people without bachelor’s degrees to teach students.
And former and current staff members say the close-knit family business has crossed a number of other lines that, while not illegal under state statutes governing private voucher schools, may be holding children back from getting the kind of education they deserve.
They say Dorothy Travis Moore, the founder and CEO of Ceria M. Travis Academy Inc. employs an unusually high number of family members and that it’s hard to tell where the money for education goes, as classrooms lack adequate resources.
School officials counter that a recent review of the schools by an independent accrediting organization found the programs to be operating in accordance with state law.
That review was requested by the Department of Public Instruction as it sought to follow-up on the claims made via email about unqualified teachers at the school.
Double-checking the review’s conclusion is difficult.
Travis Moore and Wilnekia Brinson, her daughter and vice president of the organization, declined to provide the Journal Sentinel with staff rosters from 2014-’15 and 2013-’14, as well as a current list of individual staff titles and salaries.
Because voucher schools are private, they do not have to make such information public.
As for salary data, voucher schools are required to provide DPI with only a lump sum of what they paid staff the previous year, as part of their annual financial information report.
Federal nonprofit tax filings list the individual compensation for Travis Moore and Brinson, whose total compensation packages totaled $213,000 and $118,000 respectively, in 2012, according to those federal documents.
Brinson said five family members are employed at the organization, which has 67 employees. Travis Moore confirmed that Brinson’s husband, Robert Brinson, works for the organization in a student support and security role.
They declined to disclose other family members’ job titles and salaries.
A video from a celebratory dinner for the organization at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2011 revealed that Travis Moore’s son worked for the organization, as well.
The nonprofit Ceria M. Travis Academy Inc. operates Ceria M. Travis Academy, a K-12 school at 4744 N. 39th St., and Travis Technology High School at 8350 N. Stevens Road. The academy had 437 students enrolled this fall, and the high school had 179 students, according to state records.
The two schools this year stand to receive at least another $4.6 million in voucher payments if enrollment holds.
Travis Moore, a former Milwaukee Public Schools administrator, said she serves some of the city’s toughest-to-serve children.
“We are trying to get them interested in staying in school, and then trying to meet them where they’re at, as they are approximately two to three years behind (grade level),” she said in an interview.
She said her total compensation reported on the organization’s most recent federal 990 tax form includes her retirement and investment income. She also said she’s made substantial personal donations to the school this year.
“This is the kind of stuff you have to do when you run a school,” she said.
Low academic performance
Academic performance at the schools is very low.
Last fall at the academy, only 2% of the students could read on grade level. Only 3% could do math on grade level.
The average rates of proficiency for voucher schools that year was 12% in reading and 15% in math.
Former Ceria M. Travis first-grade teacher Jacqueline Sperling worked at the school during her first year of teaching in the 2011-’12 school year. Sperling said her salary was $31,000 that year, and that she started with 38 children in her class and no textbooks or any other books.
“We had to submit lesson plans,” she said. “But there was no rule over what we had to do or how much we had to do.”
Teachers without degrees?
State law requires voucher-school teachers and administrators to have at least a bachelor’s degree, though it does not have to be in education.
This fall, the DPI received complaints via email from a former Ceria M. Travis employee who named several staff members teaching in 2013-’14 who did not have bachelor’s degrees.
She said the academy had sent DPI degree credential information for employees who weren’t actually the ones teaching.
“The teachers in K4-1st grade don’t have a bachelor’s degree,” the former employee wrote to the DPI. “Instead they lied and said that staff members who do have degrees were teaching the class.”
Another former employee said she once witnessed an on-site visit by the accrediting team where employees with degrees, such as a security person, were ushered into a class to act as a teacher while the person teaching, who didn’t have a degree, was told to act as an assistant.
As part of a settlement agreement signed by DPI officials and the school in October, the DPI ordered the school to submit all future financial reports on time, and also to submit to an additional in-person review by its accrediting organization.
That most recent review was conducted in October.
According to Beatrice Weiland, executive director of the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Accreditation, the staff rosters matched the names of teachers in classrooms during an on-site visit this fall, and all the teachers had bachelor’s degrees.
She said it would be impossible for accrediting organizations to come on multiple days of the year to make sure all the teachers in front of children were legitimately qualified.