11/25/12 — Year-old Asperger school closes

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Year-old Asperger school closes

By John Joyce and Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 25, 2012 1:50 AM

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The Asperger Connection School at St. Joseph's United Methodist Church on 301 N. Mill St. dissolved on Tuesday, but will reopen Monday as Great Accomplishments Academy.

PIKEVILLE -- A school that started more than a year ago for students with Asperger's Syndrome was dissolved Tuesday amid allegations of financial improprieties and administrative mismanagement by its owner, founder and operator, Nancy Black. However, thanks to the timely intervention of members of the St. Joseph's United Methodist Church where the school is housed and the efforts of parents and the lone teacher, the school will reopen Monday under a new name.

Until Tuesday, the Asperger Connection School had operated since August 2011 out of the church, located at 301 N. Hill St. in Pikeville.

But the school had struggled financially since it began, with teachers going largely unpaid and parents withdrawing children over concerns of the quality of education.

The problems grew so bad that in February, the state Department of Labor became involved after a number of teachers had quit after not receiving their promised compensation and the principal had been terminated following a worker's compensation claim for an arm injury she suffered on the job.

By the time the school dissolved on Tuesday, there was only one teacher -- and no administrators -- left for the 24 students who remained.

"I've worked here for 14 months. I was the second teacher hired, contracted under $58,000. As of Saturday (Nov. 17), I have only been paid $6,012," said Ms. Clark, who taught grades 3-5 and wrote the curriculum for grades K-8.

The parents of those children were then told at a Nov. 17 meeting with Ms. Black, who declined a request for comment, that the school would not be re-opening after the Thanksgiving break.

According to Ms. Clark, she also announced the formation of a new virtual school called the Daniel Kelly Academy, through which the students would use a computer-based curriculum to learn from home. However, no offer was made to refund tuition payments, despite many parents having already paid for the nine-month program. Instead, she offered one option -- forfeit the $6,000 tuition and send their children back to public school.

That was unacceptable, especially for this population, Ms. Clark said.

"I explained to the parents that the virtual program would not work for our children. They have Asperger's Syndrome, a social disability, not academic," she said.

These students are challenged in the area of interaction with other children, she explained, which is why they often get picked on in public schools. To send them home and to place them in front of a computer all day without contact of their peers would not only be devastating, but could reverse the progress already made.

Compounding the situation, Ms. Black sent out another email Tuesday to parents and Ms. Clark, alleging that the head of the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education, Dr. Chena Flood, had advised her of the steps required to protect the school from being taken over by the parents and teachers, whom she said have falsely accused of her wrongdoing.

The notification letter advised that they would face legal action and be subject to removal by police if any property was taken and any parents were on the premises after 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Both Pikeville Police Chief Wayne Turner and Dr. Flood refuted the claims.

"The Department of Non-Public Education has no authority over the owners or the administration or the teachers of private schools," Dr. Flood said. "It is out of the purview of the department to advise them in any way."

In fact, the only requirements the department enforces are that records be kept pertaining to students' academics, attendance and health. The school must also pass a fire inspection, ensure that a standardized test of students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11 is proctored and passed, and must operate on a nine-month calendar.

The school is considered a private business, she explained, and the agency that regulates those, at least as far as ensuring that wages are paid as contracted, is the Department of Labor.

Officials from the Department of Labor said last week that they could not comment on whether an investigation into either the school or Ms. Black had been initiated, but Wayne County Clerk of Courts records show that at least two cases have been presided over by magistrates in civil court, with judgments made for the plaintiffs in the amounts of $3,999 and $1,100.

The first was for unpaid wages, the second dealt with tuition.

Meanwhile, there also were questions about the school's actual status. Ms. Black reportedly announced on Nov. 17 that the school was no longer a non-profit, but had converted to a limited liability corporation as a result of the move to become a virtual school.

The timeline on that, however, was found to be in question.

"We found out (Monday) about the switch from the non-profit to the LLC by going to the Secretary of State's website," said Debbie Outland, a former teacher at the school.

She said that according to the site, the school, formed as a non-profit on Jan. 25, 2011, was dissolved as such on Feb. 16, 2012. The Daniel Kelly Academy, LLC, was registered Feb. 22, 2012.


What is clear, though, is that despite the upheaval and confusion of the last week, many of the parents and their teacher are determined to continue the school, which offers the children a unique opportunity to learn.

But for those who opt to re-enroll their child in public school, officials there say it's a simple process.

"They can come back to the school system," Jane Walston, director of exceptional children's programs with Wayne County Public Schools. "All they have to do is go to the school that's in their district. It's just like if they were moving in from another county. There should be a program at every school because we try to offer a full continuum at each school. We don't have a Life Skills program in every school, but we would transport them."

Mrs. Walston was not surprised by the question regarding transferring or re-enrolling students who have been affiliated with The Asperger Connection.

"We have had quite a few come back from that school," she said Tuesday. "As far as I know, that's a good program and we have tried to support it verbally as much as we can, because it may be right for some children.

"I wouldn't want to say anything against it because we have been working with Ms. Black and other students since they have been opened."

As of Friday, though, none of the students have left the school as the St. Joseph administrative council voted last week to allow the school, under a new name, license and yet-to-be elected board of its own, to continue to operate on their premises.

"We are going forward," Ms. Clark said.

The school, now called Great Accomplishments Academy, will commence Monday.

"Our applications with the Division of Non-Public Education have been submitted, we are electing our board today and we will begin fundraising," she said.