By Bill Landauer, Of The Morning Call
9:56 PM EDT, September 28, 2013
During its inaugural year, a Catasauqua charter school offered TV shows, unruliness and a discipline-free environment, but little in the way of the health-care-related education it promised, former employees contend in an anonymous letter to Catasauqua school officials.
The Sept. 15 letter, signed "Former Employees of the Medical Academy Charter High School," paints a confused picture of the place Catasauqua Area School District threatened to shut down eight months ago amid concerns it was not living up to its promise to provide a medical-related curriculum.
The letter, addressed to the Catasauqua Area School Board and Superintendent Robert Spengler, said teachers — most of whom had little health-care-related training — received little guidance about how to incorporate medicine into their lessons in the last school year.
"The staff received no professional development to create courses infused with medicine," said the letter, obtained by The Morning Call through a Right to Know request to the school district.
Dr. Craig Haytmanek, Medical Academy's co-founder, dismissed the letter as "the ramblings of a disgruntled employee."
He and Medical Academy Principal Joanna Hughes declined to address all the letter's claims because the writers did not identify themselves.
"If this individual comes forward, I would be more than willing to go through the letter line by line and address each point," Haytmanek said.
The author should be "prepared to discuss the reasons" about "why he or she was relieved of employment," he added.
He and Hughes said the school has incorporated health-care initiatives into every class and that its curriculum is improving. It has its share of discipline problems like every public high school but administers severe consequences for misbehavior, they said.
"This school is orderly," Hughes said.
It's not clear if the Catasauqua board intends to act on the letter. Board President Penny Hahn did not return a call for comment.
Spengler said Tuesday the letter should prompt an investigation.
"Communication of this caliber or level will require the school district to investigate all aspects of the Medical Academy Charter School," he said then.
Two days later, he said the board is hamstrung to pursue the matter since it's not clear who is making the claims.
"To date, we have not been able to find any individuals to substantiate the allegations and speak on the record," Spengler said. "MACS leadership may respond to the issue if they deem appropriate at one of our upcoming board meetings."
Spengler said about 10 parents also have contacted him and complained about Medical Academy Charter School's sparse medical curriculum, discipline problems and minimal academic rigor.
He said the district will monitor the charter as required and will provide a mid-year status report to the School Board.
The Catasauqua Area School Board approved Medical Academy's charter in 2012 and the school opened to ninth- and 10th-graders last fall in a building on Howerton Road. In January, about 150 students were enrolled. This school year, Medical Academy added 11th grade and currently has 224 students enrolled, Haytmanek said.
Most of those attending are from Allentown, and the Allentown School District — which is required to turn over to charters the state aid it receives for those students — was paying nearly $1 million to Medical Academy last year.
In January, a Morning Call investigation found that the school hadn't implemented the health-care curriculum it had promised and that it had no partnerships with medical facilities as organizers suggested in the school's charter application. In March, the school survived a threat to its charter when the Catasauqua School Board said it was satisfied with the way Medical Academy had addressed concerns about its curriculum.
Haytmanek, an ears, nose and throat doctor and former president of the Bethlehem Area School Board, said Friday that Medical Academy has made connections with Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital and Manor Care nursing home and that it is in negotiations with Sacred Heart Hospital.
Haytmanek noted the school has gone through staff changes since it opened and that four employees were let go at the end of the last school year, most of them first-year teachers.
"We want really top-notch people," he said.
Eleven of the 18 staff members who started at the school in 2012 are no longer employed there, according to the letter. Some elected not to return, others were asked but opted not to come back for the 2013-14 school year.
Hughes said some employees left after obtaining better paying work or better opportunities.
The letter says every staffer "who spoke up about the problems … was invited not to return."
Four teachers were asked not to come back, Hughes said, because "they weren't living up to our standards."
Last week, Allentown resident Joseph Konrath elected to remove his daughter, Megan, a 10th-grader and member of the school's inaugural class, from the Medical Academy Charter School. Konrath said it was the culmination of a lot of small issues that "turned a meatball into meatloaf."
There wasn't much about health care in the curriculum, Konrath said. Megan had taken a course on careers where they talked about the patient's bill of rights. The school took a trip to the Da Vinci Center.
While Konrath acknowledged the school's imperfections, he said he was willing to let Megan return this year.
"She felt fairly comfortable there," Konrath said.
Megan had been an outstanding student at her previous school, but introverted. She'd survived leukemia and hoped to one day become a pediatric oncologist.
After a summer of struggling to get answers from the school, and a shaky start to the new year, Konrath decided to enroll Megan in a new school. Also, the main thing he liked about the school — the teachers who reached his daughter — was gone.
"This year is the same as last year, maybe even regressed a little bit," he said.
The bottom line, he said, was that his daughter told him, "I'm not happy there this year."
'Scrubs' and 'Patch Adams'
Despite its name and its charter, Medical Academy Charter School was offering the same curriculum as other public schools, the letter said.
While it offered a health care and careers exploration class in 2012-13 that was supposed to introduce students to jobs in the medical industry, few of the lesson plans were implemented as written, its writers contend.
"It was well known that several of the teachers showed episodes of the television show 'Scrubs' or movies like 'Patch Adams' to their students instead," they wrote.
Haytmanek and Hughes took issue with the letter's characterization of the curriculum. And they offered proof of the school's commitment to health-related classes Friday, inviting The Morning Call to a lab Haytmanek was teaching about the heart to about 60 kids at the school.
In four half-hour sessions, Haytmanek allowed students to slice into a pig's heart and lungs. He drew a diagram of a heart on a white board.
Students wearing the school's uniform — purple polo shorts and khaki pants — donned surgical gloves and sliced into arteries. They reached inside and dug out crimson blood clots.
It was the second such lab this year, Hughes said. Labs don't correspond to specific coursework; rather, Haytmanek asks the students what they want to see at the end of each session. Next week, he told the students, he'd dissect eyeballs.
According to the letter-writers, the school lacked the necessities for a good science program. The biology room had no sink or eyewash station, they said. Basic chemistry supplies didn't arrive until the second half of the year. The letter also takes issue with the rigor of the courses offered.
"Many of the courses were remedial in nature or watered down to meet the level of students left attending MACS," the letter says. "Although this is certainly not to [put] blame on the students, it presents a false image to the community to say that MACS is academically rigorous in comparison to other area schools."
Marie Reph said her daughter Brinn, a Medical Academy junior, has some classes that are far below her grade level. Reph said she expected the school to "challenge her in some way."
Konrath said his daughter also felt the academics weren't rigorous enough. He'd received assurances that the district would offer honors and Advanced Placement courses. An ad the school placed in the July 28 edition of The Morning Call says it offers "all standard high school subjects taught including honors and AP courses."
But such courses aren't being offered, according to the letter.
Hughes said that's true, but it's because Medical Academy decided not to offer Advanced Placement classes after finding few of its students would qualify. She said they have made the curriculum more satisfying for advanced students and hope to be able to offer AP classes in the future.
'Potential violent behavior'
In June, the Medical Academy Charter School canceled its last day of class. Konrath said he never heard an explanation from the school.
He heard rumors, though: "They got a lot of threats because they got rid of a lot of teachers," he said.
According to the letter, "the last day of school was canceled due to potential violent behavior on the part of our students." The letter alleges students were angry about the departure of the bulk of the school's staff. They "threatened to physically harm Ms. Hughes."
Hughes said school was canceled because "it was in the best interest of students." She said students were upset after the departing teachers chose to tell their classes that they were leaving.
"I thought it was unprofessional for teachers to tell students," Haytmanek added.
Until January, the school had no discipline system in place, the letter said. In January, an educational consultant helped the teachers draft a demerit system. But the administration never followed through on punishments, the letter said.
"This resulted in a chaotic learning environment and low teacher morale," the letter reads. "Students essentially realized that they were in control and that all consequences were empty threats."
Konrath and Reph both say they visited the school and observed profane arguments among students.
Hughes said the district has a disciplinary plan that's spelled out in the student handbook.
While Medical Academy Charter School didn't expel anyone during the 2012-13 school year, it required a small number of students — fewer than 10 — to depart the school for failing to live up to academic standards, she said.
There were disciplinary problems, Hughes said: "You will find that at any high school."
Until May, classrooms at the Medical Academy Charter School weren't equipped with phones, the letter said. Teachers were given air horns and instructed to sound them to summon help.
In May, a fight broke out among multiple students in the cafeteria. Two employees tried to call 911 from a nurse's office phone. The phone, the letter says, didn't work.
School canceled again
On Sept. 6, the Medical Academy Charter School canceled classes. The message on Konrath's voicemail cited Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, as the reason for the cancellation.
Last week, Konrath met with Hughes at the school. He said she told him classes were canceled Sept. 6, because Medical Academy had enrolled so many new students it wasn't equipped to handle the influx.
Hughes confirmed that explanation Friday, saying it was a combination of the two.
On the way out of Hughes' office, Konrath said, he saw students in the hallway involved in a profanity-laced argument.
Now Megan is enrolled in a different charter school, Lehigh Valley Academy. At least two of Megan's classmates from Medical Academy Charter School opted to go with her.
While Konrath said the small-school environment had been good for his daughter, he considers her year at the school a waste.
"Once she went back this year, I thought a lot of things are going to be different, and they weren't," Konrath said. "I wasted one year, I can't waste any more."
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