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NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS - The Sterling Hotel in Dallas does not teach welding, auto repair or respiratory therapy. It is, after all, a hotel. But, for several days in 2008, graduates say it became a classroom, dormitory and restaurant for dozens of students from the for-profit trade school ATI.
"They put us in the Sterling Hotel for a week," said graduate Chuck Ijoma. "Eat all whatever you want, drink whatever you want."
It was an intense cram session for the Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam (CRT). ATI graduates say that for their first two years at ATI, the school had mostly ignored them, despite the $32,000 each of them spent on tuition. Suddenly, they say, the school began showing a surprising amount of concern for their success and well being.
The reason, students say, the trade school cops were on their way and ATI's accreditation, measured by the proportion of graduates who passed the CRT, was on the line.
"They (ATI) got a teacher in from Florida," said graduate Marie Galette. "They were inspecting the school. The rumor was the license was going to be taken away."
ATI said the school in question, Campus 50 in Dallas, was never in danger of losing its accreditation, which are lifelines for for-profit schools.
Trade schools must be accredited to take federal funds from the government. Accreditation can be a license to make money in a business where institutions can reap millions in profits.
ATI began its high cost investment in instant student achievement by renting facilities at the hotel. The school admits that. ATI denies it rented rooms, but the students disagree.
Chuck Ijoma said classes went "from seven o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock at night." ATI says special tutoring is not unusual.
Once classes were over, ATI went to extraordinary ends to help the students succeed at the exam. It drove from from city to city, testing center to testing center, until they passed. Dallas, Wichita Falls, Oklahoma City, Lubbock and Houston were all places ATI admits taking students for repeated attempts to get their CRT. ATI also admits paying for expenses and testing fees.
"Some people took the test like fifteen times," said graduate Amy Millican.
That's because as a final reward, ATI paid the students $1,500 each if they passed the exam.
"They didn't want to lose their license," said graduate Elizabeth Mwagbari.
"If you pass, you get $1,500," Galette said. "If you didn't pass, you didn't get anything."
ATI paid off. The school says there's no rule against it. But, when the payouts were offered, students began suspecting something was amiss.
"They (ATI) know how to manipulate the system," Ijoma said. "They know how to take money from the government. What it says to me is that nobody is monitoring what ATI is doing."
There are dozens of accrediting bodies in the United States. In this case, two private accreditation agencies are responsible for ATI. They are trade school cops. There is the Accreditation Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) in Arlington, Virginia, and the Commission of Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) headquartered in Bedford, Texas.
CoARC is supposed to make sure that 80 percent of a school's graduates pass their CRT exam, and that 70 percent of them get jobs in their field. None of the students WFAA talked to had ever heard of CoARC. No one had ever asked them if they got jobs, none of them did. Just half of the students WFAA talked to passed their CRT exam.
CoARC gets its income from the schools it regulates. Director Thomas Manning said it has closed "a few" schools in the last few years. He would not specify what "few" means.
He said he would have to get ATI's permission to reveal pass rates and employment rates at the school. He also said CoARC uses statistics submitted by a school and other licensing bodies to determine if it meets standards.
ATI said more than 80 percent of its graduates have passed the CRT exam in the last three years.
ACCSC is the other trade school cop that accredits ATI. ACCSC's executive director Michael McCommis declined to be interviewed by News 8. He also did not respond to written questions. ACCSC collected more than $6 million last year from the schools it regulates, like ATI.
Still, ACCSC is short on manpower. So, it calls on the schools it regulates to provide volunteers in the accreditation process. Two ATI employees, Kathy Fox Frisbee and Michael Ackerman, have helped ACCSC inspect other schools. In turn, those other schools have helped inspect ATI. Until recently, Frisbee's paid job at ATI was to make sure the company's schools got accredited, and Ackerman, whose credentials students say were in question, was head of campus 50
Dr. Shabazz Din taught at campus 50 for six years. He recently won a $1.1 million lawsuit against the company for employment discrimination. ATI is appealing the case.
Din said in the days leading up to an accreditation visit, there was a frantic search for records. The school was always warned the inspectors were on their way.
"When they used to come, they would ask all of the instructors to bring their diplomas, their degrees, their everything because they have lost the files," he said.
Din said it seemed to him ATI did not keep records.
Kina Whitfield, who worked at campus 50 for more than a year, said she was told to reconstruct hundreds of files before one inspection.
"What they wanted me to do was collect 698 performance evaluations on students that had graduated back from 2005 to the current year (2009)," Whitfield said.
Whitfield still has a thick binder, an "Accreditation Boot Camp" manual, that was distributed to help workers deal with inspectors. One page says "put the problem records on the bottom."
"It was time for them to get their accreditation for that year and the files were a wreck." she said.
The campus retained its accreditation and continues to collect taxpayer money.