State officials question academics, student safety at Prime Prep




Posted on November 29, 2012 at 11:41 PM

DALLAS -- When NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders' non-profit organization applied to open a charter school in North Texas, he promised overall excellence.

Now, three months into its existence, Prime Prep Academy has already been banned from playing football this season and four star basketball players declared illegal transfers.

Now, there are new questions about academics and whether promises are being fulfilled.

One state school board member said she's "horrified" at what appears to be going on at Prime Prep Academy. Another board member said the lack of experience by school operators was predictable. So how did an NFL football star and his business partner - without college degrees - end up in charge of educating of 600 young minds?

Our investigation begins with the interview of a Prime Prep Academy seventh grader, whom we've agreed not to identify.

She and her mother are upset. The student said she was recently assaulted in a classroom by another student, leaving scratches and bruises on her neck. The mother said administrators never investigated the alleged assault, so she filed a complaint with Dallas police. She said her alleged attacker is still in her classroom and was never disciplined by school officials.

“It's not safe,” the student said. “I thought school would be safe. You can go to school somewhere and it should be safe, but it's not. I want to leave."

Student safety questions at Prime Prep were first raised last August. That’s when school founder and head football coach Deion Sanders allowed his players at practice to halt traffic and cross a busy street to confront our camera. A concerned citizen filed a formal complaint with the state.

And just weeks ago at a high-flying, stunt-driven Prime Prep basketball showcase, the kind normally discouraged by high school coaches, an adult-assisted slam dunk went wrong. The player crashed to the floor, apparently dropped by the adult. The student injured his face and is seen on video tape running from the court with Deion Sanders following behind.

But last year, when Sanders applied for his charter school license, academics, not student safety was the concern. According to one of the state evaluators, the Prime Prep application was, "long on rhetoric and goals, but short on... details." The evaluator said "…Information was missing" and "several parts of the application did not appear to have been carefully prepared or spell checked."

State Education Agency auditors sent the original application back to Prime Prep raising concerns about numerous inconsistencies and misinformation contained within the application. The Board of Education granted the charter anyway on a 8-to-4 vote.

State School Board Member Michael Soto was one of the critics.

"It seemed that the application was all about these lofty goals connected with embracing the competitive athletic spirit with zero evidence that these goals would be translated into the primary function of a public school,” Soto said.

The school’s parental internet portal, called "Prime Time Players Study Hall," appears to be semi-functional. Try to sign in to register, and you get an error message written in Chinese.

Prime Prep also relies on the internet for its school curriculum, through a Florida company called VSchoolz. Prime Prep CEO D.L. Wallace, Deion Sanders' business partner, said he's proud to be the only school in Texas to use VSchoolz.

"This curriculum is only used on the East Coast, in Pennsylvania and such,” Wallace recently told a group of University Interscholastic League (UIL) commissioners.

But News 8 has learned VSchoolz is mostly used by only a handful of schools nationwide as a credit recovery or supplemental education resource. VSchoolz has not responded to multiple requests for information.

The original Prime Prep Board of Directors has changed three times in less than a year.

Last August, the board met at the upscale Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth. Wallace told that same panel of state athletic officials that his school's resources are limited.

"I don't know the state averages, but I would assume we probably have one of the more modest payrolls of anybody in the state," he said.

Yet Wallace, a first-time education executive with no college degree, makes $128,000 a year, ranking him 23rd among Texas 152 charter school officials. School founder Deion Sanders, who doubles as an NFL announcer and TV pitch man, pays himself $40,000 a year.

Wallace declined our request to visit and discuss Prime Prep Academy, saying, "we continue to concentrate on providing the Dallas and Fort Worth communities with a cutting edge academic institution, which promotes a challenging yet well-rounded experience for all those who attend."

State Board of Education Member Mavis Knight of Dallas voted in favor of granting Prime Prep Academy a charter last year. She now says the school should be closely monitored to make sure the children entrusted to Deion Sanders' care are getting a quality education.

"I am absolutely horrified to hear that the promises that were made to us have not been fulfilled because the application was a contract with the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education,” Knight said. “I cannot regret my support at the time, but I do have regrets that the promises were made are apparently not being fulfilled."

In the past two weeks, the TEA Commissioner has adopted rules giving the state greater latitude to govern taxpayer supported charter schools like Prime Prep Academy. The Sunset Advisory Commission is also recommending the state legislature change the laws and hold charter schools more accountable.