By Morgan Smith
On a recent Wednesday morning, Branch Park Academy looked like any other bustling suburban middle school.
Beyond a packed parking lot, a banner hanging near the entrance boasted that the school had earned the “highest academic distinction” from the Texas Education Agency. Inside, students’ voices drifted from their classrooms.
By law, those students were not supposed to be there at all.
In June, the state education agency revoked the charter of the Honors Academy Charter School District, which runs Branch Park Academy and six other schools. While some individual campuses, like Branch Park, had met state academic standards, Honors had failed to do so over all for three consecutive years, meaning that, under a 2013 law, it could no longer operate as a public school.
Well into the new school year, all seven Honors Academy schools, which enroll a total of almost 700 students in Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are still open. As of last week, on its website and in literature distributed at its campuses, Honors Academy continued to publicize itself as an accredited public school.
Honors Academy is among the first Texas operators to have its contract revoked under a law that broadens the state’s authority to shutter poor-performing charter schools. The provision, passed to help leaders grapple with the expansion of the publicly financed, privately managed schools, was intended to quickly free up state contracts for high-performing operators by severing ties with low-performing ones. Previously, the process could take years.
By the time the school year began in August, Honors Academy had exhausted its options to appeal the decision at the agency level, and two courts had denied its request for an injunction to stop the closing. The state ordered the charter operator to turn over student records and its remaining state funds, and to find alternatives for students who had already enrolled.
Honors Academy officials, who did not respond to a request seeking comment, decided to open their doors anyway. They have argued that the provision forcing closure is unconstitutional and that their campuses received poor academic ratings based on technicalities.
“We are moving ahead with school and, at the same time, are moving to resolve these issues in the most expeditious, positive way possible, including a possible merger with another charter,” the president and CEO, John Dodd, said in a statement at the time.
Almost halfway through the school year, the situation remains unsettled.
The school has become what the state education commissioner, Michael Williams, called a “de facto private school,” using what state money it has left to continue operating.
According to 2013 tax documents, Honors Academy ended the fiscal year with about $3.5 million, reporting more than $7 million in revenue from public sources, most of it from the state.
In a Nov. 10 letter to Dodd and the Honors board chairman, Michelle Metzger, Williams wrote that Honors Academy was inflicting “imminent and substantial harm” on students by “falsely holding itself out as a public charter school.” As a result, he wrote, the state would be forced to appoint a board of managers to take over the schools and finish the business of shutting them down.
“This further intervention is now necessary to protect the welfare of the former charter school’s students and public interest,” he wrote, noting that other public schools may not grant credit for coursework students complete at an unaccredited institution.
On Wednesday, students at Wilmer Academy, an Honors campus in South Dallas for kindergarten through the eighth grade, tossed a football behind a small, well-worn building with a sign declaring, “Now Enrolling.”
Parents waiting to pick up their children that afternoon said the school had not informed them that the state had revoked its charter. They were not aware of the risk that credits might not transfer to other public schools.
Bryan Hall, whose elementary school-aged son had attended Wilmer for two years, said he was under the impression that the charter had successfully merged with another school.
If it had, he said, his son would stay at the school.
“We’re happy with it,” he said.