Above: Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.
The New York Times‘ sports section on Sunday featured a long look at Prime Prep Academy, the Deion Sanders-backed basketball powerhouse, reality TV backdrop, academic nightmare and administrative soap opera that also happens to be a publicly funded charter school licensed by the great state of Texas.
The Times‘ Michael Powell offers a blow-by-blow account of Prime Prep’s troubled first two years, much of which will be familiar to folks in Dallas, where the media has rightly made great sport of the school’s foibles. (WFAA reporter and human tackling dummy Brett Shipp is probably staking out the football field from an unmarked van right now.)
But see all the trouble strung together into a single narrative—after trying to fire Sanders, the school director walks out to find her rear windshield smashed; parents sell pizza to students in the cafeteria while phantom school lunches (billed to the USDA) never get served—and you wonder why any parent, so empowered by school choice, would ever choose Prime Prep.
In fact, Powell says, enrollment is up.
The reason is Deion—the man who sweet-talked state officials, lured parents and coaches, promised athletes exposure to top recruiters, and then bridled at the suggestion that his was more properly a supporting role.
It’s a little embarrassing that this school ever opened. Powell writes:
Prime Prep was conceived in celebrity, its charter proposal offering a near satirical turn on edu-speak. The proposal mentioned “our training methods” and a “Leadership Studies Curriculum” without explaining the nature of that special sauce. Students, the proposal noted, would “model traits” such as “responsibility” and “courage.” Students would “become self-actualized.”
A similar hunch—though you’d never read it in the Times, one might best call it the bullshit alarm—is what prompted the first of a couple pieces I wrote about Prime Prep’s early days. It turned out some of the language in its application was probably plagiarized—it was identical to passages on websites for a suburban Dallas private school and a charter school in Idaho. For evidence of the school’s strong financial prospects, the application promised $186,000 in grants already secured from Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network, among others. I called around, and it turned out that had been news to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network.
The secondary headline on the Times‘ story said that Sanders’ school has “come under scrutiny.” But “under scrutiny” is where this school has been for nearly three years. Leslie Minora, then with the Dallas Observer, uncovered a bizarre real estate deal behind Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus, and accusations that they’d poached another school’s basketball coach and star players threatened to keep Prime Prep out of competition. Through all the trouble and bad press, Sanders always found a way forward. Writes Powell:
We’re accustomed to living in the shadow of the rotten tree that is major college sports. It’s almost refreshing that so many college administrators and coaches have dropped the pretense that recruits are more than underpaid young men and women in shorts, jerseys or shoulder pads.
Prime Prep offers baroque twists on this American sports tale. It features celebrity culture run amok and shoddy oversight of a charter school.
Over the weekend, Al Jazeera‘s “America Tonight” also took a long look at Prime Prep’s history, and suggested at least a more charitable purpose behind the school: Sanders’ “vision to marry tuition-free academics for underprivileged youths with big-time high school athletics.” But students and parents they interviewed, speaking anonymously, felt cheated by that promise, even if they did get to meet Snoop Dogg and Johnny Manziel:
“There were nights I cried myself to sleep,” [one student] said. “I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do — it sucked.”
If you’re going to explain the problems with Texas’ old system for approving new charter schools—with a majority vote from the elected State Board of Education—Prime Prep would be Exhibit A. (Beaumont Republican David Bradley called Sanders’ team “first class,” and their pitch “flawless.”) As of last fall, we have a new system: charters are vetted by the state’s professional regulators, then the state board can veto any of their picks. It’s not free from the prospect of political influence, but it’s harder for a terrible applicant to sneak through.
Last month, state regulators announced plans to revoke Prime Prep’s charter, most of all because the school lost its eligibility for the federal school lunch program. (Which is what happens when you take $45,000 in federal money for meals you can’t prove you served.)
For now, Prime Prep is in the midst of a lengthy appeals process, during which the school can stay open and keep taking state money. And while the state has investigated the school for much more, the letter announcing its charter revocation only mentions the trouble with the meal program. Sanders has said he’ll pay the school’s lunch bill to get Prime Prep back in the feds’ good graces; its new superintendent, former Dallas ISD trustee Ron Price, says the school is doing just fine under its new management. Call the Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus today, and the word is that classes will resume as scheduled on August 25.
It’s tempting to read Sunday’s Times story as Prime Prep’s obituary. Maybe that’s what it’ll be. But Sanders’ school has faced long odds for survival before, and come away with an upset every time.
Correction on August 25: The Times writer’s name, Michael Powell, has been corrected throughout the story.