Academic troubles at Leo Academy preceded closure

LIMA — Parents were told that their children were performing at the top of their class. But some of those children were so far behind they needed to repeat grades, hire tutors and work under special education plans after they left Lima’s Leo Academy and its predecessor Golden Bridge Academy, several parents whose children attended the now-defunct private school told The Lima News.

The school, which offered private education to students using publicly funded tuition vouchers so they could leave low-performing schools, closed abruptly in December because of financial troubles. Its academic troubles were just as serious.

Record keeping was so scant that students had no report cards for parents to track progress.

None of the 39 Leo students who took state assessments during the 2020-21 school year earned proficient scores, according to the Ohio Department of Education, which tracks state testing data for private school students who use vouchers.

And Leo’s former principal now admits that many students were one or two grade levels behind in at least one subject prior to the pandemic, which exacerbated those pre-existing gaps.

Reality sets in for former Leo parents

“The school was constantly telling me they’re performing top of their class, they’re excelling, they’re so advanced,” said Mariah Collier, whose three school-aged children attended Golden Bridge and Leo for several years. “I should have been asking them the hard questions: How are you grading them? What is top of the class? What does that mean to you?”

Six weeks into the new school year, Collier noticed that her first grader was struggling to count by twos.

Collier was so disturbed by her observation that she took her children to Sylvian Learning and found that her first grader was testing below kindergarten level, she said.

“I thought: Wait a minute, you’re in first grade,” Collier told The Lima News in January. “How can you not know how to count by twos? So, I instantly knew that something was wrong. And I felt guilty—how did I not notice before?”

Her older children were behind too, despite previously testing above average before they transferred from Perry schools to Golden Bridge. Collier ultimately removed two of her children from the school, while her oldest stayed at Leo for the remainder of the semester. She wasn’t alone.

Held back

Years earlier, Crystal Gorman had to hold two of her children back a grade when they left Golden Bridge Academy. Her oldest daughter, now in seventh grade, could speak Spanish and decode words. “But she wasn’t reading, just basic reading,” Gorman said.

“It hurt my psyche,” Gorman said. “I felt like it was my fault because I made that choice for them. It was an emotional time for me and my daughter. She cried when she realized she was going to have to repeat a grade.”

Parents who spoke to The Lima News say they sought private testing to verify that their children were not meeting academic benchmarks, despite what the school was telling them.

“They tried to tell me that I was wrong,” Gorman said. She added, “They didn’t give me what they promised.”

A second chance

Kendra Gottschalk started working as a teacher for Golden Bridge Academy one year before she became principal.

She was hired to teach third and fourth grade, but quickly found herself teaching third through sixth grade students when several teachers quit and were not replaced.

The pandemic gave Gottschalk a chance to work with students one-on-one in their homes. She realized that as many as 60% of her students were one or two grade levels behind in at least one subject area, she said.

“I got to see how really, really behind they were,” Gottschalk told The Lima News.

The school, which was founded in 1997 by Karen and Larry Beard, was set to close by summer 2020. But Gottschalk wanted to work with the kids for another year, worried they wouldn’t find another school in time, so she took over as principal.

Gottschalk had no administrative experience, having previously worked as a teacher for Lima and St. Marys schools and Quest Academy.

While her classroom performance reviews were good, Gottschalk was let go from Lima schools in 2009 for failing to maintain her licensures. Her original teaching license only allowed Gottschalk to teach elementary and junior high, but she worked under a provisional license for several years so she could teach special education at the high school, according to her personnel file. She left when the temporary license expired.

Gottschalk was also reported to Allen County Children Services in 2009 and 2013, according to her personnel file from Lima schools, although no charges were filed. Gottschalk said she did not know she’d been reported to Children Services, and the agency did not provide further information.

Vision competes with reality

Gottschalk’s vision for the school was to create an environment where kids had access to an education that was tailored to their needs and interests. She implemented routine assessments to identify and close learning gaps, she said. And she started admitting new families so the school could grow.

Gottschalk now admits that she was unprepared for the administrative side of her job—the paperwork for state tuition vouchers, grants and federal meal reimbursement funds needed to keep the school financially stable.

Closing the school seemed inevitable.

“A lot of these students were children of students that I had through the years, so I’m seeing my second and third generation of students and families,” Gottschalk said. “I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to let the community down. I didn’t want to let the staff down, but the writing was on the wall. We were just getting tired. … We didn’t have the money to keep it going.”

Should the school have closed sooner?

There were no report cards and few academic records available for the two dozen Leo students who landed at Lima schools in January, so the district offered assessments to determine which students needed interventions to catch up, Lima schools Superintendent Jill Ackerman said.

“A lot of them were behind,” Ackerman said, noting that intensive interventions were needed.

Lima schools went looking for the 100 or so former Leo students to ensure none were left behind. Many transferred to St. Rose and Heir Force Community School, while some opted to home school or enroll in online programs. At least one student was unaccounted for, Ackerman said.

The last-minute notice gave parents little time to find another school that would accept new students. But to some parents like Collier, the sudden closure was welcome news: “I’m glad it happened now before it was too late to close those gaps,” Collier said.

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Leo Academy, formerly known as Golden Bridge Academy, closed its doors in December. The school’s academic troubles were as serious as its financial woes. Academy, formerly known as Golden Bridge Academy, closed its doors in December. The school’s academic troubles were as serious as its financial woes. Photo by Emily McBride | Lima News

By Mackenzi Klemann

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