Charter schools break new ground with Doral College

On the western fringes of Miami-Dade County, one of the country’s top-rated high schools has teamed up with a prominent for-profit charter school management company to push higher education into a new frontier.

Together, Doral Academy Preparatory and Academica have opened a private junior college inside a high school on a sprawling 13-acre campus near the Florida Turnpike. And they’ve done it using charter school teachers and public school funds.

The nonprofit college has yet to produce a single graduate, earn accreditation or even receive approval to provide dual enrollment courses that bolster a student’s résumé . But administrators already envision it as a model for future development and this year began offering college courses to other Academica-affiliated high schools across South Florida.

Doral College President Anitere Flores, an influential state senator and one of two lawmakers on the school’s payroll, said the in-house college promises to further merge high school and higher education, and provide students an all-inclusive option.

“Soup to nuts, from the very beginning to graduation day, you can do it all and you can do it all right here,” she said.

Miami-Dade public schools officials, who have watched the charter industry claim a growing chunk of taxpayer dollars, are less than enthusiastic. They have refused to authorize dual enrollment courses and have criticized both the value of a Doral College degree and the institution’s heavy reliance on public dollars intended for grade schools. A recent audit also scrutinized Academica’s integral role in the college’s creation, noting the for-profit company already reaps millions in management fees from Miami-Dade’s publicly funded charter schools and now stands to benefit from students’ college education.

“It’s bizarre how the college is working,” said Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado. “Where do you draw the line between the charter provider and a [private] college?”

For now, no one tasked with independently monitoring what Doral College does in high school classrooms seems to have a definite answer to that question. The school district has lots of questions but can’t point to any rules broken by the college . And while an independent state commission issued Doral College a license to open in 2011, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education said the agency didn’t have enough information to offer an opinion on the college’s operations.

Academica and Doral College leaders acknowledge the college exists on the cutting edge, in a gray area of state law. But they dismiss concerns, insisting they’re achieving their primary goal of improving college access to poor, minority students and better preparing those students for life after high school.

“This is a new paradigm,” said Doral Academy Principal Douglas Rodriguez, who is also chief operating officer of the college. “People have never seen a high school build its own college.”

Indeed, college-credit programs like Advanced Placement and dual enrollment — in which students simultaneously enroll in high school and college — are booming across the country as college admissions officers increasingly take stock in accelerated coursework and students look to shave time off their college years. In Miami-Dade, for instance, 7,500 high school students participated in dual enrollment during the fall at a cost of $2 million to the school district. Some of those courses are offered at high school campuses by teachers through paid agreements with local colleges.

The school district itself also boasts a high school that exists on Miami Dade College campuses, offering the ability to graduate with both a high school diploma and a two-year associate degree. That concept has been mirrored in high schools across the country. President Barack Obama even promoted an increased melding of high school and higher education during his visit to Miami this month.

But few if any schools have broadened horizons for students by creating their own in-house institution of higher learning.

In 2010, the governing board of Doral Academy decided to break new ground.

The board set aside $400,000 in public funds to create Doral College and financed the construction of a three-story building with labs, classrooms, offices and a student lounge where the college is headquartered and shares space with the high school. The college also hired Flores, a Miami Republican and former Jeb Bush education adviser who helped the school secure a license from Florida’s Commission for Independent Education.

Today, Doral Academy and other Academica-affiliated high schools collectively pay the college about $460,000 to provide courses to 120 high school students. Courses are offered both online and in person and are taught at the schools mostly by their own faculty, who are credentialed and paid by the college. Academica’s contract calls for a 7.5 percent cut of collected Doral College fees.

Academica President Fernando Zulueta, however, insists his company’s involvement in the college isn’t about business but is aimed at addressing limited college access for low-income and minority students, who comprise a majority of Doral Academy’s student body. He said Academica continues to waive its management fees and has gifted hundreds of thousands to the fledgling institution alongside the high school’s public start-up funds.

“More and more students in low-income schools are being left out of college access and college readiness. It screams for some kind of reform, and so how do you do that?” Zulueta said. “Create not just a program, but make your high school into a college.”

Zulueta said the hybrid model offers students better access to professors and more courses than a contract with an existing outside college. He said the success is evident in state statistics that show Doral Academy students pass statewide math exams and test at college-ready levels in the 80th and 90th percentiles, though he acknowledges it’s difficult to prove to what extent the college is responsible for those scores.

Having an actual college on campus also provides unique opportunities, like a debate team that competed well last year in a national competition at Georgetown University. The college also offers the ability to participate in a research project studying the effect of supplements on the lifespan of mice. In its building, Doral College has a small lab on the second floor where 36 mice with names like Zeus and The Rock are bred, fed and run through mazes with interchangeable pieces.

“We’re getting a lot of opportunities that not a lot of high school students get,” said Juan Infante, an 18-year-old Doral Preparatory junior in charge of observations for the project.

Infante said his engagement in the project helped him realize he wants to pursue a career in molecular science. “It’s really allowed me to discover my passion,” he said.

Andreina Figueroa, chairwoman of Somerset Academy schools, which paid $100,000 to provide Doral College courses to its high school students this year, said the college “understands the needs of our students, and is able to provide them with tremendous levels of personalized attention.”

For now, there aren’t any college students actually attending Doral College. The institution is licensed to provide a bachelor’s degree — potentially opening it to tuition-paying outsiders — but Flores said the college has focused solely on high schoolers while trying to earn accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which can take years.

In the meantime, the credits current Doral College students receive have debatable value, as regional accreditation is often the difference between whether credits are recognized by other institutions. The college makes clear in its catalog “that due to its current status students will not be eligible for financial aid, transfer of credits to other institutions, or to sit for professional exams in career-related fields.”

The distinction was important enough for the Florida Legislature to limit dual enrollment to accredited institutions. But state law isn’t explicit, so Flores said Doral College has addressed the complication by avoiding the term dual enrollment and calling its courses the “Doral College Scholars Program.”

“I know what dual enrollment means legally in Florida statutes, and we don’t want to put ourselves out there as something that we’re not,” said Flores. “What we do? It’s not defined.”

The students themselves say they aren’t concerned about accreditation. If anything, they feel like pioneers for their alma mater.

“In the future, this is going to be an incredible program,” said Doral Preparatory senior Sofia Vignolo, who expects to graduate in May with an associate degree from Miami Dade College and — through the transfer of many of those same credits — a Doral College associate degree. “It’s not accredited yet, but I know that it’s for a better cause and it doesn’t bother me to take these extra courses.”

Vignolo mentioned that she has been accepted to the University of Miami on a scholarship, and that she noted on her college application that her debate team ranked higher than Miami’s in the competition held at Georgetown University.

Some independent observers nevertheless question whether current Doral College students wouldn’t be better served by taking courses with more established institutions.

Mike Reilly, a spokesman for the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, called Doral College’s unaccredited status “problematic for students seeking admission to accredited institutions.”

“There are plenty of more recognized options available to students to earn college credit while in high school that they don't need to pursue the unaccredited route,” he said.

And Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which provides accreditation for dual enrollment programs, said the concept of a college serving only as a dual enrollment vehicle was something he’d never heard before. He said it would make more sense to first operate as a stand-alone institution, earn accreditation that way and then seek to partner with high schools.

“It just seems backwards to me,” Lowe said. “It strikes me as if they’re trying to get around the system.”

Academica’s involvement in the college has also raised concerns with the school district, which competes with Academica-run schools for students and public funds.

Charter schools are publicly funded and owned by nonprofit corporations run by independent governing boards. But often those boards contract with management companies like Academica, which make a profit off their service contracts.

District auditors noted the company already makes $9 million in management fees from publicly funded charter schools in Miami-Dade, and company stakeholders make millions more through school rent payments to their tax exempt charter school properties.

Furthermore, auditors hinted that using public dollars to build the private college would be another way to expand Academica’s business. They created a flow chart showing that individuals involved in transactions between Doral Preparatory and the college in some cases represented both the school and college, or were paid by Academica-run schools.

Zulueta and his attorneys dismiss those criticisms as potshots from a competitor biased against charter schools. He called warnings about Doral College’s lack of accreditation “a nasty red herring perpetrated just for the simple pleasure of generating some kind of controversy where there is none.”

Zulueta also notes that many of the college’s students are enrolled in mainstream dual enrollment courses at Miami Dade College and FIU. And many Doral College courses are given online in conjunction with Advanced Placement classes, so the issue of the college’s lack of accreditation is mostly irrelevant as long as those students fare well on the AP exam.

As for financial conflicts, Zulueta said Academica helps vet employees for the schools it manages but doesn’t hire or fire them and doesn’t sign their checks. He said the company is a contractor and holds no decision-making role for the college, which president Flores echoed.

“It’s very troubling to see people going out of their way to try and kill a program that has these initial indicators of success,” Zulueta said. “People would prefer, I guess, that there be no innovation.”

Doral College continues to push on and pursue the typically years-long process of accreditation for two-year degrees. The institution is paying State Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, to help as its dean. In May, the college expects to produce its first class of graduates holding two-year degrees.

Though Doral College can through its state license offer four-year degrees to tuition-paying students, Flores said the institution remains solely focused on its in-school model.

The college has been mentioned as a potential partner with Ben Gamla schools, fronted by former Democratic congressman Peter Deutsch, and has looked to expand as far north as the tiny Central Florida city of Belle Isle, which runs its own charter schools with help from Academica. Eventually, Flores said maybe even middle school students could enroll.

“What a great opportunity to be able to provide students the college experience on their campus, to make that seamless,” said Flores. “We talk about that all the time. Well, here it is. And this is how you do it.”