April 23, 2021

'Deceived': Indianapolis Charter School Pitch Left Out Lawsuits, Touted Questionable College Degrees

'Deceived': Indianapolis Charter School Pitch Left Out Lawsuits, Touted Questionable College Degrees

To launch a “transformational” middle school in an overlooked eastside neighborhood, Indianapolis charter advocates turned to a man students call Coach T.

For two decades, Tariq Al-Nasir ran his Stemnasium enrichment programs with a mission of helping Black and brown students realize their “superpowers” in science, technology, engineering, and math. With a resume boasting advanced degrees from MIT and Stanford, Al-Nasir put forward a vision of education in which hands-on lessons in coding, flying drones, and tinkering with robots could change children’s lives.

Calling him “brilliant” at working with students, the influential charter incubator The Mind Trust gave Al-Nasir a two-year, $800,000 fellowship last summer to develop Stemnasium Science Math Engineering Middle School.

But a Chalkbeat investigation found that the rosy charter pitch painted over troubling details — lawsuits, financial troubles, questionable academic credentials — that escaped notice by city charter officials and The Mind Trust.

A bankruptcy filed six months before Al-Nasir won the prestigious fellowship showed that he had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts while running the programs that inspired his charter proposal — including a nearly $500,000 judgment in a lawsuit that alleged Al-Nasir wrote bad checks to cover outstanding Stemnasium bills.

His resume lists a bachelor’s degree from New York University, a master’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctorate from Stanford University — each earned at times when the employment section of his resume placed him at jobs in other cities. All three of those institutions told Chalkbeat they had no records of Al-Nasir’s attendance.

After questions from Chalkbeat, Al-Nasir disclosed his financial challenges to city officials tasked with evaluating charter school applications for approval. Last week, Al-Nasir withdrew his proposal to start a new school.

The Mind Trust had known about the financial mismanagement and still supported Al-Nasir’s charter school bid, saying that he deserved a second chance — until Al-Nasir, when asked about his academic credentials last week, provided information that “raised even more questions about the validity of the degrees,” The Mind Trust CEO Brandon Brown said.

The Mind Trust ended Al-Nasir’s fellowship Monday. 

“We as an organization felt like we had been deceived, and at the same time we were heartbroken that there was a clear integrity breach,” Brown said.

Brown pledged to improve the school incubator’s vetting processes, saying, “If we knew what we know now, we would have never made this investment.”

Attorney Harley Means said Al-Nasir had no comment in response to emailed questions about his college degrees and charter application withdrawal. Means previously said that questions over the financial issues led to Al-Nasir withdrawing the application. Al-Nasir also declined to comment on his financial problems, citing pending litigation associated with the bankruptcy case. 

The case raises questions of transparency and accountability in the chartering process in Indianapolis, where a robust charter school scene has reshaped education over the past two decades. 

Without the inquiries from Chalkbeat, it’s unclear whether Al-Nasir’s money troubles or unsubstantiated educational claims would have come to light. The Indianapolis mayor’s office, which oversees more than 40 charter schools in the city, is often named among the strongest charter authorizers in the nation. But its director acknowledged that officials don’t vet new applicants’ financial histories or even run a simple free search on a public database of court records that would reveal lawsuits.

It’s also unclear how the obvious discrepancies on Al-Nasir’s resume went undetected by so many for so long.

One expert questioned why a charter authorizer wouldn’t take basic steps to catch critical issues when evaluating whether to approve a school for public funding and responsibility for children’s education.

The recent scandal at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, where a state investigation found leaders misspent more than $85 million in public funds by allegedly inflating enrollment and funneling money to a web of related companies, shows the risks of lax charter oversight, said Brendan Maxcy, an associate dean at the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI.

Charter school authorizers “need to have their feet held to the fire to make sure they hold applicants to a high standard,” Maxcy said. “The stakes — for families, for students, for the public — are just too high.” 

 

If you ask the people Al-Nasir allegedly shortchanged, some think he genuinely wants to help students succeed. When contacted by Chalkbeat, six people to whom Al-Nasir has owed debts agreed on this: For better or for worse, he has a magnetic personality and big dreams.

Greg Gage was drawn in by Al-Nasir’s compelling backstory of how his troubled teenage years led him to want to connect students from low-income communities with STEM opportunities starting at an early age.

“He wanted to bring his experiences back to other kids,” said Gage, CEO and co-founder of Backyard Brains, a company that sold science experiment kits to Al-Nasir. “We wanted to help him out with that.”

Al-Nasir made a splash with Stemnasium when he won a $50,000 prize from The Mind Trust in a 2016 contest to design a new school concept. At the time, Stemnasium was an after-school program in Philadelphia. With the vote of confidence from The Mind Trust, Al-Nasir moved to Indiana.

He left behind a hint of financial instability in Philadelphia: In 2014, a former Stemnasium chief operating officer won a nearly $10,000 claim against Al-Nasir, court records show, for not paying her salary. Al-Nasir did not pay the claim, according to court records.

Court records and bankruptcy documents show that Al-Nasir’s debts soon began to stack up in Indianapolis. Al-Nasir faced two lawsuits over unpaid bills, according to Marion County court records, and after he didn’t formally respond to the complaints, judges issued default judgments against him.

In one case filed in 2018, an instructor said she never received her final paycheck. A court judgment showed the $1,000 in unpaid wages ballooned into a $7,000 judgment.

In another case filed in 2019, a tech company said Al-Nasir failed to settle $83,000 in invoices for cash advances and supplies such as computers and software. On top of the amount owed, a judge ordered Al-Nasir to pay an additional penalty of nearly $500,000 because of allegations that he wrote four bad checks to cover his outstanding bills, court records show.

Reached by phone briefly, Al-Nasir said his financial problems stemmed from losing a contract, then referred other questions to his attorney. They did not respond to additional questions.

Filing for bankruptcy last year discharged most of Al-Nasir’s debts, though Tech Innovation still sought to have its judgments paid. Its case intervening in the bankruptcy is ongoing, and Al-Nasir has disputed the allegations of check deception.

Al-Nasir’s bankruptcy documents describe how nearly $13,000 from Stemnasium’s bank account was seized to pay for the Tech Innovation lawsuit and how he lost $150,000 worth of laptops, robots, and drones when his storage unit was liquidated due to unpaid rent. 

The bankruptcy wiped clean debts including $10,000 owed to Kewa Forde, a human resources consultant who said she hired instructors to work for Stemnasium. Al-Nasir kept promising to pay for her work, she said — until he stopped answering her calls. 

“He’s playing hide-and-seek with people, and it’s going to come to an end sooner or later,” Forde said. 

The bankruptcy also purged the more than $30,000 bill Al-Nasir owed to Backyard Brains. Gage, the company’s leader, said Al-Nasir had ordered more than 200 neuroscience kits. The Backyard Brains team had flown to Indianapolis on their own dime, Gage added, to demonstrate the products.

“We were super excited because it was, at that point, our largest sale ever,” Gage said. “It stung having to write that off and take the loss for that.”

 

Those financial problems, however, didn’t stand in the way of Al-Nasir winning the charter school fellowship with The Mind Trust last summer.

The fellowship was something of a golden ticket. Founded by former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and his charter school director David Harris, The Mind Trust has been at the center of Indianapolis’ education scene for 15 years. The influential nonprofit has backed the creation of more than three dozen city charter schools and played an instrumental role in remaking Indianapolis Public Schools through charter partnerships.

Out of 16 new charter schools approved by the mayor’s charter school office in the past five years, all but one had ties to The Mind Trust.

Brown, The Mind Trust’s top executive, knew about Al-Nasir’s financial issues but believed the incubator could help Al-Nasir develop budgeting skills. He said he trusted Al-Nasir after having known him for several years and felt the financial concerns were outweighed by Stemnasium’s positive impact on families like Denisha Cole’s.

Cole, an Indianapolis parent, signed up her 7-year-old daughter last fall for Stemnasium’s free virtual Saturday classes. The home-schooled second-grader built a drink dispenser out of a cardboard box and a jump rope pulley to ferry a doll down from the closet.

“She walks around saying she’s an engineer,” Cole said. “My daughter has always been creative, building and putting things together, but the word ‘engineering’ wasn’t played in our household a lot. That’s exactly what my daughter is doing.”

Cole leads a parent group that supports Stemnasium. She also took Al-Nasir’s place as president of his new company Stemnasium Learning Labs; the Stemnasium organizations associated with the lawsuits and debts have been disbanded. 

It was also important to The Mind Trust’s commitment to racial equity, Brown said, to invest in Black entrepreneurs, who he feels are held to higher standards but given fewer supports and opportunities. 

“We’re not going to hold it against leaders that are mission-aligned, have strong skill sets, [and] share our values, just because they’ve made mistakes or they’ve had challenges in their past,” Brown said.

In his charter application, Al-Nasir sketched out a potential $1 million in state funding in the first-year budget of his proposed middle school, with room to more than triple in size to eventually serve up to 400 students. The Mind Trust had also pledged $300,000 for startup costs.

Despite the public funding at stake, officials at the Indianapolis mayor’s charter school office said they don’t vet whether applicants have a history of financial mismanagement. 

In its six-month application cycle, the charter authorizer instead focuses largely on a prospective school leader’s plans, intentions, and goals. 

Patrick McAlister, director of the city charter school office, said “it’s hard to say” whether the authorizer would have found out about Al-Nasir’s lawsuits and debts had he not disclosed them in the face of questions from Chalkbeat. 

“We ask a lot of questions that could help us get to that information,” McAlister said. “We do a lot of independent research, we follow up with partner organizations, and get a general sense of what’s going on with any of our applicants.”

He added: “We’re always open to improvement, and we’ll look at all the different ways that we can investigate those who are applying.”

Al-Nasir withdrew before finishing the application process, which would have included an interview with charter officials and two public hearings before a panel voted on whether to approve the new school.

While publishing applications for the press and public to scrutinize and holding open meetings contribute to the review process, experts say authorizers should also use as many tools as they can to evaluate a prospective charter school.

Authorizers “shouldn’t and can’t rely upon an interested third party to do that,” said Maxcy, the associate dean at IUPUI. “It seems like the role that [Chalkbeat] played is the role that should be built into the authorizer’s responsibility.”

The Mind Trust still planned to continue supporting Al-Nasir after he withdrew his charter application.

Brown said that the withdrawal was due to concerns that a middle school with only two grades wouldn’t be sustainable. Only enrolling seventh and eighth graders would limit the amount of per-student funding a school could draw from the state, and a new charter school would have to support its own set of administrative costs on top of educational expenses.

The Mind Trust continues to seek a middle school option for Arlington Woods, but officials will likely look to expand an existing school to minimize the additional administrative overhead.

But The Mind Trust cut ties with Al-Nasir after Chalkbeat raised questions over the educational claims on Al-Nasir’s resume.

Al-Nasir listed earning his Stanford doctorate, for example, from 2015 to 2018 — years when his resume says his work was based in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, not California.

When The Mind Trust pressed Al-Nasir for proof of his college degrees, officials could not verify the information he provided, Brown said, and Al-Nasir stopped responding to the organization’s questions.

“We felt like that crossed the line, relative to the integrity of the relationship, and could no longer support an association with Tariq,” Brown said.

Brown couldn’t say why the overlapping dates on Al-Nasir’s resume didn’t raise red flags, though he noted that academic credentials tend to carry less weight once an educator has decades of experience.

Over less than a year of the fellowship, The Mind Trust paid Stemnasium about $130,000 for Al-Nasir’s salary and expenses, in addition to spending some $88,000 to support him through coaching and other services.

Brown pledged to look for ways to vet the biographical information that prospective fellows provide, “so that we’re not just completely taking the word of the candidate.”

For Brown, the breach of trust potentially puts Al-Nasir’s financial challenges in a different light. Integrity, he said, is the most important trait of a leader: “It’s a black-and-white, non-negotiable piece of what we do.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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