-- Lyla Elkins transferred to North Nicholas High School in
Florida, in 2016 with hopes of sailing through its computer-based
graduating early. She didn’t realize the for-profit charter school
be a source of income: a $25 gift card each time she persuaded a new
all of my friends,” said Elkins, 17, who earned three gift cards. She
a Valentine’s Day teddy bear in a raffle for sharing one of the
rampant among for-profit operators of public alternative high schools
North Nicholas, which serves students at risk of dropping out. These
market aggressively to attract new students, especially during weeks
state is tallying enrollment for funding purposes. They often turn
students into promoters, dangling rewards for plugs on social media,
referrals or online reviews, a ProPublica-USA Today investigation
also offer valuable perks simply for enrolling.
absenteeism, low graduation rates
is often less inspiring than their promotions. While they face a
mission of salvaging students who struggled elsewhere, they’re
absenteeism, low graduation rates, little instruction from
teachers and few
extracurricular activities or elective classes. Their intensive
when coupled with poor outcomes, “is wrong on so many levels,” said
Abrams, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and author of a 2016
for-profit education. “It’s not addressing the pedagogical needs of
schools to provide gift cards to students for referrals, and free
devices, such as tablets or computers, to newcomers. And students are
express their opinions on their schools. But advertisements have less
protection under the First Amendment, and some for-profit school
involving online posts or reviews may violate federal consumer
Federal Trade Commission, companies that use students and other groups
social media marketers should instruct them to disclose publicly that
expect to be paid. In settlements with the FTC, companies that failed
encourage such disclosures have agreed to follow the law — or face a
penalty of up to $40,000 per transgression. Those instances didn’t
seemingly small awards should be acknowledged to help viewers assess
credibility of an online endorsement, said Mary Engle, FTC associate
for advertising practices. “Our advice is to err on the side of
purposes, students are considered "micro influencers"
using “micro influencers” like students for marketing, because they are
inexpensive and effective at targeting consumer groups, said Bonnie
executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Truth in Advertising.
says if it’s an ad, consumers need to be able to clearly and
it’s an ad,” she said. “For a group of unsophisticated teenage kids,
is definitely on the company to require them to disclose this material
the Love Facebook Contest” in February, North Nicholas offered raffle
such as the bear Elkins won, a $50 gift card grand prize, $25 gift
flowers and chocolates. To enter, students needed only to “Like,
Share” a post from the charter school’s Facebook page. Charter schools
publicly funded, but independently run.
to share a
post every day for more chances to win!” the school urged. It didn’t
say on the
post, or tell Elkins separately, that students should disclose that
to be rewarded.
Whitford-Narine, president of the for-profit company that runs North
Accelerated Learning Solutions, said schools handle their own social
pages and ALS does not believe it is obligated to make disclosures in
schools’ online posts. But, she said, the company will consult its
response to ProPublica’s inquiry.
promotion took place during a week when Florida education officials
schools to count heads to determine how much money they should receive.
least 17 states, including Florida, use this “snapshot” method to
public education dollars. Whitford-Narine said ALS hosts social events
throughout the year — not just during count weeks.
recruiting: free electronics and Facebook Pizza Monday's
weeks are busy
recruitment periods for other for-profit chains too. One alternative
St. Lucie County, Florida, managed by Acceleration Academies, used
encourage students not to “miss out on the food, fun and raffles”
30 and Feb. 10 — a period that overlapped with the state’s enrollment
Monday” and “Pizza Thursday,” “Taco Tuesday,” and “Wing Wednesday.”
chairman of the board for Acceleration Academies, which is based in
said in an email that such social events take place year-round and are
a way to drum up enrollment. “Bottom line,” he wrote, “we don’t use
parties etc. as a mercenary means to exploit the kids we serve, or to
Academy offered a pricey incentive to new students — free electronics.
graduation candidate at Polk Acceleration Academy, you’ll receive your
Kindle Fire HD to access your course content,” the school’s 2014
said. Acceleration schools no longer provide Kindle Fires for
although some give away technology devices to students for achieving
goals. Refer-a-friend programs like the one at
North Nicholas are
common in the sector. “Bring a friend into Mavericks!” said one 2015
post for a Palm Springs school in the for-profit Florida charter chain.
will get help getting their diploma and you will get a gift card.” The
promised a $5 gift card for each referral as part of the “Friends
Club,” as long as the recipient had acceptable attendance and no
parent company, EdisonLearning, hands out Walmart gift cards for
at its “Bridgescape” schools in Illinois and Ohio. It posted pictures
Facebook this past spring of students displaying their prizes.
officials said the gift cards enable low-income students to buy
have offered rewards to students for online reviews. In April, Invictus
School in the Cleveland suburb of Parma Heights promised students a $25
card for a review on Yelp,
arrangement it promoted on Facebook.
Invictus, which was run by a for-profit manager until November 2016,
instruct students to disclose the benefit.
school’s principal, said it didn’t end up paying any students for
year, it’s changing its advertising strategy. “We’re moving away from
recruitment strategies that aren’t focused on driving students through
mouth,” he said.
reports on schools for ProPublica. Previously, she reported on test
public schools at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her work resulted
indictments of the superintendent and 34 others.
report originally ran at ProPublica and is reprinted here with
ProPublica is a non-profit news platform that produces investigative
in the public interest.
was a recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for public service, the 2016
Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for
reporting and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
presented in the above report does not nesessarily represent the views
staff or management of the Sky Valley Chronicle.
education, ProPublica, for profit schools