Sunday, May 15, 2016

Chinese school could lose Ontario accreditation

Chinese school could lose Ontario accreditation

The Premier's trade mission to China, where Kathleen Wynne met with CIA executive director Jennifer Xue.




A private school in Shanghai that was recently touted as a shining example of the international partnership between China and the Ontario government is in danger of losing its authority to grant Ontario high school credits following an investigation into allegations of corruption.
Canadian International Academy, one of 21 international private schools overseen by the Ministry of Education – each with the authority to grant credits toward an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, and teaching an Ontario-based curriculum – is now the subject of a ministry investigation after a group of teachers came forward with a raft of complaints. 
Among the list of concerns the teachers voiced – first to administration, then to the ministry, and then to this newspaper – are allegations of course hours that ran well-below the ministry-mandated minimum of 110 hours, a shortage of qualified teachers, and students paying a fee to retake exams and have their grades inflated, all violations of ministry regulations.
Documents obtained by Postmedia, along with numerous interviews with former teachers, students and a former principal depict an alleged pay-for-access operation, which allowed some underperforming international students easier entry into Ontario schools.
Canadian International Academy director of education Jim Sebastian denies a pay-for-access operation exists, saying the teacher complaints were the result of “a down year” at the school.
For China story by Aedan Helmer CIA_wynne / CIA_wynne_xue: Photo op from the Premier's trade mission to China, where she met with CIA executive director Jennifer Xue. FACEBOOK ORG XMIT: QmuNFfYfEjCvHuE2CsA7
Kathleen Wynne met with CIA executive director Jennifer Xue during the trade mission.
Sebastian said the school remains in good standing with the ministry, and the next crop of graduates are already fielding acceptance letters from Canadian universities.
He estimated between 50 and 70 students graduate each spring, and the school’s website proudly displays the Canadian universities that have accepted their graduates – the University of Toronto, Waterloo, McMaster and Carleton among them.
However, in interviews with Postmedia, multiple people previously employed by the school say there is “no way” some of those students could be adequately prepared for an Ontario post-secondary education.
The school’s authority to grant OSSD credits could be revoked if the ministry’s investigation determines the academy was in violation of the ministry guidelines that govern private schools.
That action would cast a shadow over a $25-million deal between the school and a Chinese multimedia conglomerate that was overseen by Premier Kathleen Wynne during a November trade mission to China – a trip that yielded more than $500 million in new contracts between Ontario businesses and Chinese investors.
For China story by Aedan Helmer Canadian International Academy marketing material showing two campuses in Shanghai. HANDOUT
A campus in Shanghai.
Private schools, both in Ontario and overseas, receive no public funding. The ministry said the government of Ontario was not a signatory on that $25-million deal, though the perceived endorsement from the premier is proudly and prominently displayed on the CIA’s website and in marketing materials.
But while the premier announced “impressive results for the people and businesses of Ontario,” following that trade mission, Canadian International Academy has already shuttered its only Ontario-based campus, while expanding operations in Shanghai.
That expansion will move ahead with new staff, as those who spoke out against the school claim they were “maliciously” fired after bringing their concerns to the attention of Sebastian and the school’s executive director Jennifer Xue.
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Sebastian, who also serves as principal of another unaffiliated private high school in Waterloo, is well-known in Ontario education circles as an expert on private schools.
He’s spoken at numerous conferences across the globe as an education consultant, advising entrepreneurs on the process of establishing their own private schools with the authority to grant Ontario credits.
Sebastian previously spent 15 years in the Ministry of Education, where he served as an inspector of Ontario’s accredited private schools.
For China story by Aedan Helmer Jim Sebastian, CIA director of education
Jim Sebastian, CIA director of education
The former principal, who agreed to speak to Postmedia on the condition her name was not published, said she raised a number of her own concerns with Sebastian throughout the school year. First hired to serve as principal of Canadian International Academy Canada’s site in Kitchener, she was asked to relocate to serve the same role in Shanghai after the Kitchener campus folded, citing low enrolment.
She expressed her reservations, since she is not certified by the Ontario College of Teachers. Ministry guidelines for overseas private schools stipulate that each school must have a qualified on-site principal in good standing with the OCT.
In the Shanghai campus’ last routine inspection, in April 2014, the need for an on-site principal was the only citation listed, but the school was allowed to retain its credit-granting authority provided it “act immediately in order to have an on-site principal in charge of the school.”
Though uncertified, the principal agreed to take the position on an interim basis, and flew to Shanghai in September 2015 for the start of the academic year.
It wasn’t long before she began to grow suspicious of the operation, finding what she would later describe as “a lot of weird things” – the same issues the teachers would soon discover on their own.
Ministry regulations demand that 80 per cent of teachers at an overseas private school must be OCT-certified. She said the ratio at CIA was well below the minimum standard. Of the ten teachers initially hired, only three were Ontario-certified.
The first red flags were raised when the administration asked her to assign all three OCT-certified teachers to one campus in Baise, while teachers without qualifications were stationed in Wen Lai. The principal said she was told the Ministry of Education was only aware of the Baise campus, and therefore, the Wen Lai campus would not be subject to any inspection.
I was told, ‘Don’t worry about Wen Lai, inspectors don’t come to this (campus), the only one registered with the ministry is Baise,” she said.
While the ministry visited both campuses in a 2014 inspection, several teachers said the inspector who traveled to Shanghai in mid-April to investigate the teachers’ complaints visited only the Baise campus.
By then, CIA had already opened a new campus in Shanghai’s Pudong district.
Of the three OCT-certified teachers hired at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, only one remains on staff. The two others were among the most vocal in their objection to the school’s practices, and were both fired.
But the principal raised other concerns, beginning early in the school year.
On top of tuition, students were made to pay full price for textbooks, but only received black-and-white photocopies of the original Canadian texts.
When the principal voiced her concerns to Sebastian – over the quality of the texts, and over the apparent copyright violation – she said his response was unsettling.
Jim told me ‘Welcome to China.’ ”
***
All international schools under Ontario’s watch are inspected by ministry officials every two years.
Senior ministry inspector Anthony Di Lena travelled to Shanghai to investigate the academy on April 16 and has since filed his report, which has yet to be made public, to Minister of Education Liz Sandals.
Ontario’s education ministry confirmed the on-site inspection, but declined to release its findings or comment on the school’s current standing as an Ontario credit-granting institution.
From what we’ve given him in terms of evidence, the inspector said it’s quite likely they will revoke the credit-granting authority,” said former teacher David May.
If the province moves ahead to revoke the school’s credit-granting authority, it would raise more questions over the memorandum of understanding signed between the school and Shanghai United Media Group, a $25-million deal to help further the school’s expansion plans.
Wynne seemed to endorse the deal during her November trade mission to China, issuing a press release – which includes a mention of Canadian International Academy – and stating, “The agreements reached in Shanghai will build on our success in the global market by expanding relationships with Chinese scientists, researchers, academics and businesses.”
The statement from the Premier’s office links to CIA’s Kitchener campus, which was to educate as many as 60 Chinese high school students as part of the school’s multimillion dollar expansion plans before it abruptly shuttered in early April, citing low enrolment.
By the time the school ultimately closed, it had no enrolment. There wasn’t a single student registered, according to the former principal.
The school had a total of eight Chinese students when it opened in September 2014, but remained open for only one semester due to an odd administrative error.
The former principal said the students returned home to China for the holiday break, and were then barred from returning to Canada because administrators at the academy had applied for tourist visas rather than student visas.
The Ministry of Education removed the Kitchener campus from its list of private schools allowed to operate in Ontario earlier this year.
But CIA has carried on with expansion plans in China. Ontario imposed a moratorium on new overseas private schools in 2005, but it is not clear whether CIA’s expansion violates that agreement. The ministry did not immediately respond to questions about CIA’s expansion.
A press release describes a new modern campus on “500 acres of China’s chief international education base” in Shanghai’s Pudong district, and lists the Ontario Ministry of Education as one of its primary partners.
May labelled the school a “cash grab,” while other teachers who spoke to Postmedia on the condition of anonymity accused the school of operating as a “credit mill.”
May, who taught at Wen Lai, and another teacher who taught at Baise, said their concerns first surfaced following November midterms, around the same time Jennifer Xue was posing for pictures with Wynne and the Ontario trade delegation.
The first thing that became apparent right away was the level of English language comprehension was very low (among students),” May said. “Some of the students, I was shocked they were even in the program, because they could not speak a word of English – they couldn’t understand a word you were saying.”
May said he worked with another teacher to develop a comprehensive ESL program, but was fired – the other teacher quit – before their ideas could be implemented, or even considered.
And then it was very apparent they didn’t have the courses set up in line with proper Ministry guidelines,” said May, who taught Canadian law, physical education and drama.
It’s supposed to be 110 hours per full-credit course, and they weren’t running anywhere close to that. I finished my Canadian Law class with 46 hours of instruction.”
May said a group of teachers decided to file an official complaint with the Ontario government after making several more discoveries.
First, they learned that Grade 12 students who fared poorly on exams could retake the tests, provided they pay a fee.
One teacher said the fee was 6,000 RNB (Chinese currency equivalent to about $1,165 CAD).
According to one student, who asked not to be named, questions on the remedial exam were identical to those on the original exam, and some students cheated openly.
Teachers discovered discrepancies between the marks they had awarded students on exams, and the grades that appeared on those students’ report cards.
According to several teachers, some grades were being wildly inflated without the teachers’ knowledge.
One student in my Canadian law class went from a 37 per cent to a 57 per cent,” May said.
May cited another example to the ministry inspector of a student who graduated in 2015, only to return “seeking to boost his grades” toward an Ontario university admission.
May claimed that though the student “did not understand the material … and would most likely fail,” he somehow emerged from the exam with his grade inflated to 75 per cent. May and another teacher both attest the remedial exam was not even marked.
When presented with that scenario in an interview, Jim Sebastian called it “a ridiculous situation” and suggested if it were true, it would be an anomaly.
Of course it’s not accepted practice, obviously I’m going to say that’s stupid,” Sebastian said from his home in Hamilton. “That would be unfair practice to a child. And the unfairness comes, and unfortunately it happens a lot in the province, where kids get into universities based on marks that don’t bear a whole lot of semblance to reality, when the kids, after their first term in university, find they’re not doing as well as they expected.”
Sebastian said there are students everywhere “who will try to play the system in some way. And those kids, I hope they learn their lesson. And I’m convinced that over time they’ll learn that wasn’t the smartest thing to buy my way in or get some strings pulled – a lot of them come to the realization that’s not the way.”
***
May said he expressed that exact concern when he and another teacher were pulled into a meeting with the school principal after half his students flunked the midterm exam.
We were told we had to improve the grades, and I told her there was nothing I could do,” said May, who said he again cited his concerns over the students’ English comprehension.
She told me in that meeting, ‘If you don’t do something to improve the grades, then they (administration) will change them.’
We (teachers) were adamant in our disagreement, and pointed out her responsibility to not allow that to happen.”
The other teacher in that meeting was then fired, which she claimed to other teachers was due to her vocal refusal to manipulate the grades.
According to May, the teacher was told the school had cancelled her work visa and that she had 24 hours to leave the country.
She packed her belongings and was put on a plane that same afternoon, May said.
The principal confirmed May’s account of that meeting.
It was held in a Shanghai hospital room after the principal suffered a stroke, which she claims was caused in part due to the stress of her position, and the increasingly fractured relationship she had with the administration.
Those cracks first formed, according to the principal, when she was reprimanded for siding with the teachers over a contentious policy that forbade teachers from discussing midterm marks with their  students.
(Midterm) report cards were handed out in sealed envelopes,” she said. “I was scolded and they took away half of my salary for that month, because I had given conflicting instructions. … That was the day I started to realize it’s true, they were changing the marks.”
Around the same time, the principal joined the school’s executive director for face time with Wynne on her visit to Shanghai, where she claims the premier “was lied to” about CIA’s intentions to expand into Canada.
Ten days later, the principal was hospitalized with a stroke.
She returned home to Canada in December. Soon after, the list of teacher concerns appeared in her inbox. She eventually confronted Sebastian, who agreed to meet with her at a Tim Hortons near Hamilton.
She was prepared to go point-by-point through each of the concerns – from shortened course hours to students paying for inflated grades – but the conversation was a short one.
(Sebastian) told me, ‘You’re too much of a moralist,’ ” she claims. “I showed him the document and he fired me.”
The principal claims her severance pay, one month’s salary, was withheld, “Because that was to pay off my hospital bill.”
Sebastian disputes the principal’s account of her firing, but acknowledged receiving a “barrage of complaints” from teachers.
There were a few harsh words exchanged there, but it was very unfair,” said Sebastian, who blamed the former principal for allowing issues to “foment among staff.”
(She) let things get out of control, and then to dump all the problems on my head and (Jennifer Xue’s) head was very unfair.”
The principal wasn’t the first, nor the last to be fired.
***
After the first teacher was fired following midterms, teachers at both Wen Lai and Baise campuses drafted their list of concerns.
Once we were pulled into that meeting with the principal, and it was clear they were going to change grades, and the course hours were too low, and the kids’ English level was awful, and we found out kids could pay money to re-sit exams… and then finally when (his fellow teacher) was fired, we made a conscious decision to start gathering evidence,” May said.
Then in late November, May and another teacher were working late to develop an ESL plan, when May claims he found, lying openly on a desk, a legal document written in Chinese that appeared to have his signature on the bottom. He had no recollection of signing the document, and believes his signature was forged. He said he found a blank page that appeared to have his signature written out multiple times, as if it was being practised.
May recognized enough of the language to realize the documents were related to Chinese work visas, and claims to have found similar legal documents with the signatures of other teachers, which he believes were all forged. May snapped photos of each page and sent them to Postmedia. 
That blew our minds,” said May. “It completely shook us.”
Their list of concerns now growing, May and his fellow teachers then decided to contact the Ontario government through an anonymous webmail account, and the file eventually landed on chief investigator Anthony Di Lena’s desk.
Ultimately, the school, given the seriousness of issues of non-compliance, the contractual agreement with the Ministry could be terminated,” the Ministry inspector wrote to May in early February.
Thus, the school would no longer have authority to offer credits towards the Ontario diploma. It could continue to be an international school, but not be recognized as an Ontario school overseas.”
Di Lena promised to investigate, but by the time he made contact, May had already been fired.
While waiting for the ministry to respond, the teachers confronted the administration with their concerns.
Chief among them was the students’ poor English comprehension and the lack of ESL support. They grieved the “wildly inflated” prices students were made to pay and questioned the “academic dishonesty” of allowing students to write remedial exams for a fee.
The letter said the practice “undermines the teachers’ ability to perform their work … remedial exams are just a fancy way of saying a student can pay for a grade.”
In general there is a disregard for student interest and they are primarily treated as sources of money, not as people to mentor and help develop. … The students, on multiple occasions, have come to teachers expressing that they know that this school is effectively a credit mill.”
The teachers cited their grievance over course hours running well-short of the ministry-mandated 110 hours-per-credit, and suggested some of those who graduated with an OSSD were largely under-prepared for post-secondary studies, which many of them pursued while paying premium tuition as international students at Ontario universities.
Teachers said they had fielded numerous complaints about recent graduates who were accepted to Ontario universities, only to find they were required to spend an extra year in university in a remedial English program.
Many parents (of) students who recently graduated complained that they have been cheated and blamed (the academy) for not doing enough to support them,” the letter reads.
May said the response they got was underwhelming.
Sebastian wrote back warning May to “exercise caution” when making “accusations about (altered) marks” or commenting on failing students. In another letter to staff, obtained by Postmedia, he warned teachers against paying too much heed to marks. 
Marks are bunk!” he wrote. “They are rarely valid or reliable… Perhaps you might understand why comments about changing marks do not get me too exercised.”
In an interview, Sebastian defended the school, saying the academy employed an admittedly “convoluted” strategy to ensure they were compliant with ministry regulations on the ratio of Ontario-certified teachers. Sebastian said CIA offers Ontario credit courses only to Grade 12 students, while junior grades are taught from an equivalent curriculum that is not recognized by the Ministry.
Sebastian used the same reasoning to explain the shortened course hours – since junior grades are not Ontario credit courses, they are not subject to the same compliance standards.
In Grade 12, of course we ensure we meet the 110-hour requirement,” Sebastian insisted – a claim some teachers dispute.
Sebastian also said the academy’s status as an English-based school means graduates who have spent at least three years there are exempt from taking an English-language proficiency exam mandated by the Ontario University Application Centre.
One of the attractions to parents,” said Sebastian, “is you can come into (CIA), stay three years and you won’t have to take a proficiency test.”
***
May was fired in early February during the holiday break between semesters. He was told not to bother returning to the school, as his belongings had already been packed for him.
May was told his dismissal was due to “conduct that brought discredit on the school,” but he believes his termination was meant to silence other dissenting teachers.
Everyone was conscious they could be on the chopping block at any time,” May said.
A fellow Wen Lai teacher tendered his resignation following May’s firing – claiming he was “threatened” with legal action after confronting administration about his forged signature – but the remaining teachers did not remain silent.
A third teacher, working at the Baise campus, confronted the administration in March. In an email exchange with Sebastian, he said teachers felt “neglected and disrespected” by the apparent lack of action to address the concerns they had brought forward months earlier.
We were being ignored,” he said. “We had a lot of questions and we felt like we were just being brushed off.”
The teacher was called into a meeting with the school’s executive director the following day and fired. He was told he had one hour to collect his belongings before security escorted him off the property.
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Sebastian, who, in addition to his role as the school’s director of education, continues to serve as an executive with Ontario’s Independent Private Schools Advisory Board, carries a long history from his days as co-ordinator of private schools with the Ministry of Education.
Sebastian, then working with a consulting firm that included several private school operators among its clients, was quoted extensively in a 2011 Toronto Star investigation into several corrupt “credit mills” in the GTA – a report that prompted the Auditor General to recommend a massive internal review of Ontario credit-granting schools.
According to the Star report, Sebastian was highly critical of the government’s lax oversight of private schools.
What is this all about, this credit-revoking business? It’s finger-wagging,” he told the Star. “To start a private school in this province all you have to do is tell the province. You have to fill out a form. There’s no regulation. Zero.”
Sebastian told the Star in 2011 he had recently been approached to work for several private school operators who exhibited questionable scruples.
I didn’t realize they were such bad guys,” he said at the time. “I naively thought they actually wanted me to do something good. They wanted me to help them be worse…”
Under Sebastian’s guidance, Canadian International Academy passed routine bi-annual inspections in 2012 and 2014, and in an interview, Sebastian referenced those inspection results as evidence of the school’s “exemplary” record.
In the most recent inspection in April, Sebastian acknowledged the need for fully certified onsite principal remained “one of the thorns in the side of the Ministry.”
The school recently hired a qualified principal, and “as far as I know,” Sebastian said Tuesday, the school remains in good standing with the province.
Attempts to reach Jennifer Xue in China have been unsuccessful.
The results of the most recent Ministry inspection, conducted on April 16, are not yet known.