COLUMN: Charter chain shows results, ambitions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The preferred term is “promotion ceremony,” for the record. But whatever you do, don’t call what’s about to happen at KIPP TRUTH Academy an “eighth-grade graduation.”

“We reserve the word ‘graduation’ for the end of high school,” said the school’s principal, Steve Colmus. “Finishing eighth grade is a step along the way. But the goal is bigger than that.”

Whatever you call it, members of the first class of eighth-graders are about to, er, complete their stay at the terrific little middle school in South Dallas. They started as fifth-graders when the start-up campus opened in 2003 and celebrated their work last week with a field trip to Washington, D.C.

“It feels good, because some people asked at the time whether we’d still be here in a few years,” Mr. Colmus said. “It’s nice to know we’ve done what we said we’d do.”

But the important thing about these kids isn’t their past. It’s their future. And the same is true of KIPP as a whole.

First, a refresher for those who haven’t heard of KIPP before. It’s a first-rate chain of charter schools that started in Houston in 1994 and has grown to 52 schools in 16 states. In 2003, the first one opened in Dallas, KIPP TRUTH Academy.

(Forgive them their capitalization trespasses.)

KIPP schools are rigorous. Classes last until 5 p.m. There’s a mandatory three-week summer school. There are even – gasp! – classes on some Saturdays. In all, KIPP kids spend about 60 percent more time in class than kids at most schools – and that’s not counting homework.

But they’re not the no-fun places you might imagine from that description. All those extra hours mean there’s more time for field trips, extracurriculars, and art – the things that have been cut from a lot of public schools in the quest for higher test scores.

While Mr. Colmus has no great love for the TAKS his kids have knocked the socks off it. When they took the math TAKS as fifth-graders in 2004, their passing rate was 20 percentage points below the state average.

That wasn’t unexpected, since KIPP’s students are overwhelmingly poor and from some pretty tough neighborhoods.

Flash forward two years. In 2006, that same group of kids had a passing rate 23 percentage points ahead of the state average.

Those kids have been applying to some of the area’s top high schools, and the decisions have come in. Seven are going to schools like Hockaday, Greenhill, and Jesuit – most with full scholarships. Most of the rest are going to elite DISD magnet programs or other well-regarded schools. Two are headed to elite boarding schools in the Northeast.

‘You get a lot out of it’

A few years ago, these were just average Dallas kids. (Check that: They were below-average Dallas kids. Their TAKS scores were below DISD’s as a whole.) And now they’re getting ready to enter some of the best and most rigorous schools Texas and America have to offer.

“It may look tough, all the work,” said eighth-grader Jacob Sarabia, who is headed to Greenhill in the fall. “But you get a lot out of it.”

Devin Chapman is headed to the Middlesex School in Massachusetts. He wants to go to Harvard after that, then become a neurosurgeon. Before he enrolled at KIPP, he didn’t think much about the world outside Dallas. “It’s pretty amazing, when you learn about everything else out there,” he said.

What happens at places like KIPP TRUTH is important, because KIPP is beginning a truly audacious experiment in Houston. Its leaders recently announced a $100 million campaign to expand its presence in the city to 42 schools and 21,000 students – a sort of “shadow district.”

While KIPP’s leaders are too politic to put it this way, it’s a full-on challenge to the Houston school system – and, by extension, the other big urban districts of America. It also confronts the big question that has long nagged KIPP: Can it scale?

Sure, it has created small pockets of excellence in cities across the country. But can it create a big pocket? There have always been suspicions it couldn’t.

Sizable challenges

For instance, KIPP demands a lot of its teachers – much longer hours than traditional public schools. It’s not too tough to find enough of those idealists in a city to staff a school or two. But can you find enough to fill 42?

And how much of KIPP’s success is attributable to really talented principals – an elite subspecies of human that, despite the best efforts of scientists, has proved difficult to clone?

Or to put it another way: Imagine there were 10 KIPP schools in Dallas instead of one. Would there be 10 times as many spots available to their students at the Hockadays and Greenhills than there are today? How much of KIPP’s success is tied up with it being a small exception to the mediocre rule?

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s national spokesman, acknowledges the challenges ahead, but he’s optimistic. “Certainly the hardest challenge we find is finding quality people to teach,” he said. “But the more teachers you have, the more recruiters you have. With more people it becomes a movement.” And KIPP teachers are generally paid 15 to 20 percent more than their colleagues in regular schools.

Check back in a decade and we’ll know some answers. But until then, revel in the small-scale victories.

“Kids who don’t want to change shouldn’t come here,” Devin said.

Ex-Press Club leader’s crime record roils media scene; She blasts ‘witch hunt'; successor doubts ’06 Katies were legitimate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Elizabeth Albanese may be one of the most honored journalists in North Texas. Or she could be at the center of one of its biggest media scandals.

The organization she led until last month, the Press Club of Dallas, is investigating whether she truly earned the four awards she won in a contest for which she helped arrange the judging.

Documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News show that Ms. Albanese has a criminal record under the name Lisa Albanese centered on allegations of theft. Former co-workers described a history of spinning lies. She also has a record of mental illness and delusional behavior.

“It’s incredible,” said the Press Club of Dallas Foundation’s president, Rand LaVonn, when told of The News’ findings. “I’m stunned.”

Ms. Albanese, in an interview with The News, at first said she was the victim of mistaken identity – that she had no criminal record.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about – these are very odd questions,” she said.

But an hour later, she called The News back and acknowledged that Lisa and Elizabeth Albanese are, in fact, one and the same. But she believes that she should not be judged for her past.

“I did have some problems when I was a kid in Virginia,” she said. “I got myself into some trouble. I did the things I needed to do – I paid my fines.”

According to her former co-workers, Ms. Albanese – who went by the name Lisa Albanese at the time – was a charming, smart, beautiful young woman. But she also invented medical conditions, a kidney transplant and at least one college degree.

“I told the newsroom, ‘I don’t believe anything she says unless I’ve seen it with my own eyes,'” said John Horan Jr., her former editor at a small newspaper in northern Virginia. “‘Check everything out, because she has a very active imagination.’ ”

In a psychiatric evaluation in a Houston forgery case in 1996, Ms. Albanese said she had “a history of psychiatric disturbance since late adolescence.”

The club’s investigation involves the 2006 Katie Awards, announced last November. The club-sponsored Katies are among the most prestigious journalism prizes in Texas, determining the best work by print and electronic media across six states.

Ms. Albanese has won a remarkable 10 of them over the last four years – a time period in which she also helped arrange the judging for the awards.

The controversy calls into question both the legitimacy and the future of the Katie Awards.

Questions surface

The case of Ms. Albanese has roiled the Dallas media world, mixing bruised egos with accusations of fraud. It began in November, after the announcement of her four big Katies wins. She was, until her resignation a few weeks ago, the Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a financial publication based in New York.

Ms. Albanese won prizes for best business news story, best business feature story, best specialty reporting, and – most prestigious of all – best investigative reporting for a major-market newspaper.

Questions first arose after a journalist contacted Mr. LaVonn, president of the club foundation, which funds the club and provides college scholarships for aspiring journalists. The journalist, whom he would not name, suggested that Ms. Albanese’s victories might not have been legitimate.

Mr. LaVonn then asked Ms. Albanese for the names of the Katies judges for that year. She was unable to provide them, giving a variety of reasons, including her switch from one laptop to another, club officials said.

Repeated questioning still didn’t turn up the list of judges – but prompted further inquiries. Soon, foundation officials found that Ms. Albanese had been charging personal items to her Press Club credit cards – including purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue. Officials say she has since repaid those charges.

Foundation leaders also raised questions about the club’s management – including a fundraiser that was never held, even though the club spent about $11,000 to arrange it.

In response to the findings, the foundation cut off the stipend it provides to fund Press Club activities. In March, Ms. Albanese resigned the presidency. A few weeks earlier, she had quit her job at The Bond Buyer and become the public-relations person for First Southwest Co.

Club and foundation officials have launched an investigation, as first reported in the Dallas Business Journal last week.

“The foundation board is most disappointed at the allegations of misconduct by the former leadership,” Mr. LaVonn said. “We will not tolerate misconduct, and we demand the truth.”

Trouble in Houston

Lisa Albanese’s appearances in court records began in Houston in 1992. That’s when she was first charged with felony theft. A second felony theft charge followed seven months later. The charges related to a theft of airplane tickets from the travel agency where she worked.

At a hearing in July 1993, one charge was dismissed. For the other, she was given deferred adjudication and put on five years’ probation.

In January 1994, she moved to Virginia to take a reporting job at the small The Northern Virginia Daily. She covered a town of about 4,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley.

She quickly befriended an editor there named Susan Loving.

“We hit it off,” Ms. Loving said. “She was single and available to do things at the last minute. She would go to an art film or go into D.C. for a museum – which were things not everyone in that area would do.”

But Ms. Loving also noticed that Ms. Albanese’s personal stories didn’t always make sense. She would revise her age – once changing her age from 26 to 25 within a single sentence. She would talk about the accomplishments of her sisters one day and refuse to show their photos in a family photo album the next.

“She was very, very bright,” Ms. Loving said. “She was personable, nice to people she didn’t need to be. I liked Lisa a lot.”

On June 23, 1994, she was arrested and jailed for violating the terms of her Texas probation, according to a story in the Virginia newspaper where she worked.

In jail, Ms. Albanese told the jail nurse that she had had a kidney transplant and needed medications immediately. The jail contacted the newspaper, which sent Ms. Loving to her apartment to get the medicine.

“I spent 45 minutes at that place looking for this nonexistent medication because she made it all up,” Ms. Loving said. “We were all floored.”

Editors and reporters at the newspaper began swapping the tall tales they said she had told: that she had a fashion model mother, an opera-singer sister, a glamorous life living at the Plaza Hotel in New York, like the children’s book character Eloise.

“Most, if not all, of what Lisa said in this regard was untrue, her mother later told me,” her editor, Mr. Horan, wrote in a statement after her firing.

In her court appearances in Virginia, she made claims of mistaken identity, saying there was another Lisa Albanese with a birthday of Aug. 17 who was in trouble with the law in Texas, according to the Virginia newspaper story. In the end, she was returned to Texas.

Her record continued there, with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor theft charge in 1995. The next year, she was arrested in Houston as a fugitive from charges she faced in Maryland.

In Maryland, according to court records, she spent almost four weeks in jail after being arrested on 31 counts of theft, forgery and putting false documents into circulation. She skipped out on her bail, leading to another warrant for her arrest. State records do not indicate she ever returned to the court, and the charges were dropped five years later.

Then came the forgery charges. A Houston judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation, which found that she had had a long history of mental illness, including two hospital stays. She described suicide attempts and strange behavior, such as trying to walk from the Houston area to Austin. She also described a delusional belief that she was a correspondent for CNN. The psychiatrist said her symptoms were “clearly indicative of a bipolar disorder.”

The evaluation was enough for her to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But the evaluation also included a hopeful note: that she believed she was stable, would seek treatment and hoped she would “get a job as a reporter.”

On the rise

She did just that. In 1999, “Elizabeth” Albanese took a job at The Bond Buyer. Soon thereafter, she became active in the Press Club. Eventually, she worked her way up to president.

The Bond Buyer covers the municipal bond industry and is widely read among the financial professionals it serves. She was one of its most productive reporters. The publication’s editor in chief, Nicholas Chesla, said there were no signs that she falsified any articles in her seven years there. (The Northern Virginia Daily also had no problems with her stories during her short time there.)

“We weren’t and we aren’t aware of any problems with her writing here,” Mr. Chesla said. “We certainly didn’t ask her to leave.”

About 2003, according to Ms. Albanese’s successor as Press Club president, she became involved in arranging the judging for the Katies. That’s also the year her winning streak began.

“I’m speechless,” the current president, Tom Stewart, said after learning of her past. “I can’t put into words how sad and sickened I am at that.”

In her first conversation with The News Thursday afternoon, Ms. Albanese denied all of the allegations against her. She said Albanese was not her maiden name but declined to say what was. She said she graduated from the University of Texas, which records show she did not. She said she had never gone by Lisa. “These are very personal questions, and I’m not sure where you’re going,” she said.

But in her later conversations with The News, she acknowledged her criminal record in three states, though she said she could not remember the details of each case. She also acknowledged her mental issues and her years of living as Lisa.

“I was a wreck of a kid,” she said. “I did lots of stupid stuff. I just don’t see the relevance of that to the Katie Awards.”

She said that, while she had not actively hidden her past, she told only those she felt needed to know. “I never felt it was necessary to open up my whole life,” she said.

“It’s hard when you’re in a situation where you’ve had problems in your life and you’ve had difficulty trying to overcome them. … I basically went along for the ride in the early ’90s. My brain was not functioning with the rest of society, or the rest of my body or whatever.”

Who judged contest?

Ms. Albanese said she had finally tracked down the names of the Katies judges last week and had turned them over to Mr. Stewart, her successor as Press Club president.

But Mr. Stewart is suspicious of their veracity. A week ago, he said, he e-mailed each of the “seven or eight” people on the list she gave him, asking them to confirm that they were judges. He received his first reply Friday, he said. But the reply contained a phone number that ended up being a nonfunctioning number at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis.

“My personal opinion now is that we didn’t have any judges for 2006,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can keep holding out hope.”

He said he was not sure what sort of future the Katie Awards might have.

Ms. Albanese said all of her awards were earned honestly. “I think I did a good job at The Bond Buyer,” she said. “This is a Press Club witch hunt.”

Staff researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.