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Within 20 minutes of arriving at Prime Prep Academy on a 96-degree July evening, Sanders stepped away from the herds of young players he was coaching and met with us on the edge of the school’s football field to set conditions for an interview he previously agreed to. Sanders, an NFL Hall of Famer and color analyst for the NFL Network, had agreed to an interview about the history and future of the charter school he founded in 2012.
The two-sport star known as “Prime Time” is a careful man. Wearing the black and red colors of the school and holding a whistle, Sanders summed up a new condition for any interview about Prime Prep in six words.
“You do me, I do you,” he said, pointing to the crew of his reality TV show shooting nearby.
Sanders retreated to his coaching, loudly encouraging young running backs and linemen to play through the whistle. Families sat in lawn chairs to watch a legend coach their sons. Many players at Sanders’ football camp — and a majority of the school’s students — come from some of the most impoverished areas of the Dallas–Fort Worth area. For a select few, there’s hope that the children’s talents will give them a chance to play at the college level, earn a degree and have an opportunity for a better life.
This is the promise presented by Sanders and, by association, Prime Prep — his vision to marry tuition-free academics for underprivileged youths with big-time high school athletics. The school has established itself as an athletic powerhouse, with its nationally ranked men’s basketball team and the long list of athletic scholarships awarded to its basketball and football players.
But a litany of issues — from fraudulent financial management to administration infighting, from being dropped from a federally funded lunch program to questions surrounding the academic integrity of its prospective NCAA student-athletes — have plagued Prime Prep from the beginning.
Now the school’s very existence is in jeopardy. After a seven-month investigation, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) recommended last month that the state revoke the charter of Uplift Fort Worth, Prime Prep’s parent organization. The crux of the agency’s argument was that the school was dropped in April from the federally funded National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches and child nutrition programs. The agency also found that Prime Prep failed to correct serious financial issues and satisfy general accepted accounting standards.
The school has appealed the recommendation. If Prime Prep remains open, Sanders and the administrators are bound to face questions from students, parents, faculty and the state about whether the school will undergo changes in culture and perception necessary to survive.
“It’s a world-class failure when it comes to academics,” said Bob Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk, a nonprofit that ranks the quality of Texas schools. “This is a bad school.”
As the camp wraps up, we meet Sanders at midfield. While he’s stretching, he expresses his concerns about letting people understand the history and future of the school he founded.
“I don’t trust anybody,” Sanders said. “I have trust issues.”
A hopeful start turns sour
Sitting side by side in 2012, Sanders and D.L. Wallace flashed grins from ear to ear. The business partners had come a long way in two years. In 2010, investors sued the pair for $1.8 million over a high school recruiting directory that was never released. (The plaintiffs did not move forward with the suit because it became too expensive.) But with the advent of Prime Prep, it was a chance to wipe the slate clean and help change what Wallace called an unwritten rule that inner-city kids can’t get the kind of quality education that everybody enjoys in “the nice suburbs.”
“It started from a vision,” Wallace, then the school’s CEO, told Sanders in an informational video about the school featuring the partners, “and most of that vision came out of your head. And we took that vision, put it down on paper.”
“We! ‘We’ is the key word,” Sanders interjected. “I couldn’t do this without you, man.”
From the start, the school’s vision under Wallace was dicey at best. Even though the Texas State Board of Education approved Prime Prep’s charter school application in February 2012, it shut down the lease agreement that would have had the school renting its Fort Worth campus for $10,000 a month from a company that had Wallace as its director.
While the school saw success in some areas, the past two years have seen an array of well-documented issues. More than $45,000 of federal meal money — funds intended for students’ lunches — has yet to be properly accounted for. As of December 2013, parent organization Uplift Fort Worth owed contractors such as PepsiCo hundreds of thousands of dollars. In January at least 200 laptops were reportedly stolen from the elementary school and sold.
For most of its existence, bad press has haunted the school, most notably when the entire Prime Prep football team confronted a local reporter in 2012.
Sanders, who admitted that he was distracted by his divorce proceedings during the school’s first two years, has offered to pay back the $45,000 debt that he says was created by Wallace. “This is a whole new management,” Sanders told Roland Martin on his radio show last month. “We’re getting punished for what [Wallace] did back in 2011.”
Wallace did not respond to repeated interview requests.
While the new administration has pointed the finger at Wallace and the old administration, some officials remain suspicious of Sanders’ role. Okey Akpom, an attorney and a member of Prime Prep’s board of directors, said he was sold by the school’s vision. But he soon heard stories that the school’s athletes were out of control, from acting out at the teachers to leaving campus whenever they felt like it. When school officials moved to discipline student-athletes, Akpom said that Sanders stepped in to keep them from being suspended, afraid it would stain the school’s reputation.
“Deion Sanders had been interfering in the attempt to discipline the kids,” said Akpom, who added that the board has been catering to the needs of Sanders and T. Christopher Lewis, the school board’s president, at the expense of the students’ education. “My concern is we shouldn’t have Deion Sanders sitting in board meetings telling us what to do. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Lewis acknowledged a request from “America Tonight” for an interview but then stopped responding to messages.
In the last three months, “America Tonight” has spoken with several current and former Prime Prep student-athletes and alumni as well as parents of current and former student-athletes. Most had positive opinions about their experience and the mission of the school. But there was also criticism, particularly regarding the quality of the school’s academics.
One alumnus, who wished to remain anonymous, said he valued his experience around Sanders and the number of big-time athletes and celebrities he brought into the school, from Johnny Manziel to Snoop Dogg. But when it came to his education and moving toward his dream of getting a Division I scholarship, the young man said the school and the previous administration failed him.
“There were nights I cried myself to sleep,” he said. “I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do — it sucked.”
Even after their children left the school, some parents remain positive about Sanders and the new administration’s efforts to turn around the school’s fortunes.
“I like Deion. I think his heart is in the right place,” said a parent of a former Prime Prep student-athlete, who wished to remain anonymous. The parent said his son transferred out of the school in the spring after just one year. “But you can’t have this idea and not have the right people in place. It can’t be done.”
There were nights I cried myself to sleep. I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do – it sucked.
Prime Prep alumnus
Other parents haven’t been as sympathetic about the challenges ahead for the school.
“They made that bed,” said a parent of a current Prime Prep basketball player, who also asked not to be identified. “Now they have to sleep in it.”
With Prime Prep in the headlines for its on-the-field success and off-the-field issues, the school has been a ripe target for formal complaints.
From October 2011 to September 2013, nine complaints concerning Prime Prep were made to the TEA and the state attorney’s office, according to a public information request filed by “America Tonight” with the TEA. The summary of complaints includes allegations of financial impropriety, assault and child abuse, as well as concerns about the school’s role in the reality show.
The most significant of those complaints is in the form of a federal lawsuit accusing Wallace, Sanders and Uplift Fort Worth, among others, of knowingly making fraudulent claims “for the purpose of obtaining large payments under the federally funded National School Lunch Program and the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.” The lawsuit was filed by Lawrence Smith, a former investor in Sanders’ failed recruiting directory project.
While the school is trying to create distance from the previous administration, emails from parents obtained by “America Tonight” show that they continue to question why Sanders is still involved and whether anything will change if the state keeps the school open.
In December 2013 a meeting took place to discuss whether Sanders should remain involved, according to an email from a Prime Prep parent to the TEA. There another parent reportedly asked Sanders about his “physical attacks on staff members,” a reference to his alleged assault on the school’s former CFO.
“Deion [who was present] replied, ‘If I really wanted to attack someone, I got people that will do dirt for me,’” the parent wrote.
Another parent was originally hopeful about sending a child to the school. But that excitement turned to disappointment, anger and accusations that Sanders verbally and physically abused students and encouraged bullying behavior. The parent wrote that the child would soon fall behind in all the child’s academics.
“We were all so proud, excited and supporting [student’s name redacted] natural desires and talents to go beyond the norm,” the parent wrote about the child in a December 2013 email to the TEA. “Now, there is nothing but sports, sports, sports and nothing else at that poor example of a school.”
Emmanuel Mudiay and the NCAA
As he prepared for his freshman — and perhaps only — year at Southern Methodist University, Emmanuel Mudiay always kept his mother, Therese Kabeya, in mind. When he was a toddler, his father died, and in their native Zaire, Kabeya was the family’s rock, helping them get by on homegrown vegetables. As bullet casings covered the streets of their neighborhood during the second Congo war, Kabeya sought asylum for him and his two older brothers in the United States. That was 13 years ago, and the family hasn’t looked back.
It’s difficult to talk about the future of Prime Prep without discussing Mudiay, who led the boys’ basketball team to a 66-8 record in his two years there. The 6-foot-5 point guard with a blistering first step was rated the No. 3 high school basketball prospect in the nation for the class of 2014 and is a projected top-five pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Mudiay, who has been compared favorably with NBA stars Russell Westbrook and John Wall, committed to SMU, spurning the overtures of traditional basketball bluebloods in Kentucky and Kansas, among others.
Still, the constant struggle of his mother led Mudiay, Prime Prep’s highest-profile alumnus to date, to announce he was forgoing his scholarship at SMU to play overseas for the next year. Soon after that, he signed a $1.2 million deal with Guangdong of the China Basketball Association, the richest contract given to an American high school basketball player to play overseas.
“I was excited about going to SMU and playing college basketball for coach Larry Brown and his staff and preparing for the NBA,” the 18-year-old said in a statement to Sports Illustrated, “but I was tired of seeing my mom struggle.”
The fallout from Mudiay’s decision has only increased speculation and questions about his academic eligibility and Prime Prep’s ability to pass NCAA standards. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports first reported that Mudiay’s decision was based on his family's uncertainty about whether he’d be academically eligible for his freshman year. Brown and Ray Forsett, Mudiay’s coach at Prime Prep, denied that, calling Mudiay’s situation a hardship case. Then Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com reported that the NCAA Eligibility Center, the arm of the NCAA that certifies the academic credentials of prospective student-athletes and their schools nationwide, has had Prime Prep “under an extended evaluation period to determine if it meets the academic requirements for NCAA-cleared status.” In other words, according to Parrish’s reporting, the NCAA has never counted any courses from Prime Prep.
Repeated messages left for Mudiay’s older brother, Stéphane, his brother’s family representative, were not returned.
Though the Eligibility Center could not speak specifically about Prime Prep, Lisa Roesler, director of high school review for the center, told “America Tonight” that schools are usually reviewed for two years before they decide to accept them or extend the evaluation.
“Schools that invite high-profile athletics into their program sometimes invite problems that go along with that,” she said. “They sometimes bring in students from all over the country, students who are behind in academics. Sometimes, those programs wind up struggling from an academic perspective. And sometimes, you see schools that have compromised academic priorities to provide for athletics.”
Elijah Thomas loved his experience at Prime Prep. Like Mudiay, Thomas, a 6-foot-9 power forward, is a decorated recruit, considered the No. 1 player in Texas for the class of 2015, with ESPN and Rivals slotting him as a top-10 recruit nationally. Thomas said he went to Prime Prep before the 2012–13 season because he was hoping to get his name out there in basketball circles. He said that despite the media reports that the academics were poor, he was challenged in the classroom, adding that Sanders, the main target of the Prime Prep coverage, is “a very good Christian man” who often talked about the Bible and God. The media attention, whether it was fair or unfair, got to Thomas, who transferred after just one year.
“I’m not going to say it was an issue, but it was a thought, just because you have the media saying we won’t be eligible and won’t be able to go to college,” Thomas said of his decision to transfer. “There were times where people were telling you, ‘You have to get out of here. It’s not a good situation. It’s great for basketball and not as good for academics.’”
Schools that invite high-profile athletics into their program sometimes invite problems that go along with that.
NCAA Eligibility Center
Thomas, a rising senior in Lancaster, Texas, said the attention Prime Prep was receiving over its academics did play a part in him transferring. Though he only speaks highly of his time at the school, Thomas said he saw firsthand the scrutiny that his cousin endured to become eligible to play at the next level. His cousin is Jordan Mickey, who along with Karviar Shepherd, were originally declared ineligible last year from playing on the men’s basketball teams for LSU and TCU, respectively. They were later cleared to play after the NCAA reportedly granted them a waiver for having spent just one year studying at Prime Prep, according to a CBSSports.com report.
“It was a hot scene for the NCAA,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to say it was an issue, but it was a thought like, ‘Wow, we may not get to play in college.’”
The learning curve
Charles Hibbler coaches football in a part of Fort Worth where even buying a full set of equipment is a stretch for many families. His son, also named Charles, is just 6, but his father has big hopes for him and often allows his son practice with the 7- and 8-year-olds. That’s why Hibbler was excited when he heard Sanders was starting Prime Prep.
“I thought it was going to be amazing,” he said. “It was going to have the prep school dealing with athletes and education, making sure the kids get everything they need in their education and their sports.”
Those high hopes soon evaporated. Hibbler and his wife decided to pull little Charles out of Prime Prep midway through kindergarten, saying the school offered no curriculum or parent-teacher conferences.
The Hibblers’ concerns about their son’s education were justified. During the 2013–14 school year, Prime Prep’s elementary school in Fort Worth was ranked the worst in North Texas and the second worst among 4,358 elementary schools in the entire state. The rankings, compiled by Children at Risk, found that just 1 percent of Prime Prep’s 306 elementary school students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, were proficient in the math portion of the state’s annual standardized tests. In reading, just 2 percent of students were proficient. And the school wasn’t making any gains from year to year, according to the data.
“What’s very clear is no one is really learning at Prime Prep Academy,” Sanborn said. “Anyone with scores this bad — I don’t think there’s a turnaround potential here.”
The issues at Prime Prep’s elementary school went beyond the test scores. According to TEA data from the 2012–13 school year, the elementary teachers had an average of four months of teaching experience, compared with elementary teachers throughout the state, who average 11 1/2 years of experience.
While there weren’t enough data for a comprehensive review of the high school’s academics, Sanborn said there’s a strong indication from the data that are available that the standards for those students remain “pretty poor.” Meanwhile, Sanders and Prime Prep officials tout the high school’s 100-percent graduation rate in its two years, as well as the 15 college athletic scholarships that have been awarded in that time.
Even with the controversy surrounding Prime Prep’s academic standards, students and their families say the academic standards are much better than what has been reported. Standing 6 foot 3 and weighing about 300 pounds, John Perkins is a promising offensive tackle, already receiving looks from several Division I programs. Before going to Prime Prep, he was unhappy and struggling academically at his old school. Knowing their son wanted to play football in high school and potentially in college, his parents enrolled him at Prime Prep in December after a meeting with Sanders.
“We asked him if he could grow our son, and that was academically and athletically,” said Lisa Perkins, John’s mother. “And he told us he will grow our son.”
Lisa and her husband, also named John, said their son, a rising sophomore, is already doing better in school, specifically on his standardized tests. And with his academic improvement also came a noticeable turnaround in his self-confidence.
“I said thank you to Deion Sanders after [our son] had been there three or four months, because he’d brought my son’s smile back,” said Perkins’ father. “He’d brought his passion back.”
Added Lisa Perkins, “I’m very confident with our decision to send him to Prime Prep Academy.”
An uncertain future
The Prime Prep coaches’ lounge was casual and nondescript, smelling like a typical Texas football locker room in the summertime: the stench of sweat, grass and more sweat emanating from helmets, pads and cleats.
Sanders sat on a black leather couch, staring back at us. He was respectful and occasionally funny. When our cameraman told him it would take an hour to set up for the interview, Sanders asked us if we were shooting “Thriller,” referring to the Michael Jackson music video. But he was always cautious. Sanders’ need for a tighter grip on the situation at Prime Prep has only increased in the months since Wallace’s resignation.
Minutes later, the interview was called off. Sanders, despite his initial consent to the interview, said he wouldn’t do it unless his reality show was there taping it — something “America Tonight” couldn’t agree to do. We respectfully went our separate ways, with Sanders driving off in his black SUV.
Whether the school is spared by the state remains unclear. But Sanders — no matter what his supporters or critics believe he should do — will be involved in the efforts to rehabilitate the public image of Prime Prep, his vision.
“The school is called Prime Prep Academy,” Sanders told Roland Martin, referring to his nickname being a part of the school’s name. “That’s like Ronald and McDonald. They’re never separating.”
David Martin and Michael Okwu contributed to this report.