Trade school charged Alleged violations include misleading students about jobs

July 13, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

In a wide-ranging complaint, the state has charged a Southeast Baltimore trade school with numerous regulatory violations, including hiring unqualified instructors, canceling classes and misleading students about their job prospects.

Even before the charges were filed late last month, the National Education Center in the 3600 block of O'Donnell St. had stopped admitting students, advertising and collecting federal student aid funds, said Gary Cook, president of the California-based company that operates the school. The school also fired 10 employees earlier this year after discovering "irregularities," Mr. Cook said. He said the company is investigating with oversight by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission, which oversees trade schools, issued the complaint against the school June 28, roughly a year after about 20 students took their concerns to state officials.

The school, which had an enrollment last year of roughly 300 students, offers certificate programs in several fields, including medical office assisting, bookkeeping and electronics.

The higher education commission accused the school of a variety of infractions:

* The use of promotional materials saying the placement rate for the school's graduates was between 80 and 95 percent, depending on the program. State officials found the numbers exaggerated. For the class that graduated in April 1992, for example, only 20 of the 78 graduates found jobs, the state said.

* In the last two years the school hired 11 teachers who were unqualified, the state charged, including eight who had themselves just completed the courses they were hired to teach. The state requires trade school teachers to have two years of work experience in their field.

* Student attendance records were falsified, apparently to retain students with excessive absences, the complaint said. "Financial bonuses for certain administrators were, according to school officials, based on low school attrition rates," the state's complaint said.

* Courses were sometimes shortened with no refund or makeup classes. In a word-processing course, for example, students received only 12 hours of instruction, rather than the 48 hours they were supposed to receive.

"Several of the deficiencies listed and described in this report are extremely serious because they involve what appear to be deliberate misrepresentations on the part of the school to the commission, to students of the school, and to the public," higher education Secretary Shaila R. Aery wrote in the complaint.

Alberta Creel, a 32-year-old Dundalk resident and one of the first students to complain last year, is bitter about her experience in the school's medical assistant's training program. A course in giving shots to patients was shortened from the scheduled six weeks to a single evening session, Ms. Creel said.

"We got to do two injections," Ms. Creel said. "I wouldn't know how to do it again." Other times the teacher never appeared and students ended up watching videotaped movies or playing bingo, Ms. Creel and other students said. "A lot of the nights we just sat there," Ms. Creel said. "A substitute was supposed to show up, but they didn't."

A classmate, Shelly Gregory of Linthicum, wants a refund of her tuition of roughly $5,000 for the year-long course. "We didn't have enough teachers; we didn't have anything," Ms. Gregory said. "More or less, I wasted a whole year."

Mr. Cook, reached in his California office, did not dispute the state's complaints. But the company, he said, wants to "clarify what the issues are here and to resolve them in a way that is appropriate in regard to the students and the public."

Mr. Cook said the improprieties discovered by the company "were the result of actions by several employees, which I would only characterize as renegade employees, that in no way represented the values or ethics of this company." He declined to discuss the substance of the irregularities. Mr. Cook said classes are continuing for current students. He said he didn't know when the school would resume admitting new students.

The state has given the school 30 days to respond to many of the charges. The state could suspend or revoke the school's license.

Jane Parker, the school's new director, referred all questions to Mr. Cook in California.

The school is operated by National Education Centers Inc., which owns 47 trade schools in 20 states. The company is a subsidiary of National Education Corp., of Irvine, Calif., a publicly traded firm with revenues of $374 million last year.

The school's budget for 1991-1992 was $2.1 million, with all but $22,320 of that coming from federal grants or loans to students, according to the school's annual report filed with the commission.

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