The Oklahoman | By Randy Ellis | Published: June 10, 2007
Three high school foreign exchange students had high expectations last summer after they learned they had been accepted into a private Oklahoma City school funded in part with a grant from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ foundation.
Nobody said anything about fights in classrooms. Nobody said anything about living with convicted felons. Nobody said anything about cockroaches.
Those were things they had to learn from experience.
Welcome to Oklahoma City’s Bayard Rustin Living Learning Center — a nonaccredited, unregulated school where foreign exchange students say they received an education — just not the kind they were expecting.
The students said they were ultimately rescued by caring Oklahoma families that took them in and got them transferred to public schools. They talked with The Oklahoman about their experiences.
“I learned a lot about cockroaches,” said David Lorenz, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from Germany. Lorenz said he was placed with a host family headed by the school’s secretary, and her home was crawling with them.”The cockroaches were everywhere — in the refrigerator, in the oven,” he said.
Lorenz said he tried not to complain because foreign exchange officials had stressed the need to be tolerant of different cultures during a student orientation.
However, he said that became impossible when he woke up one morning with a throbbing pain in his left ear.
“We went to the emergency room and the doctor looked into the ear and there was a cockroach in it. I could feel it crawling around in there,” he said.
Antibiotics were prescribed and it took about a week for the pain to ease, Lorenz said.
Bayard Rustin secretary Lauret Hooks, Lorenz’s host parent, said the cockroach invasion was a temporary problem created when a neighbor moved out. She said she bombed for the cockroaches and took Lorenz to the hospital.
“I don’t know what more I could have done,” she said.
Lorenz said he discovered later that Hooks, 45, had a 1999 felony conviction. Hooks confirmed that she pleaded guilty back then to embezzlement by an employee and making a false declaration to a pawnbroker.
A representative of ASSE International Student Exchange Programs, the exchange organization that placed students in her home, said its criminal background check failed to turn up that information.
Hooks, however, said the organization knew all about it, but said it was OK.
Hooks said her experience with the exchange program wasn’t so great, either. She said a student from Japan tore up her son’s comforter, ruined food by leaving the freezer door open and ran up long distance phone bills.
Founder’s troubled history
Bayard Rustin is the brainchild of Toshav L. Storrs, a gay man with a criminal past and pending felony charge who said he started the 32-student school in hopes of helping troubled inner city youth avoid the mistakes he made. The pending charge in Tulsa is for allegedly writing nine bogus checks totaling more than $2,600. His half-dozen prior convictions in New York and Oklahoma are for grand larceny, bogus checks and forgery-related offenses.
“I started out with great gifts and didn’t use them well,” said Storrs, 46. “It’s not anything I’m at all proud of. From those experiences — whatever I have learned — I hope I can pass on to these young people.”
Storrs said he started Bayard Rustin two years ago with a vision of creating a small school that would embrace diversity.
Many students founder in public schools when they don’t fit in because they are gay, shy, from broken foster homes or have discipline problems, he said. Storrs said he invited six foreign exchange students to attend Bayard Rustin last fall because he thought it would increase diversity and the multi-lingual, high performing exchange students would be an inspiration for the school’s other students.
Lorenz and fellow foreign exchange students Daniel Balser, 17, of Germany and Petr Dolecek, 17, of the Czech Republic told The Oklahoman that Bayard Rustin provided them and three other exchange students with one bizarre surprise after another.
While Lorenz was dealing with cockroaches, Balser and Dolecek were placed in Storrs’ home. Balser said he came to Oklahoma City with the understanding he would be living with former Bayard Rustin Principal Sean Lee. But after arriving, he learned Storrs would be his host.
Balser said Storrs told him he was gay, but not being familiar with all the nuances of the language, he thought Storrs might be saying that he was a “happy person.” Balser said he realized Storrs was a homosexual after meeting his gay roommate.” They didn’t do anything to us. Just the feeling wasn’t so cool,” he said.
Dolecek said he understood before he came to Oklahoma City that Storrs was homosexual, but it wasn’t a big deal to him.
The students said they had never heard of Bayard Rustin when the exchange program notified them that they would have an opportunity to attend school there.
They said they looked up the school on the Internet, but about all they discovered was that Bayard Rustin was a private school that embraced students from diverse social and racial backgrounds and received part of its funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Gates Foundation tie seemed promising.
“I thought it was a prestigious school,” Dolecek said, adding he also thought it might be high tech.
He was wrong.
An IBM employee who worked on the computers said some of them were so old they wouldn’t load 10-year-old software. Storrs said he bought the computers cheap as surplus property.
As for the school, students said they were surprised to discover it was located in a warehouse on E Reno Avenue. They were even more surprised when officials packed up and moved the school a few weeks into the fall semester. The new location at 726 Colbertson Drive is in a strip shopping center southeast of the state Capitol.Jimmy Nix, the warehouse owner, said he was trying to evict Storrs when school officials moved.
“They were in there probably two or three months,” Nix said.
Nix said he received two bad checks from Storrs, along with a lot of excuses.
Other suppliers reported similar experiences.
And it wasn’t just the suppliers who weren’t being paid.
Former teachers told The Oklahoman they weren’t, either, which prompted many of them to quit mid-semester.
“Most of the time, we were just sitting there doing nothing,” Balser said.
The students said they would have one morning class, then do whatever. Fights frequently broke out between students, they said.
The state Education Department never stepped in because it doesn’t have oversight of private schools that don’t seek accreditation, said department spokeswoman Shelly Hickman.
Dolecek said he thought it was strange the school didn’t have money to pay teachers because it bought thousands of dollars in football equipment for a joint team with some charter schools.
The school still owes several thousand dollars on the equipment, an employee of the business that sold the equipment said.
Storrs said Bayard Rustin is a private school that doesn’t charge tuition. He admits money was a constant problem.The school’s two primary sources of funding were a $150,000 model schools grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and federal money the school collected for doing after-school tutoring of Oklahoma City students, Storrs said.
The Gates Foundation grant was pulled in September, before the last $50,000 installment was paid, after grant officials learned the school was writing bad checks and not paying teachers, said Isaac L. Ewell of the Black Alliance for Education Options, which administered the pass-through grant.
The state Education Department removed Bayard Rustin from the list of eligible tutoring assistance providers after investigating complaints involving many of the same issues, Hickman said.
Storrs said he still plans to hold classes next fall and hopes the school can become self-sufficient.
He said he understands the complaints of foreign exchange students, but thinks they stem largely from their expectations.
“I think they were looking for ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’. They wanted a big high school with lots of kids,” Storrs said.
Storrs thinks many struggling inner-city students were much happier with the Bayard Rustin experience.
The foreign exchange students said they will have a lot to talk about when they get home.
“Overall, we experienced everything, I guess,” Lorenz said.
2007 Jun 10: ASSE: Exchange-student problems bring shake-up