By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
A young woman can get plenty tired of slinging belly bombers day after day at a White Castle. This was not the life Latisha Tally envisioned after graduating with honors from East St. Louis High School. She had dreams. Dreams of college, dreams of a challenging career in physical therapy -- dreams of a good life.
One night four years ago, after coming home from another long day of sliders and fries, Latisha found herself sitting on the couch, letting the dream play out in her head again. Staring at the TV, she saw a commercial for the St. Louis College of Health Careers. She remembers thinking: This could be my ticket out. Just seven and a half months, and I'll be a medical assistant.
Latisha, now 24, figured the $12-an-hour job would give her valuable experience in healthcare and help her save money for college. She even convinced her older sister, Arlisa, to sign up for the program, which cost nearly $7,000.
Like the vast majority of students attending the St. Louis College of Health Careers, Latisha and Arlisa qualified for federal financial aid, both getting $3,000 in Pell grants and $4,000 in Stafford loans to pay for tuition. Because she had a new baby at home, Arlisa borrowed extra money for living expenses, while Latisha continued grinding out the four-to-midnight shift at White Castle.
"We'd get up at 4:30 to get my sister's baby to the babysitter, and get out of here to beat traffic and get to class," recalls Latisha. "I thought once we graduated, we'd have a good job."
In a classroom submerged in the cold basement of an old Central West End mansion on West Pine Boulevard, the sisters soon realized they'd made a huge mistake. Two months after classes started, they still didn't have books. The classrooms and bathrooms were dirty, the furniture and carpet old and tattered.
Meanwhile, teachers seemed to disappear in droves. In two classes, Latisha and Arlisa didn't have instructors at all. There were times when the Tally sisters sat alongside classmates, all of them huddled in their coats because the furnace didn't work, waiting for a teacher to arrive.
"All that stress -- and all we got out of it was a certificate," Latisha says. "I graduated in 2001, and I still don't have a job in the medical field."
The Tally sisters are not alone in voicing bitter criticism of the vocational-training school, which has one campus on Highway 40 just east of Kingshighway and another in south county on Butler Hill Road.
In the last two years, nearly 1,000 students have paid between $7,000 and $24,000 for programs that supposedly will train them to work as medical assistants, practical nurses, massage therapists, nurses' aides, medical record keepers, pharmacy technicians, ophthalmic medical assistants and echocardiogram technicians.
In interviews with the Riverfront Times, and in documents obtained by the newspaper, more than twenty former students, teachers and administrators -- some of whom asked not to be identified -- offered a scathing indictment of the college.
They cited the alarming rate of teacher turnover, the outdated equipment, the long delays in getting textbooks and supplies. Some students even claimed to have paid thousands of dollars for classes that were cancelled midway through the school year.
There are also allegations that college officials gave answers to prospective pupils on entrance exams and enrolled high school dropouts who couldn't read or write. Former teachers say they were told to pass failing students so the college would not lose federal financial aid.
A number of the allegations surfaced two and three years ago and may not be indicative of the present-day administrative climate at the college. No formal investigations are underway.
Darryl Spencer, a placement director at the college for twelve years, says despite the problems, many students succeeded because instructors genuinely cared about them. "We had some success stories where people got hired and moved on from there," says Spencer.
Nonetheless, many of those interviewed recalled a series of administrative abuses they claim to have taken place at the college. Another stinging accusation alleges that staff members faked grade transcripts, high school diplomas, General Equivalency Diploma (GED) certificates, admission agreements, internship records and physical exams prior to audits by the Missouri Department of Higher Education in 2001 and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools in 2002.
Several of the alleged falsified forms were entered as evidence in a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in March 2002 in St. Louis City Circuit Court by Lori Nichols, a former student-services representative at the college. Nichols, who declined interview requests for this story, claimed she was canned for refusing to forge documents.
In an August 2002 deposition, Nichols stated, "Enrollment agreements that could not be located were created, and signatures were forged, and dates were backdated. Any high school diplomas or GED certificates that could not be accounted for, or found in the files, were created as well by cut and paste methods to make it look as though the student had met that eligibility requirement."
A former employee, who asked not to be identified, admits to forging diplomas that were missing from students' files while state auditors were at the college in September 2001. The diplomas were forged, the employee says, because school officials discovered that some students had not actually graduated from high school or passed the GED exam -- a requirement for federal financial-aid recipients.