West Side private school closes after a month

Kenny Kemp
Christopher Vance picks up his son Christopher from Family First Preparatory Academy, on Charleston's West Side, on Tuesday. The 6-year-old is autistic, and Vance doesn't yet know where he will send him to school.
Kenny Kemp
James Lynch, a spokesman for Family First Resource Group, explains to reporters the closure of the academy. The private school closed Tuesday with virtually no warning to parents.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Christopher Vance was surprised when his wife asked him to pick up his son from school on Tuesday.Family First Preparatory Academy, on Charleston's West Side, closed its doors Tuesday after a month of classes, with no warning to parents. Thirty families were left scrambling to find their children another place to go to school.Vance, whose 6-year-old autistic son also is named Christopher, said the boy was doing well at the "character-based" school, where a staff of five teachers could provide more personalized attention."I don't know what to do," said Vance, standing with his son outside the school, located in the Rehoboth Cathedral on Main Street. "I'm back at square one."I feel more for the kids than the teachers," Vance said. "The kids were just beginning to bond with their teachers. I can't put him back in public school like I did last year and have to fight with them day after day."The academy served a number of special-needs students whose parents said they weren't getting what they needed at other schools. Vance, other parents and teachers wonder what they'll do now that the school is closed.Matthew Thornhill II, of Family First Resource Group, set up the academy after St. Anthony's Catholic School shut down last year. Many of the staff and students came to the new school, where a Catholic-based education program was to be replaced with a nondenominational curriculum that stressed values and character.But James Lynch, a Family First spokesman, said incompetence and money problems led to the shutdown. "It was just mismanagement from the beginning," he said.Lynch said a Family First representative who has since been fired had good intentions for the school, but couldn't follow through. "He just didn't know what he was doing," Lynch said. "He had never started a school. He just got in too deep."
Lynch said the group is now stepping in to try to pick up the pieces.From the beginning, there were problems getting equipment, curriculum materials and money. One teacher said she had been paid only $400 in the first four weeks of school.Teachers said Family First Principal Susan Bossie-Maddox, a former principal at St. Anthony's, misled both Family First representatives and staff about how much money there was, equipment and other details about the running of the school.But Bossie-Maddox said she thought the money was there. She said Thornhill kept assuring her there was enough money in the bank to carry the school through the first semester.She said only 19 of the school's 30 students had paid their tuition for the first month of school. "You can't make payroll on 19 kids," Bossie-Maddox said.At the same time, Thornhill wasn't organizing fundraisers to make up the difference and hadn't put money in the bank he said was there, she said.
"It's no one person's fault," Bossie-Maddox said. "I haven't been paid yet either. If anybody misled anyone, it was Family First."The academy offered both a K-12 school component and a day-care center. Lynch said the day-care center will remain open, taken over by the day care operated by Bishop James Carter, who owns the building.Carter is trying to save the jobs of academy day-care staff and make room for the academy's day-care students.Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.
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