|Sunday, May 19
A place where hoop dreams come true
Christopher Robin: "There's something you must remember."
-- From "Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin"
In a way, Christopher Robin Academy is a factory -- an NCAA eligibility factory. Dozens of academically troubled players, including several current NBA players, have used the small school in Queens in recent years as a backdoor option to gain easy access to college scholarships. They go there as part-time students to replace poor grades given to them at their regular, full-time high schools.
A two-month ESPN.com investigation, though, questions whether the NCAA should be accepting grades from Christopher Robin. The unaccredited, virtually unregulated school lies in its literature about its educational credentials, and former teachers, as well as players who attended, say that suspect practices ensure that athletes will not fail.
"I know that every good player in the New York area who was not a good student in the last 10 or 15 years has found his way to Christopher Robin," said Tom Konchalski, who runs a Queens-based high school basketball recruiting service for college coaches. "It's sort of like the last helicopter out of Saigon for at-risk student-athletes."
"Yeah," Rhymer said, "that's your last hope right there. If you're not catching that one, then you might as well get a bullet."
Rhymer, who just completed his senior season at the University of Massachussetts, said he received an A and B in math and English six years ago. The grades were high enough above his usual marks that suspicious administrators at St. Raymond's High School, his regular school in the Bronx, later stopped accepting credits from Christopher Robin. But the rejection from one local prep powerhouse hardly put the tiny, for-profit school out of the basketball business.
Robert Donus, the school's owner and principal, said as many as 25 players a year from other high schools take at least one class at Christopher Robin. Some attend in the summer, while others go during the school year itself, on Saturdays or after classes at their regular school. The credits they receive help them meet the NCAA's requirement that athletes pass at least 13 core academic classes -- in math, English, social studies and the sciences -- in high school in order to qualify for a scholarship.
"If Christopher Robin put together its own basketball team, it would be No. 1 in the country every year," said Josh Moore, a once-promising center and Christopher Robin alumnus who was dismissed from the University of Michigan for academic reasons in January.
But the list of elite players who have gone to the school on the side is as mysterious as it is long. Even the few athletes who attend Christopher Robin as full-time students never play for the school -- because it has no team. The player bios in college and NBA media guides almost never mention the academy. Donus declined to volunteer the names of any alumni other than Lamar Odom, now a forward with the Los Angeles Clippers.
But research by ESPN.com suggests that few, if any, high schools in the country have accommodated as much elite basketball talent in the past decade as Christopher Robin. Its ranks run the gamut from current NBA players Kenny Satterfield and Erick Barkley, to rising college stars such as St. John's Eric King and Providence's Abdul Mills. Another, Tavorris Bell, is a Harlem Globetrotter and perhaps Christopher Robin's most notable student this year is Lenny Cooke, the much traveled and academically challenged prep hoops star who recently declared for the NBA draft.
Donus denies that he gives bogus grades.
"We give them a lot of tutoring, a lot of close attention," Donus said. "We spoon-feed it to them. It's as simple as that."
Among other misrepresentations in the current school brochure, Christopher Robin claims to be a member of the prestigious National Association of Independent Schools, whose 1,200 members include many of the oldest and best prep schools in the nation.
That's just not true, said NAIS spokeswoman Myra McGovern. "We don't have any schools that are for-profit (in structure)," she said.
Christopher Robin literature also claims the school is accredited by the "North Eastern Conference of College Preparatory Schools." Officials at several of the top accrediting bodies, however, said they had never heard of such a group, and ESPN.com could find no record of the organization.
When pressed, Donus conceded that he, too, is uncertain whether the organization exists. "Never bothered to look," he said.
Some players who attended the school recall taking no exams, or claimed they were never challenged academically. Several players said they doubt the school would ever give any athlete a low grade.
"It's not the kind (of school) where you have to put in a whole bunch of hours to get your classes," said Jonathan Oliver, a center who will play for Southern Cal next season after attending two junior colleges. "They're not worried about it that much. You pretty much aren't going to get an F there."
Three former Christopher Robin teachers whom ESPN.com spoke with said Donus did not want failing grades issued to any students
"It's not a school," Lindsley said. "It's an academic joke."
Court records show Donus supplied student visa forms to a woman outside the school who, according to the prosecutor, used them to keep foreigners in the country. Prosecutors allege Donus sold hundreds of those forms over a four-year period beginning in 1993, charging $25 to $50 for each.
When approached by ESPN.com, Donus at first denied any knowledge of the matter. But court and prison records show he pleaded guilty to the illegal transferring of identification documents and served a year in prison. When shown a legal description of his case, he conceded only that the Immigration and Naturalization Service "asked questions" about the legal status of students but maintained he never was incarcerated.
"He may think in his mind that he didn't go to prison, but he was in prison," said Dennis Faulk, spokesman for Allenwood Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security facility outside Williamsport, Pa. Donus was incarcerated there from July 1, 1999 to May 24, 2000. He spent the remainder of his term in a halfway-house facility in New York and eventually was released on June 28, 2000. (Federal Bureau of Prison's database).
James Tatum, the prosecutor, said he is not aware of any visa forms in that case having been used for international athletes. But education experts say the misuse of any student documents by Donus should give the NCAA pause.
"How many times do you have to find a lie to suddenly begin to say, 'I really don't trust what these people say'?" said Don Petry, executive director of the National Council for Private School Accreditation. "Why would you want to accept credits from such a school?"
The question becomes increasingly relevant if the NCAA enacts either of two proposals now under formal discussion by member colleges and due to be voted on later this year.
Both proposals would raise the minimum number of core courses from 13 to 16, and place more emphasis on core-course grades in determining who qualifies to play Division I ball. One proposal would allow athletes with a 3.0 GPA, a "B" average, in those courses to qualify with an SAT score of no more than 620 -- 200 points below the current minimum standard. Another, more dramatic proposal would allow an athlete to qualify with an SAT score, or ACT equivalent, of 400, if they can compile a 3.55 GPA, a "B+" average, in those classes.
Schools with questionable academic practices stand to benefit under either proposal. In fact, the basketball business at Christopher Robin took off in the mid-1980s when, under Proposition 48, the NCAA first began requiring that athletes complete a minimum number of core courses in high school. Even more athletes gravitated there after 1996 when the more stringent Proposition 16 raised the required number of core courses from 11 to 13.
The NCAA is aware of suspect patterns at Christopher Robin. The NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse, which reviews and approves high school transcripts to determine if prospective athletes meet eligibility standards, has referred many transcripts to NCAA staff for further investigation because the grades seemed out of line with the student's academic history, said Clearinghouse director Calvin Symons.
"I don't remember seeing any Fs on any transcripts (from Christopher Robin)," Symons said.
Another NCAA source who has reviewed Christopher Robin transcripts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he has never seen any grade of less than a B. "Anybody who goes through Christopher Robin raises a red flag for us and we look at them," he said. "Problem is, we have no jurisdiction. What they send in is questionable, but we can't do anything about it."
As a matter of policy, the NCAA chooses not to pass judgment on the quality or credentials of any school. The association has never ordered the removal of any of the 22,000 high schools in its database, and it isn't going to start with Christopher Robin, said Diane Dickman, NCAA director of membership services. Her division handles academic matters.
"There are almost no scenarios under which the NCAA would begin to police this secondary school or any secondary school in terms of whether we would accept core courses or not," Dickman said. "It's an inappropriate role for us to play. The state of New York and state department of education have clear jurisdiction over the school."
Jurisdiction, but little power. When it comes to private schools, state educational guidelines are largely advisory and the state has little ability to shut down or punish a school, even for illegal behavior by a principal, said Tom Hogan, head of the Office for Non-Public Schools, a division of the New York state department of education. (See related story.)
In that regulatory vacuum, basketball players find a haven in Christopher Robin. Most of the dozen players that ESPN.com spoke with were appreciative of the school for helping them gain their college eligibility -- and sometimes retain their high school eligibility.
"You know, I passed," said Odom, who went there during the summer after his sophomore year to replace failing grades at Christ the King, his regular high school at the time. "I was able to play basketball the next season."
"Sometimes when you focus on playing sports, what you do is you just want to get through what you need to get through," Odom said. "I was able to do that (there)."
Said Rhymer: "I mean, they'll teach you but I don't think it's a place that would fail you."
Donus, 59, takes pride in his role as the go-to guy for academically troubled basketball players in the New York area. His parents founded the school in 1950 when it served only elementary-school age children -- hence the Christopher Robin name. But since taking over as principal in 1980, Donus has expanded the business and developed a network of high school, college and AAU coaches who steer players his way.
He said he sees himself as providing a "valuable professional service" to elite basketball players hoping to reach the next competitive level.
"When you can enjoy the satisfaction of catapulting some of these minority high school students into some success, you have to be satisfied," Donus said.
Donus says he "likes to drop" Odom's name as a Christopher Robin success story. He cites the money Odom is making as an NBA player, which includes a $7.8 million rookie contract that expires at the end of this season.
"It's beautiful," he said, of Odom's wealth. "It's a beautiful thing."
Former teachers paint a less complimentary picture of Donus and his school. Each of the three teachers that ESPN.com spoke with said Donus was so determined to deliver passing grades to students that he changed failing grades that they gave to undeserving students.
Lindsley, one of two teachers who taught high school classes at the school in the early 1990s, said Donus changed the grades he gave his students "at least 10 times" during Lindsley's two years at the school without ever consulting him. None of the altered grades that he later became aware of involved basketball players, but that students in general knew they would not get failing grades as long as their tuition was paid, Lindsley said.
"It wouldn't fail anybody," he said. "It doesn't matter who it was.
"As a teacher, I can tell you the kids know whether I failed or passed them, they're gonna get through. That's the way it is."
Lindsley said he left the school because he was discouraged with the school's practices. When asked about Lindsley's allegations, Donus said Lindsley was fired for "incompetence," but would not elaborate further.
Donus insists that players do not get inflated grades at his school, and denies he ever personally changed the grade of any student. He said basketball players who fail at other schools succeed at Christopher Robin because of personal attention they receive from teachers.
"It's the kind of situation where we will accommodate an individual," Donus said. "You have to remember that in any academic situation, grading is subjective.
"I think if anybody examines the grades that many of these basketball players have earned, there rarely is anything exceptional about (them). I'd say these grades are pretty commensurate with what they usually earn."
Brother Frank Byrne studied the grades of Rhymer, and didn't like what he saw. Principal at St. Raymond's high school until last month, Byrne said the school stopped accepting transfer credits from Christopher Robin because Rhymer did considerably better in classes there than he did at the Catholic school.
"They were a bit too high for what I considered a proper grade for summer school," Byrne said. "So I suggested that we really not use that school anymore."
"If you go to summer school, you go to theirs," Rhymer said. "That's what I thought, but they (approved) it and I was like 'All right, that'll work for me.' "
Rhymer said grades he received at Christopher Robin allowed him to stay eligible for the ensuing prep basketball season, as well as meet his NCAA requirement. But after failing to acquire the necessary minimum SAT score, he was forced to sit out his first season without a scholarship at Massachusetts. The 6-foot-10 center recovered academically and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 Conference his junior season.
NCAA rules require that athletes submit transcripts from every high school they attended when applying for initial eligibility. But it may not always be clear to the NCAA who has gone to Christopher Robin, due to the way some of the players' regular high schools account for the grades they receive at the Queens school.
In Rhymer's case, his grades from Christopher Robin were merged and averaged with his grades in the same classes at St. Raymond's, Byrne said. Nowhere on Rhymer's high school transcript from St. Raymond's does it indicate that he even went to that school.
Whether benign or intentional, under-reporting of Christopher Robin grades appears to be common. The NCAA Clearinghouse, which processes transcripts of prospective college athletes, only received Christopher Robin transcripts from 17 athletes between 1995 and 2000, according to an NCAA source. That total is far fewer than the 25 athletes that Donus said will attend in any given year.
Information about the school and its athlete-students hasn't always been readily available, either. In the winter of 2000, the NCAA stopped by Christopher Robin to ask questions about the legitimacy of a grade given to one player, according to a source familiar with the case. Christopher Robin office staff told investigators that Donus was unavailable to answer questions because he was on an extended leave for "mental and physical" stress, making no mention of his prison term, the source said.
The NCAA's investigation ultimately was dropped due to a lack of information. Said one investigator, "It defied credibility that the player would have taken a substantiative course there that summer, but we couldn't eliminate the possibility that he did do the work."
LaSalle University guard Dwayne Jones was not involved in that investigation, but questions how much work any player has to do to get a passing grade.
Raised outside Toronto, he said he was steered to Christopher Robin by the coach of his Canada-based AAU team -- testament to the wide reputation the tiny school has for accommodating basketball players. While spending a summer getting exposed to college scouts on the New York basketball circuit, Jones said, he took four core courses and received high grades with little effort. He returned the next year to take another four courses.
But Jones said he never used any of those credits to satisfy his NCAA eligibility. That's in part because he stopped going to Christopher Robin, bothered that he was learning "nothing." He ended up scrambling to get his eligibility in order by loading up on classes at his regular high school in Mississauga, Canada.
His advice to other players coming up through the system is blunt: Stay away from Christopher Robin, even though the NCAA gives the green light.
"I just feel there are institutions out there where you don't cheat yourself," Jones said. "You'll feel better about yourself knowing that you did a lot of work at another institution and made it somewhere rather than doing no work at all and making it somewhere."
Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN producer Jon Gerstel contributed to this story.