|Friday, May 24
Updated: May 26, 12:32 AM ET
Private eligibility factory coming under closer scrutiny
By Tom Farrey
For years Christopher Robin Academy, a small private school in Queens, N.Y., operated in near anonymity, virtually unregulated and unknown outside the circles of big-time prep and AAU basketball.
Used by scores of academically troubled basketball players as a last chance to meet NCAA academic eligibility requirements, the low-profile institution is receiving new attention in the wake of a recent ESPN.com investigation.
Thursday, a spokesman for the New York State attorney general's office told ESPN.com that the consumer frauds division is examining Christopher Robin Academy but declined to provide details other than to say the inquiry, which started this week, is preliminary. "We're looking into the school," spokesman Brad Maione said.
Among the findings in ESPN.com's investigation were false claims in the school's brochure about its educational credentials -- claiming accreditation from organizations that don't appear to exist or simply are not accrediting bodies -- and questionable grading practices and low educational standards.
The report also has caught the attention of colleges that have accepted players who used Christopher Robin to help meet NCAA initial eligibility standards, prompting at least two universities to review their stance on credits from the school.
"Officially, we're reviewing the situation," said St. John's spokesman Jody Fisher. "My understanding is that we've been accepting these credits through their regular high schools."
The NCAA and the admissions offices at many colleges require that transcripts be turned in from every high school a prospective athlete attended. But in many cases the players' primary high schools -- the ones they attend full-time -- often merge the Christopher Robin grades with their own on a single transcript.
"If (Christopher Robin) is not accredited, it seems to me we shouldn't be taking these credits," said Bernard Cassidy, NCAA faculty athletic representative for St. John's.
Eric King, a St. John's freshman forward, is among the dozens of New York City-area players who have attended Christopher Robin on the side, in the summer or on Saturdays during the school year, as a complement to the courses taken at their regular high schools. Other alumni include NBA players Lamar Odom, Kenny Satterfield and Erick Barkley.
Odom and Tavorris Bell picked up credits at Christopher Robin in the late 1990s before enrolling at Rhode Island, which has since determined it won't accept credits from the school.
"I found out they weren't accredited, and that was that," said David Taggart, director of admissions for Rhode Island. He said he was unaware Odom ever went to Christopher Robin.
The ESPN.com reports "mark our first awareness of this school," said Jerry Lucido, director of admissions for the University of North Carolina.
Yet, former Tar Heel guard Ed Cota attended Christopher Robin for at least one summer during high school in a desperate attempt to raise his grades. Eric "Rock" Eisenberg, Cota's former coach at Brooklyn's Tilden High School, said he enrolled the then-highly regarded prospect in two courses, paying the $500 tuition, because Cota was in deep academic trouble.
"I wouldn't have enrolled him if I knew there was no accreditation and no learning," Eisenberg said. "I didn't think he was going to get taught by Harvard professors, but I was hoping he would learn something."
Steven Katz, Cota's teacher that summer, said Cota showed up for class only twice, on the first and last days of the session. "He just came on the last day of class and turned in all his assignments," said Katz, a Christopher Robin teacher from 1990 to '94.
Katz, now a teacher in Plantation, Fla., is the fourth former teacher to describe grading practices that prevented students from receiving failing grades. He is the first that ESPN.com spoke to who taught summer classes to high school students.
In the summer session, Katz said the school removed partitions to create a larger classroom, then packed more than 100 high school students into it, without air conditioning. He said he was the only teacher for those students despite not being certified by the state to teach high school courses and having "no knowledge of the subjects" the students took.
"There was no instruction," Katz said. "The only difference between the regular students and the basketball players was that the basketball players didn't have to sit there and sweat. The other students at least had to go to class."
He said the principal and owner of the school, Robert Donus, issued the grades and that the quality of the student's work did not matter.
"He only gave As and Cs," Katz said. "He'd ask me, 'Did (the student) hand in all of his assignments?' If the answer was yes, Donus would give an A. If they weren't turned in, he'd give a C."
Katz also said that for summer classes, Donus paid him in cash to avoid income taxes. He said Donus retrieved the money -- many of the students are from poor families and pay in cash -- from a safe in his office every Friday at 3 p.m. Katz said he was paid around $250 a week.
It would not be the first time Donus has shorted the state. Court records show that in Sept. 2000, Donus paid a judgment of $1,114 to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance after the school had been hit with a lein. A department spokesman said the state wasn't receiving enough payroll taxes from Christopher Robin.
Reached at home Thursday, Donus declined comment and hung up his phone quickly, saying, "I have nothing to say to you."
"I learned a big lesson with him: The more you do for these players the more you enable their destruction," he said. "If anybody really knew (what happens at Christopher Robin), and they have any interest in the kid, nobody would send their kids there."
The school, though, still has its supporters in the New York basketball community.
"If not for a school like Christopher Robin, where would these young people be?" said Robert Holford, coach at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College, who regularly refers players to the school. "It allows them to use basketball to open doors and get into colleges that ordinarily they wouldn't be able to get into."
At Providence College, Christopher Robin is no mystery. Admissions Director Chris Lydon said he's more skeptical about that school than any high school or prep school that athletes attend to get their academics in order. Lydon said he has asked the school for its curriculum and received nothing in return.
"When we see Christopher Robin, does it raise red flags and suggest that we not take the grades at face value? Yes," Lydon said.
Still, in recent years, at the urging of coaches, he admitted current guards Abdul Mills and Sheiku Kabba, both of whom took classes at Christopher Robin. Lydon said he let them in because the rest of their academic records suggested they could succeed.
"You never want to say never when you see Christopher Robin credits," Lydon said.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.