Orlando Sentinel | by Annie Martin | January 14, 2021
A new Pine Hills private school led by the 23-year-old daughter of a woman who was banned from Florida’s school voucher programs may be allowed to accept those scholarships, despite objections from state education leaders who suspect fraud and fear the mother actually would be running the new school.
The Academy of Education School seeks to open on the campus of the former Agape Christian Academy, which was banished from Florida’s school voucher programs in 2017 after it was accused of submitting falsified fire inspections, hiring people with criminal records and not paying some of its teachers. The new school would operate under the leadership of the daughter of Ingrid Bishop, the former Agape director.
Blaire Bishop’s LinkedIn profile indicates she’s an aspiring entertainment reporter.
The education department, which must approve campuses that want to receive state scholarships or vouchers, rejected the Academy of Education School’s application last year because of Blaire Bishop’s ties to Ingrid Bishop and Agape. Blaire Bishop appealed to the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, which overturned the denial, sending the application back to the education department and putting up the new school’s application for review again, a spokeswoman said last week.
Agape Christian Academy, which first opened in 2002, was featured in the Orlando Sentinel’s 2017 series, “Schools without Rules.” The school was engulfed in problems, including financial ones, by the time the campus shuttered. A cash advance lender, a former landlord and a contractor charged with maintaining the campus fire alarm systems allege the school owes them a combined nearly $1 million, court records show. Some of the cases are still pending.
Even as Agape repeatedly violated the state’s rules governing its scholarship programs, the school continued to receive funding. Agape received $5.6 million over a five-year period ending in 2017. The school was the ministry of Agape Assembly Baptist Church, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and is still operating from a ramshackle building on North Hiawassee Road, court records show.
The former school’s campus, located on both sides of North Hiawassee Road just south of Silver Star Road, appeared deserted on a recent afternoon. The parking lot was barricaded, a window was boarded, a wall was smashed and part of a cross was missing.
Reached by phone this week, Blaire Bishop declined to comment, citing the Sentinel’s previous coverage of Agape, which she said was “untruthful” but didn’t elaborate.
“You guys really just diminished that school’s name, so I honestly don’t want anything to do with the Orlando Sentinel,” she said before hanging up the phone.
Bishop, who graduated from Florida A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 2018, describes herself has a “radio personality,” “entertainment reporter,” and producer,” and makes no mention of any interest or experience in education on her LinkedIn page.It says she “decided that she wants to tell long-form stories with excitement and professionally entertain individuals.”
But Bishop has been enrolled at the University of Central Florida, pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership, since spring 2019, a UCF spokeswoman confirmed.
She does not have a Florida teaching certificate, according to the state education department’s website, and that’s not a requirement for becoming an administrator or teacher at a private school, even one that takes vouchers.
Blaire Bishop first submitted an application to receive the state scholarships, which mostly benefit students who are from low-income families or have disabilities, last April. Business records for Academy of Education School list her sisters, Brooke and Braelyn Bishop, as co-officers and their parents’ home as the organization’s mailing address.
In a letter addressed to Blaire Bishop explaining the department’s decision to deny her application, Commissioner Richard Corcoran accused her of fraud because she “knowingly attempted to conceal” her identity. Her proposed school served as a “proxy or surrogate,” for Agape, Ingrid Bishop or Cassandra Cook, a former school administrator, he added, citing Blaire Bishop’s relationship to Ingrid Bishop as evidence for his allegations.
Corcoran added that the facility the school planned to use was once part of Agape’s campus and Cook had sat on the board of directors for the organization that owns the property as recently as 2019.
Blaire Bishop appealed the education department’s decision to the Division of Administrative Hearings and in September made her case to administrative law judge Bruce Culpepper. Bishop told the judge she had “dreamed of opening a school for some time,” and she intended the Academy of Education School to serve underprivileged children in northwest Orlando, according to a summary of the hearing.
She planned to open her campus with about 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, she said. Academy of Education School will be “dependent” on vouchers and Bishop told the judge she “cannot feasibly run her school” without them, the report notes, because the low-income students she hopes to attract can’t afford private school tuition.
The campus of the former Agape Christian Academy in Orlando is pictured on Wednesday, January 13, 2021. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Though banned from the scholarship programs, Cook tried in 2018 using the alias of Sandra Wood to open a school called Orlando Christian Academy, according to the department’s testimony during the hearing. The Academy of Education School’s application appeared to be a similar attempt “to unlawfully take advantage of the state scholarship funds,” education department employees testified.
The commissioner alleged that “Blaire Bishop is not the legitimate owner/operator of the Academy, and the Academy’s ‘true’ founders (Ingrid Bishop and Ms. Cook) are fraudulently conducting a shell game” in an effort to circumvent the department’s order banning them from the scholarship programs for 10 years.
Ingrid Bishop and Cassandra Cook couldn’t be reached for comment this week.
Mother has no role
Blaire Bishop attended Agape Christian Academy for kindergarten through 12th grade but was in college in Tallahassee when the school was banned from the scholarship programs and was not involved in running the campus, the administrative hearing report notes.
Though records from the state elections office show Blaire Bishop lives with her parents, she told Culpepper neither her mother nor Cook had any role in creating the academy and they would not be receiving benefits or compensation from the school, according to a summary of the September hearing.
Rather, Blaire Bishop told the judge, she “independently founded the Academy,” which “has no connection with the now-defunct Agape.”
Agape Assembly Baptist Church filed for bankruptcy in late 2019. Leasing part of its property on the east side of Hiawassee Road to another private school was a key part of its plan to pay back its debts. The church expected to receive $11,000 per month in rent from Metro Educational Concepts, court records show, but no school has registered with the education department at that address and the property didn’t appear to be in use on a recent weekday afternoon. Metro Educational Concepts’ president and CEO could not be reached for comment.
The Bishops live in a seven-bedroom, 4,800 square-foot home with a pool in a gated community in the Dr. Phillips area that their church purchased in 2005 for $939,000, according to records from the Orange County Property Appraiser’s office.
The former high school campus of Agape Christian Academy in Orlando is pictured on Wednesday, January 13, 2021. The 23-year-old daughter of Agape’s director is trying to open a school on the campus and says she would rely on state vouchers as her sole source of income, even though her mother was banned from the programs. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
The Academy of Education School intends to use a property on the west side of Hiawassee Road, across the street from Hiawassee’s main campus, Blaire Bishop told the judge. Agape used the building at 2332 N. Hiawassee as its high school as recently as 2016, DOE records show. Bishop said she intends to pay $10,000 per month to rent that property from a non-profit organization called Northwestern Learning Center, which has close ties to Agape and Ingrid Bishop.
Cassandra Cook served on Northwestern’s board of directors until 2019, according to her testimony during the September hearing. And Northwestern’s president, Shirley Echols, has used the same phone number as Ingrid Bishop on court records.
Sisters part of plan
Academy of Education School is ready to open from “an administrative standpoint,” Blaire Bishop told the judge, though she has no students currently enrolled. She intends to hire her two sisters, Braelyn and Brooke Bishop, to work at the school. Neither of them indicates any experience or interest in education on their social media pages. Braelyn Bishop, 21, works as a field organizer for the Florida Democrats, according to the party’s website and her social media pages.
Brooke Bishop, 26, is a registered mental health counselor, according to her LinkedIn profile and the Florida Department of Health, which issued her license. Like Blaire Bishop, Braelyn and Brooke Bishop live with their parents at the church-owned home in the Dr. Phillips area, state elections records show.
Culpepper determined that the evidence presented by the education department during the hearing did not establish that the people who ran Agape would be involved in running the Academy of Education School or profit from the venture.
“Although it might be reasonable to assume that Blaire Bishop has discussed the creation of the Academy with her mother, no testimony establishes that Ingrid Bishop (or Ms. Cook) has rendered any advice or provided any counsel regarding the Academy’s future operations or Ms. Bishop’s educational aspirations,” Culpepper wrote in an order dated Dec. 8. “In short, the evidence and testimony in the record does not substantiate the commissioner’s suspicions that the Academy is merely a front, proxy, strawman, or surrogate for Agape, Ingrid Bishop, or Ms. Cook.”
The education department is considering Academy of Education School’s application, a spokeswoman wrote in an email last week, giving no indication of when it might make a decision.
Featured image: The campus of Agape Christian Academy in Orlando is pictured on Wednesday, January 13, 2021. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)