Dozens of students have filed complaints on for-profit schools with the Texas Workforce Commission since Jan. 1, 2018, over excessive charges, unqualified instructors and overall shady operations.
Of the 60 complaints filed through last month, 26 involved medical trades, from dental technicians to nurses.
At one medical training center, students were taught by a man who was presented as a doctor, although he had no license to practice in Texas.
At a dental training center, students were asked to hand out advertising material at the local mall as part of their education.
Several of the schools targeted in the 600-plus pages of complaints closed shortly after a complaint was filed. However, records show that the Texas Workforce Commission, which oversees the institutions, took no enforcement action on the complaints and played no role in the closures. Other schools named in the complaints continue to operate with no mention of their alleged misconduct on the TWC website.
The agency oversees 576 trade schools across the state. Its site is supposed to provide potential students with an overview of each school, providing graduation and completion rates, programs offered and costs, as well as any substantiated problems reported.
The agency’s portal that lists closed career schools was updated after a Texas Monitor story in April noted it had not reported any additional for-profit schools as having closed since 2009, despite the TWC’s claim that numerous career schools were shuttered by the agency in the past decade.
Some schools have changed names after being publicly chastised by former students.
The latter move is similar to the practice of nursing home providers nationwide in the early 2000s, many of which changed names after authorities went after them for illegal behavior.
For example, a student at Eastex Dental Academy in Longview (student names are redacted in the records obtained by The Texas Monitor) alleged that the school first postponed the start of her curriculum in August 2017 to see if more students would enroll. The classes began two months later, but during the next six weeks, “We were asked to advertise for the school on two different occasions,” the student said. They were sent to the Longview Mall to hand out flyers and represented the academy at a job fair at the local school district.
Eastex folded in early 2018, and its website is no longer active. A lawsuit filed by credit card company American Express in May seeks $37,000 from Eastex.
A different school, called Premier Dental Academy of Longview, now operates at the Eastex address. According to an agent answering the phone there, Eastex’ equipment was purchased by Premier, which opened in summer 2018. But state records show no company registered as Premier Dental Academy.
The property is owned by a retired dentist, Joe Baucum Jr., who did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the lack of company registration, Premier is listed on the TWC site where students go to verify the credentials of an institution.
As a new operation, Premier cannot provide graduation and placement figures.
At Southwest University in El Paso, which offers degrees on subjects ranging from diesel mechanic to medical laboratory technician, students taking medical classes are taught by Craig Pradarelli, who is noted in a faculty list as a medical doctor and full-time instructor.
Pradarelli is not a licensed physician in the U.S.; he obtained his medical certificate in a three-year program in Belize. Some states give reciprocal medical licenses to individuals who have obtained their medical education abroad, but Texas does not.
Southwest’s description of Pradarelli as a licensed doctor doesn’t necessarily break any state rules, since the school notes that the instructor’s training was done abroad, said Jarrett Schneider, a spokesman for the Texas Medical Board, which licenses medical professionals.
On his LinkedIn page, Pradarelli describes himself as an employee of the CMP Forensic Group, which appears on Facebook as an El Paso-based operation with a Milwaukee phone number and a defunct website. State records in Texas and Wisconsin show no CMP Forensic Group or any business registered to Pradarelli, who did not return a call.
“Every degree program we offer has different requirements,” Southwest University President Ben Arriola said. “For the programs they are teaching, they are not required to be licensed [in the U.S.]. And they aren’t licensed here because for whatever reason they didn’t want to practice here. “
He added that a licensed medical professional would probably not be interested in teaching lower-level medical training courses, such as medical lab tech training.
Several students at Valley Technical Academy in Mission sought refunds after complaining of unqualified instructors and false promises of job placement. They alleged that a TWC worker told Valley Technical CEO Ernesto Ayala that the complainants were “being greedy.”
Josue Plaza taught at Valley Technical, which opened in fall 2017. He quit in mid-2018 after bickering with management over business issues.
“I felt it was a big scam,” Plaza said. “I filed a complaint with the TWC, and we tried to get them to see what was happening. I told management that you cannot promise people jobs. I know what was promised and I know what they got. And the promise didn’t hold up.”
He said Valley Technical opened before receiving an inspection from the state. And TWC didn’t see the alleged deception.
“They were taking students before the TWC approval,” Plaza said. “A TWC rep would come by and check up on things and we would actively have to hide the fact that we already had students enrolled.”
He also said students were enrolled without passing the entrance exam.
The TWC found both those allegations to be true, according to a January letter sent to the school. Several other allegations were not found to be substantiated. The school received no sanctions for the violations, according to the TWC website.
“I don’t see the complaints as relevant to us now,” said Valley Technical founder Jim Smith Jr. He said the school is taking a different direction, offering free seminars and video content rather than offering classes for a fee, and besides, the complaints “were handled and people got their money back.”
The Valley Technical website now links to a site for Valley Tech Learning, but Smith said he hasn’t officially changed the school’s name. The TWC website still lists the school as Valley Technical and gives an incorrect website.
The TWC insists that it is actively policing for-profits that do not comply with state standards. It lists programs that have been fined. In fiscal year 2018, the TWC levied 91 fines on institutions, most for less than $1,000. The largest was a $37,500 penalty against Coding Dojo, a Dallas-based computer programming school. The reasons for the fines are not listed and do not appear as enforcement actions against the school on the TWC website.
The agency says it has complied with guidance from the state’s Sunset Commission and with legislative mandates, both aimed at making more information available for students on each institution.
“In response to the Sunset recommendation in 2015 and subsequent Legislation, TWC has made available a searchable list of schools where TWC took administrative action to revoke a license and a searchable list of administrative actions/penalties taken against a career school,” then-spokeswoman Lisa Givens said in an April email.
The TWC site currently lists only schools that have been sanctioned through 2016.
The agency declined an interview request for this story.
Next: A look at the owners who profit from career schools
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].