By Janell Ross

T.M. Landry College Prep, a small Louisiana school that gained national fame for sending black students to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, has a website that says it all — the complete sales pitch for parents and college admissions officers.

The school promises to promote “each child’s self worth and dignity in a supportive, educational and safe environment…. T.M. Landry’s goal is that every child not only gets into, but gets THROUGH college.”

But, as a New York Times investigation found last week, based on interviews with 46 people, the Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, school’s founders may also be perpetrating a well-orchestrated scam, an educational fraud befitting our times. The Times found that the school had doctored and even invented backgrounds for its students designed to appeal to Ivy League admissions officers looking for inspirational stories, while also abusing and manipulating students.

Michael and Tracey Landry, the husband-and-wife team who opened the school, delivered a “slick sales pitch” in which they played on racial stereotypes in two ways, said Camille Zubrinsky Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies and education at the University of Pennsylvania who researches college admissions.

First, the Landrys drew black and low-income parents by using the legitimate concerns many have about the quality of their local schools and the way that a poor education can lock children out of opportunity. Then, they distorted and invented stories of deprivation about those children for their college applications that were lapped up by colleges and an American public eager for evidence that hard work and so-called old-fashioned discipline are all that’s needed to “make it” in America.

That myth also took in parents, who wanted to give their children the best chance of success, the Times reported.

In reality, Landry Prep appears to operate with few teachers, relying on optional attendance, student-led learning, physical and emotional abuse and elaborately arranged scenes of academic achievement to paint a picture of a high-functioning, if unorthodox, school, the Times reported.

“It’s clear,” Charles said, “that what was happening at the Landry school embodies a whole lot of things about education in America that just make you want to take a shower.”

When confronted with the allegations, Michael Landry denied altering students’ transcripts and inventing stories about them but admitted that he physically punished students, the Times reported.

T.M. Landry College Prep gained fame for sending black students to some of the nation's most prestigious universities.TODAY

Many of Landry Prep’s students come from Breaux Bridge and nearby Lafayette, Louisiana, and it’s not hard to see why parents jumped at what the school seemed to offer. In Breaux Bridge, just 15 percent of the town’s 8,323 residents has a college degree, half the national average, Census data shows. About 22 percent live in poverty, nearly twice the national figure. Lafayette is larger, home to a university and a more educated population, with a lower poverty rate of 5 percent.

Both towns have a racial gap in high school graduation rates. In Lafayette, the graduation rate was 81 percent for white students and 68 percent for black students in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent for which data is available. That year in the parish of St. Martin (the Louisiana equivalent of a county), which includes Breaux Bridge, the graduation rate was 86 percent for white students and 75 to 79 percent for black students. (The National Center for Education Statistics releases ranges when student counts are so small that a specific number might reveal information about individual students.)

This is not simply a local problem. Nationally, low-income black and Latino children are significantly more likely than white students to be assigned to public schools with the least qualified teachers, the lowest-quality facilities, fewer books and a less rigorous curriculum, a U.S. Department of Education study found this year. As a result of that pattern and disproportionate poverty, they also tend to not score as high as whites on standardized exams.

College admissions officers often enter the field for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students who have been trapped by this inequality, said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a group of about 15,000 people who work on the high school-to-college transition.

“Most admissions officers understand very well the education divide in this country,” Hawkins said. “Then you take that Horatio Alger thing that got you into the field and then the recognition that many students have a tremendously hard time even getting to the point of application and yes, many admissions officers are keen to identify those students, those stories, and create those bridges to opportunity.”

That’s exactly what Michael Landry appears to have been counting on, said Charles, the sociology professor.

“He seems to have coerced and staged a play that he knew would work for his audiences,” said Charles, who learned of the issues at T.M. Landry through the Times investigation. “That it did says something, just not the things that I think bigots who may want to read into this situation will leap to.”

With Harvard and other colleges and universities under fire or facing litigation over their efforts to admit a diverse student body, Charles said the Landry story produced the same feeling she gets in the first moments after news of a mass shooting breaks. There’s dual concern about the injured and dead as well as how all people of color will be described, or treated with added suspicion, if the person responsible is not white.

With affirmative action in place, students of color remain vastly underrepresented on prestigious campuses, Charles said. But public comments about the Landry Prep situation have already come to feature a heavy dose of input from those who regard it as proof students of color can’t keep up at highly selective colleges and affirmative action programs represent an organized form of admissions rigging, giving too many slots away to people of color.

One major flaw in that logic is that all of the colleges that admitted T.M. Landry students can argue they did not lower their standards to do so. Their admissions decisions were based on doctored but stellar transcripts.

T.M. Landry College Prep is in the small town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.TODAY

While the allegations against Landry Prep are egregious, there are parallels in the claims of many charter and private schools. Many tell parents that they have identified the elusive no-excuses yet loving environment that will eliminate years of educational disadvantage, said Will Stancil, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who focuses on civil rights in education.

Many of those claims are false or overblown. Education quality and increased segregation are persistent issues at many charter schools. And unregulated and unaccredited private schools like Landry Prep maintain conditions that are, by design, unknown and unmonitored. Landry Prep receives no federal or state funding, which means the Louisiana Department of Education has no oversight.

“We see a lot of outrageous claims that aren’t backed up by data from these experimental schools,” Stancil said, “a lot of fear tactics aimed at parents who know their kids really are disadvantaged. Then, for those parents and the general public, there are these videos out of places like Landry of these highly improbable, against-all-odds, really emotional success stories."

“One exploits legitimate fears,” Stancil continued, “and the other distracts people, makes them believe that a quick fix is possible and that they don’t need to demand and focus on systemic change.”