Recent high school graduate Terell Lewis is looking forward to attending Forest Trail Sports University in the fall, but the startup school has drawn a mixed reaction from parents and experts.
Lewis, a Pasadena, Calif., native, knew he wanted to play baseball in college. Forest Trail had recruited him and offered a $20,000 per year athletic scholarship, more than other schools he’d looked into.
Forest Trail Sports University, a new institution, plans to open for the first time this month on Barber-Scotia College’s campus in Concord. Despite its name, the school offers no classes of its own, only year-round sports coaching and competition for its estimated 200 students.
It originally planned to partner with another institution to provide online classes but has since told students to enroll in community college or online classes.
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That’s when Lewis’ mother, Litaun, became concerned. An online university program had seemed like a good option, and the change worried her.
“I’m still kind of leery, because the name’s still saying university,” she said. “Things are not shaping up the way that I hoped.”
A sports-focused education
Forest Trail Sports University’s owner, Gifty Chung, runs an online K-12 school called Forest Trail Academy based in Wellington, Fla. That school provides classes for a sports-focused private high school of the same name in Kernersville.
The Kernersville high school is where the idea for a sports university came from, Forest Trail Sports University athletic director Greg Eidschun said. Those student athletes tend to do well in the next phase of their lives, he said.
“We were thinking we could do this at the next level,” Eidschun said.
Forest Trail Sports University, originally called North Carolina Sports University, partnered with Waldorf University. The Iowa-based school would provide online classes, but Forest Trail students would still meet in classrooms with instructors, many of whom were former university professors. This would create a collaborative, almost tutoring-like atmosphere, Eidschun said.
“It’s online, but it’s different from regular online,” he said.
Forest Trail Academy has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, although according to records, Chung and her husband declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Florida in 2013 and have had two federal tax liens against them in Florida as well. Chung could not be reached for comment.
Concerns and changes
But Forest Trail Sports University’s plan was a problem for Waldorf University, which terminated the partnership effective June 17. Spokesman Beau Vignes said Waldorf has no partnerships like the one Forest Trail presented.
“This partnership was terminated because FTSU’s expectations grew to encompass on-ground instruction and a regional presence that is not a part of Waldorf University online programs,” Vignes said in an email.
The relationship also drew concern from the UNC Board of Governors, who issued the startup a cease-and-desist order in early June.
Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman for the board, said in an email that the partnership would have counted as conducting post-secondary degree activity in North Carolina. An institution can’t conduct degree activity in the state without licensure or there are legal consequences, Worthington said. Forest Trail had not applied for that licensure, Worthington said in an email.
Now, since the school has none of its own academic programming, it no longer falls under the jurisdiction of the UNC Board of Governors, Worthington said.
In a Facebook post that was later deleted, Forest Trail announced that it was no longer contracting with Waldorf University as it had originally planned, and told students to enroll at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College or in another online program.
The post said Forest Trail would provide buses to the RCCC campus and coordinate practice times with class schedules, though RCCC spokeswoman Carla Howell said there is no academic or financial affiliation between the two entities.
Lewis said her son’s scholarship is still in effect. Eidschun spoke with the Observer in early June, but could not be reached for comment on the changes.
RCCC’s tuition is about $8,000 per year for non-North Carolina residents such as Terell and many other committed Forest Trail students. Eidschun said Forest Trail recruited from all over, from baseball players he had coached in southern California to soccer players from Spain to other athletes from Slovakia, the Netherlands and Venezuela.
Forest Trail had tuition and fees listed on its website as $32,700, which included Waldorf University’s tuition of $285 per credit hour as well as fees for room and board and the athletic program.
The program applied to compete as part of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, a national organization of about 80 small schools and community colleges, over the winter. Admittance was not granted, USCAA Chief Operating Officer Michael Goodman said in an email. Goodman declined to comment further on the reason for rejection.
Getting to campus
Barber-Scotia College plans to lease its dorms, cafeteria and athletic facilities to Forest Trail. Chairman Barry Green said leasing the buildings will benefit the college, which has struggled financially since losing its accreditation in 2004.
“The whole purpose is to get stable and have a stable income coming in,” he said. “We’re trying to get ourselves up to be a candidate for accreditation, and this will allow us to do that.”
Barber-Scotia is a historically black college that began in 1867 as one of the first institutions of higher education for African-American women. It became a four-year college in 1946.
The college had an enrollment of 543 students in 2007, which dropped to 50 in fall 2015 before closing for the following spring semester. It will reopen in the fall with about 20 students, Green said.
Lewis said students were asked to make a deposit of $1,500 to Forest Trail – or as much as they could pay at the time – to guarantee their spot.
She said it’s been stressful figuring everything out, but that Eidschun has been helpful.
“This has been a lot, so I just need to make sure that I’m making the right decision for my son’s well-being,” she said.
Rachel Herzog: 704-358-5358; @rachel_herzog