Jason Alston (left) says he's seen his son Will Alston (right) flourish since he started attending New Summit School in Jackson at age nine. Will, who has autism, benefits from the smaller class sizes and daily dyslexia therapy. Credit: Anna Wolfe

Educators assessed Mary Harbin Hinds, who has a rare chromosome disorder resulting in academic delays, as a nonreader when she entered New Summit School in third grade. 

Mary Harbin Hinds, a ninth grader at New Summit School in Jackson, has excelled remarkably since moving from the public school system to Nancy New’s private school in third grade, her mom Jodi Kimbrell Hinds said. The family worries about the prospects of the school’s 185 students after New’s arrest in March for allegedly defrauding the state’s education department. Credit: Courtesy of Jodi Kimbrell Hinds

Halfway through the year at the Jackson private school, “she was reading poems on her own with words as large as ‘wonderment,’” her mom, Jodi Kimbrell Hinds, recalled. By the end of her first year, the girl — now a ninth grader at the school — was reading on grade level.

“It was life changing,” the mom of two said. “Mary Harbin is just a mystery. She can do great at some things and some things she can’t. New Summit just plugged into that immediately and figured out what works for her.”

Parents of New Summit students — nine of whom spoke with Mississippi Today — rave about their children’s educational successes and emotional growth, the result of opportunities that the state’s public school system typically cannot provide. 

But behind the scenes, school owners and operators Nancy New and her son Zach New were allegedly lying about the teachers they employed and the students they served, defrauding the state out of more than $2 million in public school dollars. The recent federal indictment, to which they’ve pleaded not guilty, came more than a year after the two were arrested on separate state charges alleging they also embezzled more than $4 million in welfare dollars through their nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center.

Now, several parents of students with special needs — who found a safe haven at New Summit in Jackson — are caught in the fray, uncertain about whether the school will remain open and if the 185 students will continue to have access to the specialized instruction they’ve come to cherish.

They dread the possibility of returning their children back to the public school system with the other 65,000 students with disabilities, according to public records, who are served by Mississippi’s special education services mandated under federal law. 

Nancy New founded the school in 1997 to offer smaller classes and more individualized instruction to Mississippi schoolchildren. Her for-profit company and school district called New Learning Resources eventually encompassed six private schools, including an online diploma program. New Summit School began rapidly growing in recent years, and though it is not specifically a special education school, it had earned a reputation of catering to nontraditional students.

“If it fails, you’re going to have 200 kids with special needs that need placement tomorrow and I just don’t know how that’s going to happen,” said Josie Alston, mother of 14-year-old Will, who has autism. “We don’t know where we could send Will that we haven’t already tried.”

Spectrum Academy, an offshoot of New Summit, already closed in late 2020, displacing about 30 children with autism, a parent of the academy told Mississippi Today. The closure was never publicized.

Roy Balentine, who took over as interim executive director of New Learning Resources shortly after the 2020 arrests, told Mississippi Today when reached on his cell phone in late March that there are no plans to close the schools. He would not answer any other questions about the company’s future. Because of the ongoing criminal case, school staff have remained extremely mum; no teachers were willing to interview with Mississippi Today. 

The secretary of state’s office website lists the status of New Learning Resources, Inc. as “intent to dissolve: tax,” which an office employee said indicated an issue with the company’s taxes.

After state agents arrested the News in 2020 within the separate Mississippi Department of Human Services scandal, the state welfare agency froze funding to the New nonprofit. Parents feared that the schools might struggle to pay their teachers if something similar happened to New Summit. They also wondered if they would get their money back for prepaid tuition or registration fees. The best they can hope for, they say, is another organization buying the school and maintaining operations.

On Mar. 26, about a week after the most recent arrests, the Mississippi Department of Education sent voucher payments totaling $122,000 to New Learning Resources, according to state expenditure records. The department had also made a payment of $42,418 on Mar. 15, the day before the News’ indictment, for “dyslexia funding.”

Many of the parents who enrolled their kids in New Summit Schools, nine of whom spoke to Mississippi Today, have parallel stories. Their kids are different, they say, maybe due to a disability, developmental delays or social issues. In their eyes, their children were drowning in public schools.

The parents say they fought through poor communication and apathetic attitudes of public school faculty. Meetings about their Individualized Education Program (IEP) — a specialized education plan granted to students with disabilities under federal anti-discrimination law — were frequently confrontational. School officials told parents they couldn’t diagnose dyslexia.

Madison residents Jason Alston (left) and Josie Alston (right) say they don’t know where they would place their son Will Alston (middle), who has autism, if their private school New Summit School were to close. Credit: Anna Wolfe

“I’m like, wait a minute,” Alston said. “You tell me you have several reading specialists on staff in this school alone, but in the whole Madison County there is no one that can assess him and say if he has dyslexia, when it’s very clear that he has it?”

Will receives dyslexia therapy every day at New Summit. When Will started at the school as a 9-year-old, he couldn’t count to 20. Now he has his multiplication tables mastered.

Like many families at the school, the Alstons receive the Education Scholarship Account, sometimes called the school choice voucher, from the department of education. It pays $5,600 toward Will’s roughly $10,000 tuition.

Some parents received trustworthy recommendations to try New Summit; others took a leap of faith in desperation. 

“What really drove my decision was the numbers,” parent Melody Norris said, citing a graduation rate she believed was as low as 15% for students with special needs at her local district, Rankin County School District. She also cited funding cuts at the district, resulting in his school alone losing two resource teachers. (Rankin County School District had a 22% graduation rate for students with disabilities in 2012, the year Norris chose to move her son, but like most districts, Rankin has drastically improved that rate to 62% in 2021).

Norris never checked New Summit’s graduation rate — a stat that’s not published like it is for the public schools. 

Her son DJ, who has autism, graduated with a high school diploma and the honor of co-valedictorian in 2020. He’s now participating in a program called Project SEARCH, which helps place students with disabilities in training and full time employment.

At the specialty private school, the numbers don’t seem to matter to parents. Because when the families arrived, they found significantly smaller class sizes — a max of twelve students per teacher — tailored instructional style and extremely dedicated and caring teachers. They didn’t need to see standardized metrics; they could visualize the difference in their child’s self confidence and enthusiasm for learning.

“I always referred to New Summit as this cocoon,” Norris said. “This place, this magical place that was one block off of Lakeland Drive that most people never even knew existed. But it was unlike any other school in the state.”

Scott Herrod’s 7-year-old son Tory, who has dyslexia, never used to try to read the words he’d encounter throughout his day. Going to school was a drag. And even though he couldn’t read or write, the public school kept graduating Troy from kindergarten to first to second grade with straight A’s.

Beginning at New Summit School, Herrod said, “it was almost like turning a switch on.” Now Troy is reading road signs from his car seat and asking his parents to take him to get new books during his freetime.

“I actually don’t know where we would actually go to get him what he needs right now,” Herrod said.

LauraBeth Johnston says if New Summit were to close, her son Frasier would survive in the public school, where he used to receive just 20-30 minutes of special instruction for autism each day.

But New Summit provided more than an educational opportunity. Before attending New Summit, Johnston said, Fraiser would come home from school crying, saying he “wished he was regular.”

“He didn’t understand why he wasn’t regular like the other kids in his class,” the mom of three said. After moving to New Summit in second grade, Johnston said, “I can’t describe how much happier he was.”

After Nancy and Zach New were originally arrested in February of 2020 on charges related to their nonprofit, district officials said that New Summit would remain open — business as usual, parents told Mississippi Today. 

Federal agents arrested the News on Mar. 18 on the charges related to the school district and released them on a $10,000 bond after they pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors haven’t outlined where all the money went, but they accused Nancy New of using at least some of the public school dollars to purchase her roughly $250,000 home in northeast Jackson.

The families have received radio silence ever since, leaving them in limbo, wondering if and when their children might lose their school.

Reached April 1 at the school, Kyle Nobles, headmaster for New Summit School K-12, said only Balentine could speak on behalf of the school or district. Balentine, a former principal at Pearl High School and employee of New’s nonprofit, did not respond to Mississippi Today’s follow up phone calls or texts. 

Families say the allegations, even if true, don’t erase the life changing impact New Summit had on their children.

“I will go to my grave thankful that Nancy New started this school over 20 years ago,” Hinds said. “Whatever else may have transpired, as far as the school itself and the employees in place teaching our children, or at least mine, that job was done correctly, because these kids have thrived.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.