Undercover reporter Diana Zlomislic
College sold fake diplomas TheStar.com -
GTA - College sold fake diplomas
DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR
Undercover reporter Diana Zlomislic graduated from the Ontario Academy of Science and Technology's Personal Support Worker program. In 15 days at the North York academy, she learned to fake a resume, fabricate references and lie her way through a job interview.
The Star launches an investigation into private career colleges that take students' money and deliver substandard – or no – education. Reporter Diana Zlomislic zeroes in on an unlicensed school for personal support workers
September 17, 2009
You shouldn't hire me to care for your sick mother. But you could. I am a certified personal support worker, and you have no idea how grossly unqualified I am.
While students enrolled at registered schools in this field will spend a year learning to empty catheters, insert suppositories and manoeuvre mechanical lifts, in a matter of weeks at a private career college in North York I learned how to fake a resume, fabricate professional references and lie my way through a job interview.
For $480 and a few hours spent watching instructional DVDs, I became eligible to work with society's most vulnerable in hospitals, nursing lodges, community care centres and private homes.
After I aced my first job interview, a respected health-care agency in Yorkville, S.R.T. Med-Staff, tentatively offered to place me in a government-funded community care program until it checked my bogus references.
"That you could get a certificate in two weeks with virtually no experience ... that's very concerning," said Lynn Tughan, the agency's vice-president of operations, when I called to tell her my true identity.
Ontario's ombudsman, André Marin, recently criticized the province for failing to shut down rogue private career colleges. He warned that potentially thousands of these schools exist, churning out incompetent graduates in an environment where employers often trust a college is a college.
I witnessed the province's soft-handed approach last month when a provincial inspector walked into the Ontario Academy of Science & Technology while I was undercover, posing as a student. The inspector told the school's operator, Ken Miller, that he had 15 days to comply with ministry standards.
"This is an illegal school and it is my job to let you know," she told me. "I'm going to see if I can assist the school in becoming registered. It's not an easy process."
The compliance deadline passed last week, and the school is still operating. In fact, a handful of new students have joined the program since her visit, and I graduated shortly after.
When my colleague Dale Brazao and I told Miller this week that his school had been the subject of a Star investigation that revealed serious issues, Miller said he had applied to register the academy. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities said no such application has been received.
On a sweaty Sunday afternoon last month, I joined 14 other women in a makeshift classroom with neon-green walls and long, fold-out tables on the third floor of a strip mall at Bathurst St. and Wilson Ave. At the front of the class, random posters titled "Sexually Transmitted Diseases" are tacked to the wall near a flat-screen television and a white board. At the back of the class, a crank-lift hospital bed is covered in a dingy comforter. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are stacked with jars of hair pomade and an open bottle of Absolut Vodka.
This is the Ontario Academy of Science and Technology.
"Nyu stoodent?" a fortysomething fellow student from Russia inquires.
I introduce myself as Dee Thomas – a down-on-her luck, Toronto-born woman desperate to earn more than a coffee clerk's wage.
"It's difficult for us because English is the second language," says the Russian woman. "Lots of medical termination," she says. She means terminology.
Unlike registered schools offering this program, admission to Miller's school does not require passing an English proficiency test. He didn't even ask me for identification.
"If you have diploma, work at agency, you can start $15, $18, absolutely," the Russian continues.
"I saw an ad in a newspaper in Russia, $15.50 it starts. You understand?"
"For a job in Moscow or Toronto?" I ask.
"Heeeeere," she scoffs. "What is in Russia? Russia nothing."
The school is a haven for immigrant women. In fact, many of the students here came to Canada as live-in caregivers. They see the fast-growing field of personal support work as a step up – an opportunity to improve life for themselves and their families abroad.
Where legitimate programs require more than 700 hours of in-class and clinical training, the academy lets students come and go as their schedules permit. Two-hour lectures on Sundays are the only mandatory component.
Otherwise, the program consists of watching 12 instructional DVDs. Produced during the early 1990s by a U.S. company, they feature the AIDS epidemic front and centre. Each student also receives a binder with photocopied chapters that seem to correspond to the DVDs, though no publisher is credited.
One week, students receive a 27-page printout from a Wikipedia entry on blood pressure to round out a Sunday workshop.
"Is fainting good for you?" Miller asks the group of students. Dressed in a blue-check Tommy Hilfiger dress shirt, he smiles – a broad hint it's a trick question. Miller, a tiny tuft of coarse hair at the centre of his otherwise bald scalp, is "director of education" at the academy and its only teacher. He boasts that he's certified thousands of personal support workers.
"Fainting is good," he continues. "Pain is good. They are what is known as vital signs."
Actually, they aren't. And according to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, the unvetted instructor has no business teaching a classroom of paying students, some of whom have coughed up the full $2,500 tuition.
Those who pay full fee presumably aren't aware Miller sometimes cuts deals. "I don't survive based on your money or the other students' money," Miller said when I asked for a discount. "It's more a strategy of bringing in people. People come here and then they have other things to do – immigration, divorce, so many things," he said, referring to the services he offers as a paralegal and maker of unregulated beauty products. "And it just keeps going for 18 years non-stop.
"Some people think that in order for me to expedite the course, you have to give me a lot of money. But it's not true."
Miller agrees to rush me through the program, which he initially said would take six to eight months. Following two weeks of watching the DVDs, attending the Sunday lectures and writing a series of 15-question, multiple-choice tests, I pay the $480 cash fee we had agreed to and receive two graduation certificates. One states I have completed a "comprehensive program" in personal support work. The other qualifies me to work as a nursing assistant – a job title that applies in western Canada and throughout the United States but isn't relevant in Ontario. He backdates both certificates, produced from his office printer, to May 2009 so potential employers won't think I am fresh out of school.
"If I'm helping you expedite this, I want you to protect me," Miller warns before handing over the documents, each adorned with the academy's red seal of authenticity.
When I find work, and he's confident I will, "You cannot ask them, `What do you mean by body mechanics, what do you mean by mitred corners (on a hospital bed)?'
"Say, `Yes, I can do it,' and then call me. Okay?"
Satisfied he's made his point, Miller moves on to my resumé.
It's a standard service he performs gratis for graduates.
The fact that I haven't completed any practical training looks bad, he advises.
"What I will do, as I told you, I'm going to say that you have some experience through our company because that's the first thing they're going to look at. You have to work along with me here."
In addition to the academy, he says he also operates a job agency. He rummages through a mass of papers on his desk and digs out the resumé of a former graduate. I'm to copy the details of her work history on my resumé.
There's also the matter of clinical training. Personal support workers are supposed to have accumulated 390 hours before graduating from a certified program. I have zero.
"They're going to ask you where you did your practice, and you have to say Springmount because they will back me up," he says, referring to a seniors' residence near Weston Rd. and Lawrence Ave. W.
The residence closed in June. It's being converted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.
"I will give you the name of the supervisor, and the supervisor is not really working there anymore. So if they try to call the supervisor, the nursing home will say that she left. So they can't really cross-check."
It turns out Springmount closed three months ago. Contacted by the Star yesterday, owner Icilda Tate initially denied vouching for Miller's students: "I don't know nothing about it. I don't think he could have said those things."
A few minutes later, she elaborated. "He's sent me students to volunteer, yes. Students come there for, what do you call it, yes they do, they come there and they train. Sometimes, they come for two to three weeks. They help with feeding, combing hair, assist with giving baths and showers."
Assuming a student did manage to complete 40 hours of training a week, they'd still be nowhere near the industry benchmark of 390 hours.
On Sunday, a new girl will probably claim my old chair at the back of the classroom as her own. She'll do her best to understand what the Internet handouts say and she won't catch on when Miller confuses the meanings of systolic and diastolic blood pressure. And in a few weeks or maybe a few months, she will be at someone's bedside, oblivious to the fact that the wrinkled sheets beneath her client's frail body are wearing away at his skin. As far as she knows, she has earned the right to a well-paying job.
A small ceramic plaque with a crackle finish hangs next to Ken Miller's office door.
It reads: "Everything is possible to those who believe."
That's the problem.