By Joe Tash
Parents of students who attend a SAT prep school based in Carmel Valley are demanding the reinstatement of the school’s former CEO and co-founder, who said he was fired abruptly Feb. 28 with no explanation.
“All the parents are furious about this issue,” said Shirley Wang, of Torrey Hills, who has enrolled her daughter in a SAT prep course this summer at a cost of nearly $3,000.
The decision by management of Summa Education to part ways with CEO Chris Hamilton was announced in a March 1 email to families. The school has locations in Carmel Valley and Rancho Bernardo, and current enrollment is 883 students.
The school’s action has led to the establishment of a Facebook page called “Bring Back Mr. Hamilton!” as well as an online petition asking the school to change its decision. On Sunday, disgruntled parents met with new CEO Lori Todd and other school officials at the school’s Carmel Valley office.
According to a Facebook post about the meeting, some 100 parents and students crammed into the lobby, and over the two-hour meeting, they “pleaded loudly and passionately to bring back Mr. Hamilton in any capacity! It was made abundantly clear by the new CEO that Mr. Hamilton would NOT be returning to Summa. No reasons were proffered for his departure except for ‘business issues’ that surfaced over a 3 month period.”
Todd acknowledged that what she had to say to families Sunday was “not what they wanted to hear” because Hamilton won’t be coming back to Summa, and she declined to state a reason for Hamilton’s dismissal. “We cannot discuss internal personnel matters.”
But she said every other staff member, including teachers, counselors and office workers, will remain with the school, and Summa will continue to use the same techniques and teaching materials. The school has offered refunds to those who have already enrolled and, so far, no one has actually asked for their money back because of Hamilton’s departure, Todd said.
“It is the same Summa with one absence — it is a key absence — but Summa is not one person,” she said.
Wang and other parents, however, attributed much of Summa’s success to Hamilton, who ran the school and also worked directly with students as a teacher and counselor.
Since the school was founded in 2011, Hamilton said, 27 Summa students scored perfect 2400s on the SAT college admissions test. He said students who have gone through Summa’s program boosted their SAT scores by 500 to 700 points, or even 1,000 points, and also were admitted to prestigious universities. But Hamilton’s influence seemed to go beyond test scores.
“What appeals to me the most about (Hamilton) is his role as a mentor in a child’s life,” said Hema Krishnamurthi of Carmel Valley, who sent her two sons to Summa. “He has an amazing ability to connect with them. A child walking out of his office feels motivated to read a lot of books, and do better in their studies, and has a better sense of self-worth.”
Sharon Lee Rhodes, a Carmel Valley resident, said all four of her children have worked with Hamilton, either for SAT prep or college guidance counseling. Rhodes, who is also dean of economic development at the San Diego Community College District, said the decision to dismiss Hamilton was “an awful mistake.”
She credited Hamilton and Summa with helping to “place (San Diego) on the map with a lot of the elite colleges.” Her three older children — including a son at Yale who was also accepted at Harvard and Princeton — are now in college, and her younger daughter is in high school.
“I hope the leadership at Summa realizes what a bad choice of executive management decision they made and I hope they’ll reverse it,” Rhodes said.
Hamilton, 44, said he was informed by the school’s administration that he was fired on Feb. 28 and told not to come back to the office. He said he was not given a reason for the decision.
Before co-founding Summa, Hamilton worked for another SAT prep program called Elite Educational Institute, and also taught at UCLA, where he earned graduate degrees. Following his departure from Elite, the rival company sued Hamilton and Summa, and according to published reports, won a $3 million judgment. In its lawsuit, Elite alleged that Hamilton stole proprietary information, including client lists, and recruited key Elite staff for his new business.
Hamilton said the judge later overturned part of the verdict, and that the judge’s decision bodes well for an appeal of the remaining verdict. He denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
Hamilton said he is “shell-shocked” from his firing, but touched by the outpouring of support from parents and students.
“This whole thing for me is a great sense of personal loss. It’s sad I’m not allowed to continue my work at Summa. I would come back in a heartbeat,” Hamilton said.
Even Todd acknowledged Hamilton’s rapport with students, which she described as “magical.” Two of her own sons worked with Hamilton both at Elite and then Summa. While she is an attorney, and not an educator, she said she was brought in by a group of investment partners last fall to save the school.
“I was hired by my partners to go in and make this business work. And that’s what I’m doing,” she said.