A Louisiana prep school known for its viral videos of underprivileged students celebrating their acceptance to prestigious universities has come under fire for allegedly doctoring college applications and fostering a culture of physical and emotional abuse.
A New York Times investigation into T.M. Landry College Prep in Breaux Bridge found that the school "falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity."
T.M. Landry has become known for its feel-good videos (many featured on TODAY) showing students ecstatically celebrating with classmates when they learn they have been accepted to Ivy League schools like Harvard and Cornell. A video of student Ayrton Little getting into Harvard last year has been viewed more than eight million times.
However, the New York Times interviewed 46 parents, teachers and current and former students, who painted a picture of alleged physical abuse, suspect teaching methods and fraudulent college applications under the direction of school founders Tracey and Michael Landry.
"That dream you see on television, all those videos, it’s really a nightmare,'' one parent told The New York Times.
The Landrys have denied falsifying college applications, which allegedly included lying that a student's father was an abusive alcoholic to make his story more compelling.
Michael Landry responded to accusations of physical abuse, including choking, forcing students to kneel for hours and slamming them into desks, by telling The New York Times he hit students and saying, "Oh, I yell a lot."
TODAY's Craig Melvin visited the school a few months ago and admitted to being skeptical about the methods he saw being used.
He noted that the Landrys had no deep background in education. The couple formed the unaccredited private school in 2005 to home-school their son and five other children.
Tracey Landry told Melvin that their youngest son was attending a local public school when they discovered "he couldn't read" as a second-grader.
"So at that point, Mike was, like, 'I'm gonna home school him,''' she said. "He took him two grade levels in a summer. And so then we had other parents come and say, 'Well, if you did that with him, can you help my child?'''
Melvin noted to Tracey Landry that "you weren't remotely qualified to teach these kids."
"Exactly,'' he replied.
Yet parents still brought their children to him for instruction.
"Because when they came to visit, they saw the smiles on kids' faces and the kids were saying, 'I'm learning. It's hard and it's weird, but we're learning,''' he said.
During a tour of campus, Melvin noted that there were teachers without certifications and classes with no teachers at all. He found one group of students studying trigonometry on their own and asked where the teacher was.
"Well, we are the teachers,'' the student replied. "We have this trig book which is from MIT, and we come together and learn it, so we just basically teach each other."
The school, which costs about $7,200 a year, has graduated about 50 students since its first graduating class in 2013.
One parent had his child independently assessed and found out he was two grade levels behind, while another discovered that his junior in high school was performing at a fourth-grade level in reading and math, according to the New York Times.
Former student Asja Jackson, who was in one of the viral acceptance videos when she got into Wesleyan University, left the university after the first semester when she felt academically overwhelmed.
"I didn’t understand why people around me were doing well, and I wasn’t,” Jackson told The New York Times. “I couldn’t tell my friends because they would say, ‘How did you get into the school then?’ There were too many questions that I couldn’t answer.”
TM Landry faces accusations of strictly focusing on the ACT or SAT and not preparing students for college work, which Melvin observed during his trip.
"I will tell you after spending some time there with the students and the Landrys, they really teach to the test,'' he said. "By that I mean, ACT, the SAT, they really focus on making sure the students who are going to college know how to take the test. There are ways that you teach to the test."
The Landrys and the school did not respond to TODAY's request for comment. They announced earlier this month that they plan to open another school 45 minutes away from T.M. Landry.