Education / Charter Schools in St. Louis
6:35 am
Thu August 11, 2011

The Charter School Choice: the effect on St. Louis Public Schools

Classes begin Monday in the St. Louis Public School District.

But four new charter schools also will be opening their doors.

Charters receive public funding but have more freedom with their budgets, staff, and curriculum than traditional public schools.

Many parents in St. Louis welcome the charter alternative and more than a quarter of the city’s students attend charter schools.

As part of a two-part series on charters, St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman looks at how that trend is affecting the city’s public school district.

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"Education is just so important, I can’t chance it.”

Kids play kickball in St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park, while their parents sit at picnic tables at a nearby pavilion.

It looks like any family barbecue, but this is a recruitment effort by a new charter school, called South City Prep.

Molly Mundy already has enrolled her son Jovaughn, who will be in fifth grade, and after changing schools a couple of times Mundy says this is the school.

“I think this is going to be a nice set-up for him, a nice environment. I don’t plan to move again until he graduates,” Mundy said.

Jovaughn was in public school in Wentzville, but Mundy says when they moved to the city she looked for other options.

“I didn’t consider public schools,” she said. “If you’re not accredited, I don’t know what kind of foundation that lays out for my son. Education is just so important, I can’t chance it.”

Competing for students

Mundy is hardly alone.

The St. Louis Public Schools lost state accreditation in 2007, and since then enrollment at charter schools has risen steadily.

Last year more than 10,000 St. Louis students went to charters.

With four new charters opening this fall, the St. Louis Public School District is competing for students.

This year the district included $1 million for its marketing budget and rolled out a series of TV ads showcasing its graduates.

That may seem like a lot of money for advertising, but the stakes are high.

Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams says for every student SLPS loses to a charter, public funding follows.

“Overall, about $11-$12,000 per student, and those dollars go away if students go to other charters,” Adams said.

Dr. Adams is careful not to criticize charter schools.

But he says there should be a level playing field.

While public schools can lose state accreditation if they fail academically, there is no accreditation process for charters, nor are they required to close.

Adams says they should be on the same footing.

“I’ve made a policy to close schools if kids don’t achieve in the next three years, so if kids in ‘xyz’ school aren’t doing well, I’m going to close the school and move them to a higher achieving school,” Adams said. “The state needs to do the same thing, from my perspective, for all schools.”

Getting the mayor's endorsement

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has worked to foster better charter schools through an application process his administration created in 2007.

Three of the four charters opening this fall went through that process and received the mayor’s endorsement.

The mayor says poor performing charters should close, but overall he says the charter movement has been a good thing for the city.

“They provide a level of competition that’s healthy for our community; healthy for parents in terms of choice; healthy for kids in terms of opportunity and quality education; and healthy for the St. Louis Public School District,” Slay said.

In fact, the competition may be spurring the district to embrace the charter school trend.

This year SLPS announced that Sumner High, a storied but failing north side school, will transform into a charter next fall.

In Tower Grove Park, Molly Mundy says she knows the public school district has some high-achieving schools and is working to better all its schools.

“I think they’re on the right path, but I don’t know if I can wait for them to get all their ducks in a row,” Mundy said.

It will not be clear until Monday just how many other parents have made the same decision.

Here is a list of all four new charter schools opening in St. Louis Monday:

And for some perspective on how things were several years ago with the charter school issue, check out this feature from Adam Allington