Education / Charter Schools in St. Louis
6:35 am
Fri August 12, 2011

The Charter School Choice: who holds charter schools accountable?

There are 20 charter schools in the city of St. Louis, and when classes start Monday, four more will open their doors.

Charters get public funding, but they have more autonomy from the state.

The free schools are a draw for parents who want to avoid the unaccredited St. Louis Public Schools system.

But some charters are performing far below state standards.

And as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports in the second of a two-part series, no one is holding them accountable.

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Standardized tests show mixed picture of charter schools

The last week has been hectic at Better Learning Communities Academy, a new charter school opening in St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood.

The school has desks and books, but business manager Cathy Rodgers-Edmonds is still getting lists of supplies teachers need.

On Monday, the Kindergarten, first and second–graders will arrive. Eventually the school will be K-8.

Not surprisingly, Rodgers-Edmonds didn’t have time to check the test scores the state released for all Missouri schools last week.

But she’s confident that when her school tests next year, BLCA students will do well.

“By the time we get there, we won’t be sweating that outcome because we will already know who our students are; we’ll know them academically,” Rodgers-Edmonds said. “That’s why we purposely only went Kindergarten through second grade our first year because we wanted to have a couple of years with a cohort of students before they took MAP.”

Last week’s preliminary results of the MAP scores, Missouri’s standardized test, show a mixed picture in St. Louis’ charter schools.

While some outperformed St. Louis Public Schools, very few hit the state’s proficiency targets in communication arts and math.

Far more troubling was that some of the city’s charters, including the Imagine Academies, some of the Confluence Academies, and Lift for Life, performed worse than St. Louis Public Schools.

Who has authority over charter schools?

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is a champion of charter schools.

His administration has been helping get new charters, like BLCA, off the ground since 2007.

While he won’t name names, the mayor admits there are poor performing charters.

“There are schools in the city; charter schools that are better than others. The ones that aren’t meeting what they need to meet, in terms of quality, then they ought to go away,” Slay said. “They ought to close.”

Who should close them is the question.

In Missouri, charter schools each have a sponsor, usually a university or college.

Yet while the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) can turn down a charter application, once the school is open, even if it’s failing academically, only the sponsor can close it.

“It is the sponsor’s responsibility to review the performance aspects and the other occurrences at the charter school,” Margie Vandeven, DESE assistant commissioner of education, said.

DESE is seeking more influence, if not outright authority, over charters.

On Monday, the department plans to propose a new rule to the State Board of Education to better define what sponsor’s responsibilities are.

"Closing a school is a big deal."

One problem Doug Thaman sees is the pressure sponsors sometimes get from parents and communities to keep failing charters open.

Thaman is executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

“Closing a school is a big deal. You’re making a decision that is going to impact people on many different levels, educationally and emotionally,” Thaman said. “That’s not to say it shouldn’t happen. It absolutely should happen when a school is poorly performing, but there’s a lot to take into consideration.”

Thaman says he doesn’t want DESE to close charters, but rather to provide better support to sponsors who have to make that decision.

At Better Learning Communities Academy, Cathy Rodgers-Edmonds is confident this charter will succeed.

It’s been three years of preparation, and she says it’s finally sinking in that the school will open Monday.

“We have actual parents, we have actual students, we have uniforms, so it’s like, it’s real,” she said.

Now, the hard work of teaching students begins.

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