As the St. Louis public school district emerges from the long shadow cast by 16 years of failing to measure up to state standards, it joins the ranks of Missouri's accredited school districts with another distinction: a better performance record than about half of the charter schools in the district’s footprint.
Moments after the state board of education voted to reclassify the district as fully accredited last week, the board got word that another St. Louis charter school, Preclarus Mastery Academy, will likely close this year due to poor performance.
Now that St. Louis Public Schools have regained accreditation, could the city’s educational landscape shift in response? Might parents start preferring the district's schools over charters and other alternatives?
It will take years to measure enrollment trends, but parents and educators have decided views on what direction they want to see trends take.
Preclarus Mastery Academy
Outside Preclarus last week, Eric Mitchell waited with a handful of other parents to pick up his kids after school.
He transferred his son Kobe and his daughter Keyannah to Preclarus for fourth grade this year after their first charter school, Jamaa Learning Center, closed last year.
“A lot of city schools are being closed down, and to me it’s like who really cares? These kids need an education,” Mitchell said.
If Preclarus closes, Mitchell’s wonders if he can get Kobe and Keyannah into a St. Louis County school through VICC, the voluntary desegregation program.
But he's still weighing his options, and hasn’t taken other charter schools off the table.
“I wouldn’t rule it out, you know. It’s still an option because there are still good charter schools out there,” Mitchell said.
Preclarus’s board is still trying to find a way to keep the school open next year, but unless it finds another sponsor it won’t be able to receive state funding.
Charter school sponsors and advocates, meanwhile, point to the closure of low-performing charter schools as a sign that the system is working, not a reason for parents to lose confidence in charters.
“On the contrary, they should be feeling more confident that accountability mechanisms are in place to insure that charter schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is providing a great education for their child,” said Bill Mendelsohn, the director of the charter school office at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which is revoking Preclarus’ sponsorship in June.
Mendelsohn argued it’s not fair to compare the performance of individual charter schools to entire districts.
Even so, he said the district’s improvement is a good thing because it will push charters to improve.
“It’s the flip side of the coin: Charter schools are in competition, too, and they’ve got to get better as well,” Mendelsohn said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Douglas Thaman, the executive director of the Missouri Charter School Association.
“All boats rise, so when St. Louis Public School does well, that’s good for charter schools. When charter schools do well, that’s good for St. Louis Public Schools, because together that means the city’s educational system is improving and there are more great opportunities, and that’s going to draw families into the city,” Thaman said. “The closure of a poor performing school just adds to that because that reassures families that when a school is not performing, their child won’t be left to just perpetuate mediocrity, but the school will be addressed and we’ll work to find a new option for them.”
So while charters may have pushed St. Louis Public Schools to improve, it may now be the district that pushes charter schools to up their game so they can keep the more than 10,000 students currently enrolled in the city’s 17 charter schools.
St. Louis Public Schools
Asked whether he thought St. Louis Public Schools’ fully accredited status would encourage more parents to choose the district over charters, private schools or the deseg program, Superintendent Kelvin Adams said a lot of factors go into the choice.
“Bottom line is, I don’t see 10,000 kids coming back to our district tomorrow,” Adams said. “But I do see families using that as one of the weights to determine if they want to look at the St. Louis Public Schools. They can’t say anymore the district is unaccredited or provisionally accredited. The district is fully accredited, and that says something.”
Parent James Reece is not sure the district deserves its new status.
“I’ve not bought in. Not at all,” said Reece. “I had to go through hell and high water just to get my son homework.”
Reece recently moved his 17-year-old son out of Vashon High School and into one of the district’s magnet schools, Central Visual and Performing Arts, after bringing his concerns about Vashon to the district’s Special Administrative Board.
“And he’s loving that. He is. The energy there is totally different. The teachers are challenging him. So it’s a better place. Definitely,” Reece said.
Reece, who is running for a spot on St. Louis Public Schools’ elected board, sees the district as a patchwork of good and not-so-good options — a point charter school advocates often highlight.
And Adams doesn’t disagree. Which is why the superintendent says he’s focusing extra attention on bringing low-performing schools around, but also working to get the word out about the district’s success stories.
St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this article.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.