(Updated Feb. 18 with details on South City Prep's new location and the closing of Construction Careers Center High School.)
A stream of eighth graders flowed into Kate Berger’s classroom at South City Preparatory Academy. College and university banners line classroom walls and hang from ceilings.
“Find yourself,” the language arts teacher told students. “Go to where you need to be.”
Kids settled in as Berger led a classroom exercise on regional dialects using an online quiz by the New York Times. After that, they flipped open Google Chromebooks for a lesson on finding credible sources when doing research online.
“When we talk about preparing our kids for college, they have have to be able to use technology to further their education,” said Mike Malone, executive director of South City Prep.
This fall, the fifth- through eighth-grade charter school in the Tower Grove neighborhood will open a high school. The expansion is one of eight new charter schools — tuition-free, public schools run independently of public district control — that are slated to open this fall. If students fill the 2,000 extra seats, St. Louis’ charter schools could reach a record enrollment of more than 11,700 students.
“Charter schools have definitely become an important part of the educational landscape in St. Louis,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Like South City Prep, five of the new schools are expansions of existing schools or will be opened by current charter school operators. Malone said adding a high school is the natural progression for the college preparatory school that first opened its doors in 2011.
“Our mission is to serve those who have not had great educational options for a long time,” Malone said.
More than 90 percent of the school’s 188 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 85 percent are African American. To set kids on a course toward college, they receive extra instruction during a more than eight-hour day. Students also go to school year-round and the calendar is broken up into seven-week blocks. At the end of each seven weeks, students take benchmark exams; teachers use that data to spot and hopefully correct any academic problems.
On its report card from the state, South City Prep earned 77 percent of a possible 140 points for the 2013-14 school year, making it one of 13 charters schools that scored in the full accreditation range.
The school will expand into the facility that currently houses the Construction Careers Center (CCC) High School near Lafayette Park. On Feb. 18, the governing board for CCC announced that the struggling charter school would close its doors at the end of this school year. The move to close CCC -- which had 162 students and earned only 30 percent of the possible points on its state report card last school year-- comes after the school's top officials were dismissed and its board was dissolved last summer amid concerns about low academic performance.
Of the 9,228 students who attended a charter school in St. Louis last school year, 4,964 went to a school that scored in the full accreditation range, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). There were 194 students who went to a school that was too new to earn an accreditation label.
State numbers show St. Louis Public Schools had a total of 27,227 students in preschool through 12th grade last school year. Of those students, 9,224 went to a school that would be considered fully accredited, according to DESE. The district is funneling extra resources toward its lowest performing schools to ramp up achievement.
While South City Prep’s strategy for student success relies heavily on extra learning time, Malone said the linchpin is a “no-excuses” school culture that champions good behavior and classroom success.
“We don’t even start talking about exponents in math class until we’ve spent at least two weeks talking about what it means to be a South City Prep scholar and what it means to be successful when you leave this place,” Malone said.
The expansion, however, won't be cheap. A location for the high school hasn’t been set, but Malone said development efforts will have to pick up steam. The school raises between $50,000 to $100,000 a year, but Malone said over time the school's fund-raising goal may need to increase to as much as $450,000 a year.
“It’s no different than a company down on Washington Ave. needing seed money as they ramp up,” Malone said. “Eventually they get to a point they can sustain themselves. Once we’re full grown we’ll have economies of scale that will allow us to function with a pretty minimal amount of external support.”
The other three schools are new and include:
* The Biome, which will weave art into a curriculim heavy on science and technology. Sponsored by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Biome will start with 80 Kindergarten through first-grade students and could enroll up to 222 students through eighth grade by 2020.
* The Washington University sponsored Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls will also focus heavily on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). A first of its kind, Hawthorn is tailored to serve poor and minority students who are sorely underrepresented in the sciences.
“When you look at a school like Hawthorn, it not only represents the demand of families for more options but also the opportunity to bring a very unique type of school to the families of St. Louis,” Thaman said.
Hawthorn will begin with sixth- and seventh-grade students and projects enrolling around 500 girls through 12th grade by 2020.
* In another first for St. Louis, De La Salle Middle School — a Catholic school located in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis — will become the first private school in the city to convert to a charter school.
“The decision wasn’t taken lightly,” said Corey Quinn, president of De La Salle. “It was made over the course of about three or four years.”
De La Salle’s student body is entirely African American, and more than 90 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch. Like South City Prep, the school has extended days and a year-round schedule.
De La Salle opened its doors in 2001. Classes are small, and 97 percent of its students graduate from high school. De La Salle has been able to raise enough money to cover the tuition, which averages $15,500 a year, for almost all of its 70 students. And as it stands, Quinn said the school’s finances are solid. Last fiscal year, it raised more than $2.3 million, with expenses that totaled a little less than $1.9 million.
But raising enough money needed to serve more students seemed like a stretch.
“We looked at the charter opportunity as a way to deliver our mission to more students and families,” Quinn said.
This fall the school expects to serve more than 90 fifth- through eighth-grade students with plans to add a fourth-grade class and grow to 120 students over the next five school years. Quinn envisioned someday enrolling as many as 400 students.
Preparing to make the switch hasn’t been easy, though. Teachers had to be brought up to speed on how to administer state tests. Students will be able to take part in religious activities before and after school, but not during the school day.
The school will also be required to address the needs of special education students, which fiscally can be a tall order for charter schools without the same kind of resources as school districts.
“We’re going to be challenged to provide a quality education to students we aren’t accustomed to serving,” Quinn said.
Charters and special education
To close the gap between funding and student needs, more and more St. Louis charter schools have contracted out services from Webster Groves-based Miriam Learning Center. The nonprofit provides specialized services for students with learning disabilities.
De La Salle will be one of 21 charter schools signed on to receive services through Miriam this fall. Charter schools bring in a range of specialists on an hourly rate, allowing administrators to manage costs while tailoring services across a range of potential needs.
“If our mission is to bring this opportunity to everybody, then we have to open the door to every kind of student that comes our way,” Quinn said.
Critics have often said charter schools avoid enrolling students with special needs or fail to provide them with adequate services.
Collectively, the percentage of students with special needs enrolled in all of St. Louis’ charter schools has hovered around 10 percent over the past five years, according to DESE. During that same time, the percentage of students with special needs in St. Louis Public Schools has fluctuated between 14 to 16 percent
Special education enrollment varies widely among St. Louis’s charter schools. At Premier Charter School, for instance, 16 percent of its 900 students this year have special needs. At the nearby Gateway Science Academy, which includes a grade school, middle school and high school, fewer than 7 percent of its 1,165 students have special needs.
While getting teachers up to speed on state testing and taking religion out of the school day hasn’t been easy for staff, Quinn said it wasn’t tough to find support when it came to educating children with special needs.
“Our teachers know in their hearts that this is the right thing to do,’” Quinn said.
A changing landscape
More than two decades after the first charter schools began to open in America, controversy lingers. Critics often say they siphon off state funding from public schools. National studies have painted a murky picture of whether charters overall are doing a better job of educating kids.
In New Orleans, the school system has become almost entirely a system of charter schools. And York, Pa., is poised to hand over the operation of its long-struggling urban schools to private charter school companies -- a move that has sparked harsh criticism and student protests.
The pace of charter school growth may accelerate under Missouri’s new Charter School Commission. The 2012 law that created the commission allows it to sponsor a new charter school -- and it can take over any charter school if the state Board of Education removes the authority of its sponsor.
Alicia Herald, CEO and founder of the St. Louis-based myEDmatch, was named chair of the commission in December. She said the first order of business is to bring on an executive director, which she hopes to have in place by March, although the process could take longer.
In the meantime Herald said commission member have started kicking around ideas for new ways charter schools can improve academic outcomes.
“There’s a lot that charter schools are designed to do,” Herald said. “How do we capitalize on that momentum and share best practices across all schools?”
A charter school can open in an accredited school district, but only the school board may serve as a sponsor. Herald said commission members have talked about reaching out to boards that might want to create a charter school to incubate new instructional models.
“One piece that the commission feels strongly about is that we don’t want there to be a separation between districts and charter schools,” Herald said. “We are all public schools and the whole role of this is to provide choice.”
In St. Louis, making sense of an expanding portfolio of district-run and charter school options can be daunting.
This past fall, Angelee Brockmeyer and her husband, Paul, launched StlCitySchools.Org. The site is designed to help parents get started as they sort out choices, including private schools. To date, more than 11,000 individual users have visited used the site. Traffic doubled between December and January amid annual deadlines to file school choice paperwork.
The couple has also started holding meetings organized through their nonprofit, City Parents League of St. Louis, to help families navigate their options in person. And this spring, the group plans to step up their outreach efforts by partnering with Head Start programs across the city.
Angelee Brockmeyer said options are helping keep more families like hers from leaving the city once children become school age.
“Good things are happening in this city,” Brockmeyer said. “You can stay.”