Changing Course: Missouri's Charter Schools | St. Louis Public Radio

Changing Course: Missouri's Charter Schools

Changing Course untangles the web of charter schools in Missouri. We’re exploring who controls the schools and their curriculums. Are key players are being held accountable for ensuring students in charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City receive a complete education?  

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Photos of smiling children in school uniforms grace the sides of buses, large billboards and flyers in mailboxes throughout the St. Louis area. Those images — and the selling points written underneath them — are meant for parents trying to figure out which school to send their kids.

With the dozens of charter schools and St. Louis Public Schools vying for students (and the state tax dollars that follow), the institutions have to act more like businesses, marketing themselves — sometimes heavily.

Gavin Schiffres and Jack Krewson, right, canvass the Dutchtown neighborhood with members of the school choice advocacy group Children Education Alliance of Missouri June 8, 2017. Schiffres and Krewson want to open a charter school in the neighborhood.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Two young teachers who are hoping to start a charter school in the Dutchtown neighborhood in south St. Louis are knocking on residents’ doors this summer asking for their support.

Teach for America alumni Gavin Schiffres, 23, and Jack Krewson, 24, want to open their school, called Kairos, next year. But first, a university or other state-approved organization needs to agree to be their sponsor.

Tisha and Branden Brooks look over their daughter Avery's second-grade writing journal at their home in the Shaw neighborhood as son Alex (partially hidden) looks on. May 2017
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

As President Donald Trump’s administration explores ways to expand charter schools across the country, parents in national surveys and those in St. Louis point to academic quality as their highest priority in selecting a school.

Research suggests that parents often don’t have a way to accurately compare the public education options. And there are several factors that parents take into account — including word-of-mouth and proximity to one’s home — though more often than not, they choose a charter school or district school based on their child’s current and future success instead of the school’s overall performance.

Illustration by Rici Hoffarth / St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri lawmakers, with full GOP control of the legislature and governor’s office, seemed ready to pass a number of school choice bills when they gathered earlier this year.

Months later, they have nothing to show for it: No expansion of charter schools throughout Missouri, no creation of scholarships that certain students could use for private school and no overhaul of the student transfer rules for failing school districts.

Students at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls on May 12, 2017, a St. Louis charter school that opened in 2015.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

The pace of new charter schools seeking to open in St. Louis has slowed, according to the universities that act as sponsors and receive formal applications.

While the reasons vary, charter sponsors say they’ve learned more about what it takes to successfully open and sustain a school both financially and academically, which is helping them weed out weak applications.

Jared Leppert, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, conducts a learning test with a student at St. Louis College Prep on Monday, May 8, 2017. The charter school hired Leppert as an intern.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri lawmakers assigned higher education institutions primary oversight of charter schools when authorizing them 20 years ago. Universities know a thing or two about schools, after all.

It’s not the norm when it comes to charter schools in the United States, though, as a majority of the 42 states (and Washington, D.C.) put the independent schools’ governance in the hands of a local school board.

Trish Nguyen works on a graph in a second-grade class at Confluence Academy South City on April 28, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Gateway Science Academy wants families to be satisfied. City Garden Montessori is aiming for racial equity. Neither are unique goals for charter schools in St. Louis.

 

Most of the city’s 17 public charter school systems have their own definition of success, including academic growth, family involvement and personal development. But they’re also required by Missouri law to take the state’s academic standards into account.

 

And without a definitive way to measure success, parents have to trust that the schools are doing right by their children.

Students working in a classroom of Gateway Science Academy in April 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

It’s been nearly 20 years since charter schools took root in Missouri, bringing independently operated but publicly funded education to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Often touted as a means of allowing parents flexibility when it comes to their kids’ education, “school choice” expansion is growing in favor among Republican politicians, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.

In the coming months, St. Louis Public Radio will detail the world of charter schools. But, as any teacher would tell you, an introductory lesson is the first place to start.