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School choices grow more varied - and more complicated

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2010 -  When neighborhood or parochial schools were the only option for parents, figuring out where their children would attend class was simple.

Then, in St. Louis, magnet schools were added to the mix, and students with particular talents and interests could apply to get specialized training in classrooms still run by the city school system.

When Missouri enabled groups to begin charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, another choice was available -- schools funded by tax dollars but run by their own individual boards, independent of the rules and regulations of the larger school system that some found to be too restrictive.

Now, a federal program designed to help failing schools succeed is introducing new models, including the possibility of converting traditional district schools into charter schools sponsored by the school district itself. Schools may also go into a turnaround mode, where the principal and half the teachers are replaced, or be transformed, with new leadership, operational flexibility and instructional reform.

Confused? Don't worry, there won't be a test -- except perhaps for parents who are trying to sort out their options and find the classroom where their children will get the best education.

In the meantime, here's a guide to how the school landscape is changing.

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SLPS IN TRANSITION

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When the city schools announced last month how they planned to close a $57.5 million budget deficit -- in part by closing six school buildings -- Superintendent Kelvin Adams also listed a number of schools that he wanted to see undergo major changes as part of the federal School Improvement Grants program.

Besides the schools that would be closed, turned around or transformed, Adams also listed four schools -- Central Visual and Performing Arts, Ashland, Sumner and Walbridge -- that would each be converted to a charter school. The district received a proposal from the Missouri Charter Public School Association to help in the process.

But in the weeks following Adams' announcement, city school officials saw that the rules that governed charters in Missouri did not necessarily fit with the district's vision.

For example, Central VPA, a magnet school, holds auditions for its students, but charter school law says that schools must have open enrollment, with no tests or auditions for entry. So the conversion of Central was taken off the table.

Then, it became clear that even if the city schools became the sponsor for Ashland, Sumner and Walbridge to become charters, an independent board would have to run them, though not necessarily an outside management agency such as Edison or KIPP, which specialize in operating charter schools.

Under those conditions, according to Patrick Wallace, spokesman for the city system, those three schools are not likely to be converted to charters either.

Applications for the federal school improvement grants are due July 14, and Margie Vandeven, who is in charge of the program for Missouri, says she does not expect any conversion applications from Kansas City either. Schools that are not closed or converted would have to use the turnaround or transformation models if they want the grants, which will range from $50,000 to $2 million a school.

Missouri has already seen one example where a public school was converted to a charter back in 1999 -- Westport, in Kansas City. Jocelyn Strand, who oversees charter schools for the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the Kansas City public schools sponsored the charter at first, but after five years it declined to renew its sponsorship and the school closed in 2004, after experiencing serious issues with finance and management.

With the federal grant program calling for such conversions as one option for failing schools, Strand said Missouri is looking closely at the issue, to ensure that the change is for the better.

"It is pretty high on the list," she said. "We want to make sure that schools that convert do it well, and that they have solid management and a good plan for operation."

The St. Louis school system also sponsors a charter school, the Construction Careers Center, which is operated by the Associated General Contractors and is designed to prepare students for a career in the building trades.

Strand said the school appears to be doing well and is in the process of renegotiating its accountability plan with the city schools before its sponsorship is renewed. Wallace, the city schools' spokesman, said the system does not consider the construction center to be one of its schools and emphasized that the SLPS has no charter schools at this time.

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HOW CHARTERS WORK

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The Missouri Charter Public School Association has not participated in the conversion of any traditional public school to a charter, said executive director Cheri Shannon. But she said her group's experience with helping schools start from scratch would be valuable if St. Louis or Kansas City wanted to try that route.

"We're very familiar with startups and with what it takes to start a new school," she said. "We would approach it that way. Each of those schools could have taken a whole new approach. The goal is to create a new culture for that school and improve student achievement.

"The key is understanding the law and what that means for a traditional school district."

Since Sumner High School already had an alumni association in place, Shannon said, it would have had a head start toward becoming a charter. Typically, she added, the process works this way: first an idea, then a charter, then the hunt for a sponsor, finally finding a governing board.

"Sumner probably could have been a little further down the road," Shannon said. "But I understand the district saying, are we sure we're in line with the law? The timeline was so short with these grants, it just put a lot of pressure on the district and the state to figure it out in a couple of weeks. It's going to take a lot more time before we can do something that's high quality and productive for students."

DUELING ARTS SCHOOLS

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A different type of pressure -- and a rivalry prompted by the growing number of school choices -- may build with the debut of a new performing arts charter school, the Grand Center Arts Academy, which is set to open this fall in a building across Grand Boulevard from Powell Hall.

Like all charters, it has open enrollment: Anyone who wants to attend its classes, which will begin with sixth and seventh grades, will be allowed in.

With Central VPA high school operating at Arsenal and Kingshighway, and Carr Lane VPA Middle School at 1004 N. Jefferson just to the east, Grand Center Arts Academy will be recruiting in a pool of students that could be depleted.

Students at Central and Carr Lane must meet entrance requirements, including an audition, said Wallace, the city schools' spokesman. Central VPA has openings available for next year, but Carr Lane has a waiting list of about 30 students.

"If the VPA schools we have perform at a level the community is pleased with, we don't have any concerns" about recruiting, Wallace said.

"We've always had our choice. Our schools are not just y'all come. To have a true VPA school, we only have the people who want to go school in that area, not just because they don't want to go to school where they are."

Lynne Glickert, principal of Grand Center Arts Academy, isn't concerned about attracting enough of the right kind of student either.

"Even though we can't say no to kids," she said, "if you make your message really clear about what you are, you are already helping families select. We want to make sure kids understand that piece of it, and now that I'm seeking enrollment, it's amazing the caliber of kids that are enrolling."

A longtime vocal music teacher and administrator in both private and public schools in the area, Glickert said the academy plans to add a grade each year as students move up until it is a comprehensive school offering grades 6-12.

Noting that the school will have no sports teams and that all gym classes will be taught by dance teachers, she said no students should be surprised about what they are signing up for.

"There are plenty of creative, artistic kids," she said. "We need more schools like that. We don't need to be restrictive. I'm not a bit worried about the quality."

APPLES TO APPLES

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So how can parents find their way through this maze to reach the best school for their children at the end?

Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state doesn't have a special effort designed to help parents make qualitative judgments, but it does provide information to help them decide.

On the DESE website, he said, comparisons are available in several areas. Armed with those numbers, parents can ask the right questions to find the right schools.

"We publish comparative statistics about each kind of school," Morris said. "It's not a rating per se, but parents can go in and look at variables that matter to them, so they can make apples-to-apples comparisons.

"I suggest they visit schools, talk to people they know and people they don't know. They need to visit lots and lots of schools."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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