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Missouri's top educator says Imagine schools should shut down

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2011 - Missouri's commissioner of education says the Imagine charter schools in St. Louis, under fire for chronically low achievement, should close at the end of the current school year.

In a letter sent last week by commissioner Chris Nicastro to Jim French, chair of the education division of Missouri Baptist University, the sponsor of the Imagine schools, she notes "with concern your recent public statements" that her department has not provided the university enough guidance with regard to the performance of the charter schools.

Nicastro notes that according to state law, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's role in the governance of charter schools is limited to providing initial review of sponsorships. She also notes that sponsors receive 1.5 percent of the total state and local funding allocated to charter schools to help pay for oversight of the schools -- $343,856 to Missouri Baptist, in the case of Imagine schools.

Further, Nicastro notes, the university's request for her department to take a more active role in monitoring the charter schools "did not occur until after media coverage began to focus on the issues surrounding the Imagine schools. Although MBU has been a charter sponsor since 2006, you have only recently expressed concerns over the department's role relating to charters."

Nicastro's department and the state Board of Education have tried repeatedly, without success, to gain more direct authority over charters, rather than having a remote-control relationship by having authority only over the sponsors of charters.

Nicastro's letter concludes:

"We do not view it as the intent of the Missouri General Assembly that the department engage in intrusive regulatory oversight of charter schools, or to perform the administrative responsibilities of the sponsor. However, it appears from your public statement that MBU desires our recommendations in this matter. Let me be specific:

"1) Announce immediately that the Imagine charter schools will close at the end of the current school year.

"2) Work closely with the St. Louis Public Schools and other charter schools to ensure the smooth transition of students from Imagine to other public schools.

"The Department has provided as much technical assistance as current statutes and our current resources allow. Should you need additional assistance, please contact my office."

In an email Tuesday, Bryce Chapman, spokesman for Missouri Baptist, said the university is going to conduct what he called "an exhaustive assessment -- from governance to academics" -- of the Imagine schools beginning next week. He said findings would likely be released at the beginning of December. 

On the letter from Nicastro, Chapman said:

"Missouri Baptist University is committed to following a carefully prescribed plan aimed at either bringing the schools up to standard or revoking our sponsorship. As we evaluate the progress of Imagine Schools, MBU values the input of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during this important process."

Mayor Francis Slay, who posted a copy of Nicastro's letter to French on his blog Monday, has led the criticism of Imagine schools' poor academic performance. In September, he called for them to shut down. About 3,800 students attend Imagine's six campuses in St. Louis.

The schools have also been criticized by the Missouri Charter Public School Association, which said in a statement after the mayor's call that it is "deeply concerned by the performance trends being displayed by the cluster of charter public schools in St. Louis managed by Imagine Schools, Inc. These schools are clearly not meeting acceptable standards of academic performance."

The statement added that "the Imagine Schools' performance trends reflect most poorly on the management company, Imagine Schools, Inc. and is not a condemnation of the teachers and staff within the schools."

Read the whole statement by the association's executive director, Doug Thaman, here.

The management company came in for additional scrutiny earlier this month in stories in the Post-Dispatch, which detailed unusual real estate relationships and other financial dealings.

Last month, John Jackson, who serves as a liaison between Imagine and Missouri Baptist, said the university was going to start measuring the charter schools' progress against a series of benchmarks, beginning this month, before deciding what their future might be.

On Tuesday afternoon, Imagine announced that Alan Olkes had been named acting executive vice resident for St. Louis; he replaces Sam Howard, who was placed on administrative leave after revelations of the company's real estate dealings.

In a news release, Imagine CEO Dennis Bakke called Olkes "a seasoned educator with more than 50 years of experience, including serving as Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the nation." Olkes has been an executive vice president with Imagine since 2004.

"We take very seriously our mission to help parents educate their children," Bakke said, "and we are committed to providing an ethical and challenging academic environment to the St. Louis children and families that Imagine serves."

Olkes added: "My team and I will be spending the next several weeks meeting with staff, parents, our Boards and our sponsor to discuss and outline specific ways in which we can and need to improve."

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