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Missouri Baptist U. cracks down on Imagine schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2011 - Citing continued shortcomings in academic achievement and governance, Missouri Baptist University said Monday that it was revoking the charter of one of the Imagine charter schools it sponsors in St. Louis and putting others on probation.

This story has been expanded and updated throughout. In a letter to Joan Hubbard, chair of the board of directors of the Imagine Academy of Academic Success, Jim French, who heads the education division at Missouri Baptist, said the university is revoking its charter as of the end of the current school year. The affiliated Academy of Cultural Arts, which technically is part of Academic Success though it operates at a different location, is also affected by the move.

Together, those two programs enroll more than 850 of the 3,750 students at Imagine schools in St. Louis.

French said the school and its board "have failed to meet the provisions of its charter, have failed to meet academic performance standards and generally accepted standards of fiscal management, and have failed to implement or work toward implementation of the Charter Improvement Plan" in several specific areas spelled out in the letter.

On academics, French said that "while we recognize that the gap between your students and other city public school students existed since the beginning of the academy, it is disturbing that the gap has continued and in some instances grown greater."

Similar concerns were expressed in letters to the board chairs of the Imagine academies of environmental science and math as well as that of careers, which includes three schools -- elementary, middle and college prep. Missouri Baptist did not revoke their charters but put them on probation instead, with the threat of revocation unless significant improvement is made by the end of the school year.

Specifically, French said that among the shortcomings at the academic success school:

  • Board members failed to meet often enough or receive required training
  • They failed to review and approve a budget or provide enough resources for classroom supplies
  • Academic leaders did not put together and use individual learning plans to raise student achievement
  • Officials have not created and implemented plans to retain staff or increase student attendance
  • No assessment was made to provide students with guidance and counseling

Alan Olkes, the Imagine executive brought in last month to help the failing academies, said in an interview from Miami Monday that the actions of the university were no surprise.

"I somewhat expected it," he said. "I wouldn't have been in there in the first place if there wasn't a problem, so obviously we expected them to come down on us. I'm a little big disappointed in the revocation. I thought we might get probation and have an opportunity to improve on that one."

Olkes said he is confident that the schools placed on probation will improve enough to shed that status, but he acknowledged that parents of students in the academic success and cultural arts programs need to start looking for other schools for next fall.

"We would ask them to stay with us until the end of the year," he said, "assuring them that their students will get absolutely the best education we can give them. Unfortunately, that school will be closing at the end of the year, but we will help them find another school for their children next year."

What happens next

In his letter to the board chairs of the schools put on probation, French expressed the same kind of optimism that Olkes had, that improvements would be put into place to keep them from suffering the same fate as the academic success school.

"It is the hope that your board and the administrators of the academy will understand the gravity of the situation and take all necessary action to avoid revocation of your charter," French wrote. "The university stands ready to assist you in this endeavor."

But the letter expressed no hope for the Academy of Academic Success. Instead, it addressed what happens next.

"Our primary concern is for the students attending the academy," French wrote in the letter. "Given where we are in the school year, it would seem ill-advised to attempt a closure of the schools at this time, and therefore we are proposing the revocation of the charter and closure of the schools be delayed until the end of the school year.

"However, there are certain safety issues that must be addressed immediately if the schools are to remain open until the end of the school year."

Bryce Chapman, spokesman for Missouri Baptist, said that since a harsher spotlight had been shone on the shortcomings of Imagine schools earlier this fall, the university has been keeping closer track of their progress, including a detailed, benchmark assessment that took place last month.

As a result of that process, Chapman said, "What we saw was that, particularly at the academic success school, little to no improvement in academic performance and board governance had occurred. In the other two, there were modest improvements but not enough. At any time, the university could choose to revoke those charters as well."

He said the university would now have its liaisons monitor the schools and report every 30 days until the end of the school year.

"We figure we have given them a clear path," Chapman said. "The boards and the schools created these plans and signed off on these plans, so this isn't a surprise to them. Hopefully, these charters have recognized the gravity of the situation. We want them to improve, but we ultimately want to do what is best for the students. We are responsible to do that at this point, and we're going to make solid decisions based on good research and good data.

"We really believe that these plans, if executed, could help those schools perform at a greater level and start to bring up their standards. But if there is not going to be compliance, we have no other option but to revoke their charters."

Reactions to Imagine's failures

Imagine schools in St. Louis have been under the gun for several weeks, with Mayor Francis Slay, Missouri education chief Chris Nicastro and others saying they should be closed because of low test scores and poor administration. Missouri Baptist responded to the criticism by saying it would keep a closer eye on the schools and review their operations more frequently.

In response to the criticism -- and to reports involving questionable financial dealings -- Imagine dispatched Olkes to oversee the charter schools in St. Louis. He said Monday that he has been flying into St. Louis every Monday and leaving every Friday, trying to get the company's schools back on track.

In an interview last month, Olkes acknowledged slow progress by Imagine students but said the situation could be fixed with more emphasis on academics. On Monday, after hearing of the decision by Missouri Baptist, he said:

"The university is caught between a rock and hard place. I realize that, and I also realize they had their people go on to do these reviews. We have a lot of work to do now on our part. During the time they were reviewing, I already was noticing there were things that had to be done. Their review spells out a number of items we need to catch up on. We will work in conjunction with them."

Mayor Francis Slay, who had raised the profile of problems at Imagine schools in September by calling on failing charters to be shut down, welcomed the university's stance as "a step in the right direction."

"I'm glad to see that Missouri Baptist has stepped in and is holding their feet to the fire and making sure there is accountability there," Slay said in an interview. "I will be watching very closely."

Asked about the debate between for-profit charter operators like Imagine and nonprofit ones, the mayor said he is less concerned about who operates the school than how well students perform.

"To me," he said, "it's all about quality. If you can provide a quality product, we welcome those operators. We have too many kids in the city of St. Louis who are in schools that are not quality, and we want to make sure those children have the best opportunities in life. For our neighborhoods to be stronger and to attract jobs to the city, we need to have the best education options for kids, including free public education."

Reacting to the moves by Missouri Baptist, the Missouri Charter Public School Association released a statement from its executive director, Doug Thaman, that said:

"The role of accountability in Missouri's charter schools lies with the sponsor and this is an important step taken by Missouri Baptist University to enforce their sponsorship role.

"Regarding the closing of Imagine Academy of Academic Success and Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts, the process should now begin to make sure that the schools are closed responsibly, keeping the best interests of the students foremost in mind. The association will seek to work with both the sponsor and schools to develop a closure plan and see that the students are able to make a smooth transition to a high quality school.

"The four Imagine schools that are being placed on probation should continue to be monitored as planned with the same diligence that has gone into this initial round of school reviews and continue to be held accountable for their academic results and operational management.

"The findings in the first round of reviews are troubling and substantiate the association's concerns about Imagine Schools, Inc. publicly expressed over the last few months. These schools must make the significant improvements laid out in the plans immediately or additional accountability measures should be taken."

With another review coming in 30 days, and with school personnel about to scatter for their winter break, Olkes said many key people may not be around. But he still expressed hope that the necessary progress and changes can be made.

"I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "I think we're on the right track. We are pulling together a team and bringing in a lot of national people with expertise. The people at the school level are good people and know what needs to be done. It's up to us at my level to give them the resources and the plans so they can get there.

"I know we will show improvement. The question is whether we will be moving fast enough for the university."

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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