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After Missouri Baptist U. exits as charter sponsor, uncharted waters ahead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2012 - As students at the charter schools sponsored by Missouri Baptist University get ready to take the tests to show how well they are learning, the schools themselves are facing an unprecedented test of a different kind.

State education officials revealed late Thursday that Missouri Baptist, which had been called to a hearing next month to determine whether it would keep its authority to sponsor charters, has agreed to get out of the business of charter schools. The state Board of Education is expected to accept that decision at its meeting April 17.

Then, the schools it has sponsored, and the families who have sent their children there, enter uncharted waters. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will become the sponsor of record for the schools – five locations operated by Imagine schools as well as the Carondelet Leadership Academy – but Commissioner Chris Nicastro said in an interview Friday that the department has already begun the process of finding a replacement sponsor.

And there’s one more complication: Missouri Baptist, which had already announced that two of the Imagine schools would shut down at the end of the school year, had placed the remaining three on probation. It’s not clear at this point whether that probation will continue, whether the schools have made enough progress to get out from under it or whether probation will turn into closure – and who will make that decision.

Nicastro noted that Missouri Baptist remains the sponsor until the board takes official action next month. If it follows her recommendation and removes sponsorship authority, the decision takes effect immediately.

Then, she said, the options are three: DESE continues to operate the schools, it finds another sponsor or the schools shut down.

“Next week we will be discussing with a number of groups how to move forward,” she said. “We’ve been in contact with the charter school association, and they are aware of some potential sponsors and have been sharing some of that information with us.”

She said DESE does not have the capacity to take on sponsorship itself over the long term.

“Our primary concern is to ensure that whatever happens, there is no disruption for the children,” Nicastro said. “We are committed to working with the current boards of the Imagine schools and the Carondelet school and anyone else necessary to see that things transition very smoothly.

“My best hope is that the kids and their parents would not notice the transfer of sponsorship authority to the Department of Education If they don’t notice, we will have done a good job.”

Ultimately, she said, the issue is not who sponsors the schools but making sure charter schools are accountable. She noted that the General Assembly is currently debating potential changes in how charters are run and hopes that the requirements are strengthened.

“It is most important to ensure that charter schools operate at the same level of accountability for fiscal management, student performance and every other way that other public schools are held to,” Nicastro said. “I believe it is really critical for those measures to be put in place right now.

“The law is fairly weak when it comes to accountability for charter schools. There is no question that the model needs to be upgraded. It’s one thing to have a law that allows charter schools, but several years later, when we are approaching 60 of them in the two metropolitan areas, we need to think about how you have to support them. We don’t have that infrastructure in place now.”

Imagine wants to stay in business

For its part, Imagine would like to continue operating the schools, according to Jason Bryant, an executive vice president of the charter management company that operates 75 campuses in 13 states and the District of Columbia. After the two schools close in St. Louis, he said more than 3,000 students would remain.

In an interview Friday, Bryant said Missouri Baptist has been a “fantastic sponsor” that tried to do its best in a difficult business in a tough situation.

“I have no ill feelings about anything,” he said. “It was their choice whether they wanted to continue dealing with a lot of difficult aspects of running these schools, and I think they were not willing to continue to do that for their own reasons. They have been one of the best sponsors we have had throughout the country.”

Asked about criticism of the academic achievement and financial management at the Imagine schools in St. Louis – criticism that led Mayor Francis Slay to call for them to shut down and for others to call for stricter oversight of their operations – Bryant said part of the problem has been the way success is judged.

“We are defining academic achievement the wrong way,” he said, noting that many students begin Imagine schools already far behind where they should be. “We need to look at growth rather than arbitrary test scores. In the long run, we want all kids to do well, but we have to recognize the journey they are on. It might take a kid two or three years to become proficient. Just looking at the scores might not show that.”

He said the schools in St. Louis had worked diligently to make gains under an improvement plan imposed by Missouri Baptist last year when it put the schools on probation. He also noted that parents, far from fleeing the schools in the face of harsh criticism, have remained.

“They’re voting with their feet,” he said. “I have been overwhelmed by the fact they are staying where they are. They love where they are, or they wouldn’t be staying. That’s probably the biggest evidence that they love what they’re doing. They have a choice.

“If you ask parents why they are choosing Imagine schools, I believe they are confident in us. We provide a safe, loving, secure environment for their children, and their children are learning. I am very confident our parents will stay with us because they know what they need for their kids.”

Action in Jefferson City

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, noted that there has been only one case in the state where a charter school changed sponsors during the term of its charter – when the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy moved from Harris-Stowe State University to Missouri Baptist. The school was abruptly shut down in 2010.

As DESE looks for another sponsor for the Imagine and Carondelet schools, Thaman said the process is not likely to be a quick one.

“A sponsor who is considering taking one of those schools would have to spend time doing its own due diligence,” he said, “reviewing the charter application and the financial standing of the schools and seeing what the performance indicators have been to date.”

He said he remains optimistic that lawmakers will pass stronger charter school legislation before they adjourn in May. Changes that his group is pushing for are contained in an omnibus education bill that includes a wide range of other topics as well as in a standalone bill.

“We still feel good about the language in the bill,” Thaman said. “But we are also aware of the timeline. We have moved past spring break in the legislature and into April, and we recognize that the session window is starting to grow short.”

While most of the attention in the Missouri Baptist situation has focused on the Imagine schools, the decision has caused little discussion so far among parents at the Carondelet Leadership Academy, according to Principal Patrice Coffin. The school is managed by American Quality Schools.

She said the Carondelet board will be active in seeking out a new sponsor once the transition to DESE has been made. Meanwhile, efforts are under way to make sure that parents and other supporters are aware of the changes to come and that they will not affect what students are learning.

“We’ve been on a good track of instructional programming for our children,” Coffin said. “As long as you communicate and articulate concerns, you can make sure that children are focused in their classroom and teachers are moving the educational process forward. We’ll weather the transition.”

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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