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Shearwater charter school closing its doors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Shearwater High School, a charter school established three years ago to give students who had dropped out a second chance at a diploma, announced Friday that it is shutting down at the end of the current school year.

Stephanie Krauss, the force behind the school and the Shearwater Education Foundation, said in a statement that efforts will shift from operating a school to the wider mission of addressing “the institutional and individual barriers that keep our students from returning to, staying in, and graduating from school.”

“As a charter school,” she added, “we were unable to establish the necessary conditions for getting the majority of our students on track to graduate. This resulted in the unrealized aim of preparing our students for college and the workforce.”

In an interview, she said that students at the school were derailed by two types of issues -- academic ones and real-life ones.

Shearwater began operating in the fall of 2010 on the campus of Ranken Technical College at 4470 Finney in north St. Louis. Its goal was to recruit students between the ages of 17 and 21 who were at risk of not earning a high school degree and giving them another chance to do so.

Its website spelled out its purpose this way:

“Vision: We envision a day when all youth, regardless of life circumstances, receive a high quality education and acchieve success in life.

“Mission: We aim to re-engage disconnected youth back into school and graduate each one ready for college so that he or she can be ready for work and life.”

In her statement, Krauss said that for the students the school was able to reach, those aims were met.

“We helped many of our city’s most disconnected youth re-engage with school and move forward academically and socially,” she said. “Some of our students succeeded in multiple ways in our program, and we are proud of their accomplishments.”

START UPDATE: In a statement after the closing was announced, Saint Louis University, which was the school’s sponsor, noted that in March of this year, it placed Shearwater on probation and authorized a series of turnaround initiatives designed to improve its academic performance. Goals were set for the school to achieve in June and again this December.

“Ultimately,” the statement added,  “Shearwater was unable to meet the shared expectations for educational excellence established in the charter."

Steve Sanchez, the university’s assistant vice president of academic affairs, said in an email to the Beacon that “since many students were just 2-3 years away from losing their eligibility to be served by Missouri's public schools, their ability to make the academic gains necessary to earn their diplomas was, in most cases, too great a challenge for Shearwater to overcome.  That was evident after three years.”

Sanchez added that “SLU remains supportive of Shearwater's mission and will continue to work with the Shearwater board to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Shearwater's approach.  From there, we plan to share what we've learned with DESE, our colleagues at SLPS and in other Missouri districts and charter schools. 

“The promise of charter schools is that what we learn from them -- in their successes and in their struggles -- should benefit everyone working to improve education, especially for those most at risk.  We anticipate that the lessons learned here will inform future educational success stories throughout the city and state.”   

Doug Thaman, head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said that he respected both what Shearwater was trying to do and its decision to acknowledge that the obstacles it faced were tougher than it had anticipated.

“They took on the challenge of trying to provide a quality education to a sector of the student population that really does not have good options right now,” Thaman said. “There was a lot of respect for that and for the enthusiasm around that.

“I think what they found were challenges they expected and some unexpected challenges around students who perhaps were there, but it wasn’t their choice to be there. They were required to attend, whether through the criminal justice system or what have you. That created some real cultural conflict. I think it was a very challenging mission that they undertook.”

Were organizers of the school naïve when they undertook their mission? Thaman said that probably isn’t the right word.

“I think they really did approach this in ways they really felt were best and grounded in best practices,” he said. “At the end of the day, they came to the decision that we haven’t figured this out yet and this is not serving students the best way possible. So they made a very responsible decision.

“They all came into this through a variety of experience. Some had experience with this particular student population. I think you have to prepare based on what you know and what you expect and then try to react in an appropriate way to what is reality. I don’t know that that’s naïve.

“One of the reasons this population does not have a lot of options is that there still is not a clear understanding of how do we best address students who have dropped out of school, students who are homeless, students who have been previously incarcerated. What I hope is that there are really good lessons we can take from this and we can come up with some solutions. Something has to be done.”

Thaman and Sanchez both said that the closing of Shearwater points to the promise inherent in charter schools – that the freedom from the regulation that governs traditional public schools also brings the responsibility of providing a better education. If that promise is not kept, they said, schools should not remain open.

“The closure is indeed disappointing,” Sanchez wrote. “But it fulfills the intent of charter schools to attempt significant innovation in K-12 education and to be held directly accountable for their performance. Charter schools that do not meet their educational goals, or cannot show significant progress toward those goals, should close. 

“Both SLU and Shearwater's board understand that, and Shearwater's board made a good decision to close the school now.  For SLU and the board, it was a matter of faithful stewardship of public education funds and the public trust.”

In the interview, Krauss emphasized that the decision to close was made by Shearwater and was not a response to being placed on probation by SLU.

As far as taking students who did not necessarily want to be there, Krauss said:

“We weren’t really set up to be a school for students who were pushed out. The reality is that over the years we were operating, we had an increased number of students who were kicked out of school and encouraged to apply to Shearwater, and as a public school, we take who applies.

“I think during our time we absolutely had some students sent to us under those terms. We also had students come to us under their own terms, and there was also a third group who came and came to be believers in Shearwater."

She said that over the three years of its existence, 10 students graduated, with two more prospective graduates currently enrolled. As of Friday, Shearwater has 17 students, Krauss said, and she met with them individually to tell them of the closing at the end of the school year on June 26.

“I am so grateful for and amazed by their resilience,” she said. “They will see us on Monday and they are in this until the end with us.”

Krauss herself has been the driving force behind Shearwater – the “passionate evangelist,” she said – but she noted that before the school even opened, she spent two years working with community groups and volunteers who were key parts of the establishment and the operation of the school, so it was far from a one-person project.

"This has been a community school," she said.

Now, she said, the Shearwater Foundation will continue operating to solve the problems where the school fell short.

“I am absolutely convinced that this work has to continue,” Krauss said. “We have to retool, regroup, re-evaluate everything and understand how we can solve this really complicated issue of kids graduating from high school and going on to college.” END UPDATE.

In the MAP scores released last summer, Shearwater’s numbers were about the same as the average St. Louis charter school score in math, below the scores posted by St. Louis Public Schools, but they were far above the charter school and public school average in communication arts, though they still fell short of the statewide average.

As for the future, Jody Stauffer, Shearwater’s board chair, said in the statement:

“Our vision remains strong and the need is real and demanding. Between now and the end of June, we are focused on providing great classroom instruction and smooth transitions for our current students and ensuring an effective school closure.”

She said Shearwater and SLU will work to make sure that the school’s closing meets all state regulations.

“We will close the school year with a positive fund reserve and no long-term liabilities,” Stauffer said. “After closure, we will work to fully analyze our experience and determine next steps. We have a much more precise understanding of the needs and barriers that our disconnected youth face when returning to school, as well as the institutional barriers that prevent us from fully implementing our model.”

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