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Charter School In St. Louis Dismisses Top Officials

school buses
Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the release of funds for public school busing today. (via Flickr/wheany)

In the wake of dissatisfaction at its academic performance and other issues, the top officials at the Construction Careers Center charter school in St. Louis have been dismissed and its board has been dissolved.

The actions came last week. The charter is sponsored by the St. Louis Public Schools.

Doug Thaman, who heads the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, said that the situation at the center had been building for some time, and last year, they brought in a new superintendent, Paul Smith, to evaluate what needed to be done.

He said Smith was looking at everything from academics to governance to leadership to the center’s building at 1224 Grattan near the Lafayette Square neighborhood.

“They knew that they need to do something,” Thaman said in a brief interview, “or that school would not be around.”

Construction Careers Center was started as a charter sponsored by the St. Louis Public Schools in 2001, in conjunction with the Associated General Contractors. Its website says its mission is “preparing students in grades nine through twelve by providing an excellent foundation in academics, broad exposure to the construction industry, and relevant career and technical education.”

Academically, it has not fared well. Its latest evaluation by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, released last summer, showed it earned just 22.5 out of a possible 140 points, which would put it into unaccredited territory if individual schools were given such a classification.

It earned no points for college and career readiness or graduation rate, and in academic categories its score was just 21.4 percent.

Such scores were a big part of the need for changes, Thaman said.

“They made the decision that the governance needed to change, leadership needed to change, they needed to make some changes to their academic model, and they needed to make every effort they could to bring drastic improvement to a school that has not done well,” he said.

Also important, according to Len Toenjes of the Associated General Contractors, was the timing. The school is in the fourth year of its five-year charter, and changes were needed if it hoped to win renewal from state education officials.

“In looking at what we need to do to ensure that we’re in a position to be looked at favorably for another renewal 24 months from now,” he said, “we decided it wouldn’t be best for the kids to wait any longer, and we could perhaps put the renewal of the charter in peril if we wait until the last year and say, oh now we realize we need to do something different.”

He said the basic curriculum really needed to change.

“The culture of the school is fine,” Toenjes said, “but when it got down to what is really going in the classroom and what’s going on between the kids’ ears, we had to make some changes.”

A new three-member interim board has been named to serve 90 days and make some alterations in the school’s operations before the next school year begins on Aug. 11.

Nicole Adewale, who had been on the center’s board for three years, said she and other board members were told on Friday that the board was being dissolved and the principal and vice principal would be dismissed.

She said the actions came without warning.

Adawale said she thought that the school had been making progress but acknowledged that “there were some challenges.”

They knew that they need to do something or that school would not be around.

Robbyn Wahby, Mayor Francis Slay’s adviser for education, said the action shows how charter schools need to act when problems persist.

“It’s exactly what you want to see in charter schools and want to see in any organization,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thinks that school has met any level of performance that was expected, so action is required.”

She noted that the center was one of the first charters to open in the city, and while the contractors and the trade unions had experience with apprenticeships, they didn’t have any experience with actually running a school. It grew primarily out of a desire to hire more minorities in the construction fields.

“This was an anomaly,” Wahby said “This came out of the original charter school effort when law passed. You have a need – we don’t have enough kids going into construction field. We certainly don’t have enough minority kids gong into construction field, and desire by firms to hire a workforce that mirrors our population.”

But, she said, students were in from all over the city and weren’t necessary ready. And, she added, they didn’t always come for the right reasons.

“They were coming in ill-prepared for the rigors of high school,” Wahby said of many of the center’s students. “They were multiple years behind, lacking proficiency in basic subjects."

“In many cases, they were saying, 'I’m going to this school because it’s safe and because I trust these people, even though I don’t want to be an engineer, I don’t want to be an architect, I don’t want to go into construction.'”

Now, she said, after “seriously underperforming for almost all of its existence,” the school is making a real effort to change things and improve the academics that have been lacking.

“They’re saying, we’ve been struggling,” Wahby said. “It’s time to do this correctly. They’re doubling down. They’ve tried incrementally to change this and change that, and it didn’t work. Now we’ve got to face this and get this taken care of. I applaud them. This is what the kids deserve.”

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