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For St. Louis charter schools, success is in the eye of the beholder

Trish Nguyen works on a graph in a second-grade class at Confluence Academy South City on April 28, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Trish Nguyen works on a graph in a second-grade classroom at Confluence Academy South City.

Gateway Science Academy wants families to be satisfied. City Garden Montessori is aiming for racial equity. Neither are unique goals for charter schools in St. Louis.


Most of the city’s 17 public charter school systems have their own definition of success, including academic growth, family involvement and personal development. But they’re also required by Missouri law to take the state’s academic standards into account.


And without a definitive way to measure success, parents have to trust that the schools are doing right by their children.



To illustrate the situation, this story looks at two schools, one with an excellent track record with the state for attendance, standardized test scores and graduation rates, and the other with a history of low performance.

Not great on state, but does it matter?


Confluence Academy, the largest charter school system in St. Louis, is a success — at least to CEO Candice Carter-Oliver. That’s despite falling short of state benchmarks ever since it opened in 2003.

“The 3,200 families that are with us, that have chosen us, are with us for a reason. Otherwise they would not have stayed. And so, because of that, we are doing some things very well and right,” she said.

At the same time, she acknowledged that the school system needs to improve, and gives the state standards considerable weight.

Confluence has performed worse, judging by state standards, than the St. Louis Public Schools district for three straight years.

State law says charter schools can face consequences for that; it’s the sponsor’s job — not the state board of education’s — to close a charter school if it’s not measuring up.


Second-graders Eric Ventura and Heather Vasquez work together to draw a graph at Confluence Academy-South City April 28, 2017.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Second-graders Eric Ventura and Heather Vasquez work together to draw a graph at Confluence Academy-South City.

But Confluence’s sponsor, the University of Missouri-Columbia, renewed its charter earlier this year. That’s because Confluence improved on state standards by 20 percentage points over the past three years, according to Gerry Kettenbach, the director of Mizzou’s charter school office.

“If Confluence had totally been flat line, we would not have renewed them. After two and a half years we would have said: you know, you’ve made no gain,” Kettenbach said. "They were in that middle category. They’ve not been doing well but they’re improving."

Kettenbach also interprets Missouri’s law to mean charters have to do better than specific schools in the same district, not the district overall.


“I know that’s a debatable position, but if our goal truly is to give parents a choice of where their kids go to school, then to remove an option that is performing better than some of its surrounding schools, to me, doesn’t make sense,” he said.


Good scores, good citizens?


Third-graders at Northside Community School work in teams to find the area and perimeter of shapes on April 26, 2017.
Credit Camille Phillips / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Third-graders at Northside Community School work in teams to find the area and perimeter of shapes.

Even charter schools that have an excellent track with the state also use other yardsticks to measure their success. Northside Community School in northwest St. Louis prizes personal development. Like Confluence, Northside has mostly black or Latino students from low-income households.


Principal Stella Erondu has high expectations for her 400 elementary-school students. It’s paid off:  

Northside earned a perfect score from the state last year.


But high scores on standardized tests aren’t Erondu’s goal.

“Of course, academically I want them to be successful, but I also want them to have social skills,” Erondu said. “A lot of grown-ups who have technical skills have derailed because they didn’t have the soft skills to manage their temper, their anger, manage their workplace.”


To emphasize those soft skills, Northside measures increases in a student’s self-control, independence and organization — things Erondu considers at least as important as math and English.


Meanwhile, the rules governing Missouri’s charter schools are still being fine-tuned, even 20 years into their existence.


"And so the expectations of success that were in place then, you know, over the tests of time have been found maybe weren’t as — as clear as we wanted them to be, and so it — they’ve evolved over time."


Follow Camille on Twitter:@cmpcamille

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