New law gives charter schools leeway to enroll more disadvantaged students
Missouri charter schools will now be able to give preference to poor or struggling students in its lottery admissions system.
That change was part of an omnibus education bill signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Parson. Some charter schools in St. Louis have struggled to maintain their mission as they increased in popularity and surrounding neighborhoods gentrified.
“We’re starting to see a shift and a reduction of diversity and we aren’t okay with that,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. “We want to make sure that we have a diverse population. That’s what this will allow.”
City Garden Montessori opened in St. Louis’ Botanical Heights neighborhood a decade ago with a mission to serve disadvantaged kids living in that and other nearby neighborhoods.
But since then, the Botanical Heights and Grove neighborhoods have gentrified, in part because of the school’s popularity. Demand now outpaces space at the school 2-to-1 while the percentage of City Garden students who live in poverty has dropped from more than half to slightly over a third.
“We have more and more affluent families living in our neighborhoods and it has become harder to retain, particularly the economic diversity that we strive for,” said executive director Christie Huck.
The law says charter schools with a mission of serving disadvantaged students can give preference to kids considered high risk. Students will meet that definition a number of ways, including being several years behind in school, homeless, low-income, chronically absent or having a track record of suspensions.
City Garden hopes to get the percentage of its students that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — a common metric for poverty in education — back over 50 percent.
“My hope is really that there will be a lot of enthusiasm for this because it increases our opportunity to work for equity for all children in St. Louis,” said Huck.
Huck and other school leaders will have to figure out how their admissions process will be adjusted. Before this law, the only stipulations charter schools could apply to enrollment were gender — such as being an all-girls school — or geographic boundaries.
The changes will go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year at the earliest.
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