St. Louis schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams announced plans Thursday to sponsor two charter schools, reversing the district’s resistance to a movement that has lured thousands of students away from its schools this past decade.
With the Special Administrative Board’s unanimous approval on Thursday night of sponsorship of Lighthouse Academy, the plan needs authorization of the Missouri Board of Education for the school to open this fall.
The school would operate independently of St. Louis Public Schools, while at the same time be held accountable by St. Louis school district officials. It would have its own governing board, hire its own teachers and set its own budget.
The board expects to hear a presentation on the second prospective school, Scholars Academy Charter School, at its Feb. 16 meeting.
Lighthouse Academy likely would occupy the old Mitchell Elementary School building at 455 Arcade Avenue. Leases and other details are yet to be worked out. Also in the works are accountability plans, which would allow the district to pull the plug on the schools at any time if they are failing.
“What we’re saying is we’re going to give you a charter, but we’re also going to hold you accountable for the performance of those students,” said Michael Haggen, the associate superintendent over the Office of Innovation.
The sponsorship arrangement is the first of its kind for the city’s struggling school system, which loses students and corresponding state funding each year as more charter schools open. In the previous school year, more than 10,000 students attended 18 charter schools — about one-third of the students enrolled in all public schools in the city.
The sponsorship arrangements between the proposed schools and the district are being constructed in a way that’s less threatening to the district than other charter schools. Though the two schools would operate independently, funds from the state would pass through the St. Louis school system before going to the schools. The charter schools’ enrollment and test scores would also reflect in the district’s scores — giving officials like Adams an incentive to help the schools succeed.
Charter schools are intended to provide parents with a better alternative to struggling urban schools. So far, most charter schools have performed worse than St. Louis Public Schools in the annual Missouri Assessment Program.
“The kids are still kids in the city of St. Louis who want a quality education,” Adams said. “Their belief is they’re getting that and they’re not necessarily in every case. There’s not the degree of accountability.”
Adams announced one year ago that he would put the school district into the role of actively looking to sponsor charter schools. The goal, he said, was to improve educational options for all children in the city, regardless of which kind of public school they attend.
He also said the district would lease and possibly sell vacant buildings to charters, though such a transaction has yet to take place.
The superintendent has often expressed frustration that more has not been done to close poor-performing charters. In December, Missouri Baptist University announced it would revoke sponsorship and close Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts and Imagine Academy of Academic Success after years of financial and academic failure. The university placed the four other Imagine charter schools on probation.
Adams vowed last year to begin closing schools in his own district based on their poor performance. The district closed Stevens Middle School for that reason, he said Thursday. “We will close more.”
St. Louis Public Schools has some experience with charters. In 2001, it began sponsoring Construction Careers Center, 1224 Grattan Street, because the school offered vocational programs that the district could not. And in 2010, the state required the district to become sponsor of the now-defunct Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Charter School after Missouri Baptist pulled its support.
But Scholars Academy and Lighthouse Academies would have a closer relationship with St. Louis Public Schools than Construction Careers. In addition to having access to district school buildings, they would have the opportunity to use district services like transportation, food service and special education.
The district’s embrace of charter schools was welcomed by those who see the charters as a way to improve education in St. Louis and keep families from leaving the city.
“There are lots of reasons to do this. We’re really excited the district wants to do it,” said Robbyn Wahby, education liaison to Mayor Francis Slay.
Added Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association: “My hope is that in sponsoring these schools, they have a great level of confidence that these are quality options that are going to benefit these communities in St. Louis.”
Lighthouse Academy would be an arts-infused school managed by Lighthouse Academies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that operates 19 schools in four states and Washington. It would open with kindergarten through fifth grade, with plans to expand to ninth grade over five years.
Scholars Academy is currently a Christian School on Pope Avenue. That school would close and restart as a public charter school with kindergarten through second grade, possibly in the old Williams Middle School building. The school would add a grade each year up to ninth grade by 2019.