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Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy, a charter school in St. Louis, suddenly shuts its doors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - Missouri Baptist University revoked the charter of the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy charter school in St. Louis Thursday, claiming that its continued operation "presents a clear and immediate threat to the health and safety" of the 800 students enrolled there. 

In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, Missouri Baptist University explained its sudden action, saying:

"For the past two years, Missouri Baptist University has been working with EHLA to find a new sponsor. In January 2010, Missouri Baptist University officials distributed a 'Closure Guide' to the EHLA board, with the clear intention that Missouri Baptist University would be terminating sponsorship at the end of the current academic year. Due to the academy's inability to remain current in financial obligations that are now putting the entire student population at risk, Missouri Baptist University feels it in the best interest of the children to revoke the charter before the end of the 2009/2010 school year."

Missouri Baptist University President R. Alton Lacey said:

"If we had not revoked our sponsorship, the school would have been forced to close anyway because the school was in such financial distress. The school failed to remain current in financial obligations to the companies providing security, food services, electrical services, transportation services, etc. By our actions, it allowed the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the St. Louis City Public School system to step in, take over, and keep EHLA open the rest of the year, which ultimately benefits the students."  

Missouri education officials said that as of Friday, the St. Louis Public Schools would take over the academy's two facilities and its students would attend class run by the city schools for the rest of the year.

"The department is working with Missouri Baptist University and with SLPS to ensure a seamless transition for the children and families involved," Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said in a message to lawmakers and others. 

At Thursday night's meeting of the Special Administrative Board that runs the city schools, Superintendent Kelvin Adams won approval of a resolution asking the city to oversee all activities, instruction and financial operations of the Lyle academy. He emphasized that the city schools are not assuming any debt.

Adams said he is hoping for a seamless transition for students at the academy. He said teachers and administrators there will remain, though they will not technically become employees of the city school system, and added that details are still being worked out for a situation that unfolded suddenly on Thursday.

He said he had had no discussions about the city becoming the new sponsor of the charter school, adding: "I will be interested in having any discussion that would put the kids in the best possible light."

Agreeing to take over instruction at the academy was just a first step, Adams said. "The devil's in the details. We have to make sure it works. You can say A-B-C, but we still have to work out D-E-F." 

Calls to officials of the charter school for comment on the move were not immediately returned.

The academy operated two campuses: one for students in grades kindergarten through grade five at 1509 Washington Ave. and one for students in grades six through 12 at 1881 Pine St.

A letter dated Thursday from Lacey to Tommy Davis, chairman of the board at the academy, listed reasons cited above for the revocation of the charter. It also noted that the academy is behind in its payments to vendors, violating accepted standards of fiscal management and "putting the entire student population at immediate risk."

Further, the letter said that "the corporate structure of the academy is in disarray" and it failed to comply with Missouri corporate law, so it is at risk of administrative dissolution. It also said that the school "allowed Margaret Ann Berry to file a 2009 annual registration report with the Missouri secretary of state on Aug. 31, 2009, misstating the officers and directors of the corporation, and have failed to name a registered agent and office, as required by Missouri law, since the resignation of the existing agent on March 19, 2010."

"As a consequence of all of the foregoing," Lacey said, "the university has determined that the academy, as charter holder, has committed serious breaches of multiple provisions of its charter, and due to the clear and immediate threat to the health and safety of the students that currently exists at the academy, the university cannot wait until the end of the current school year for termination of the academy's charter, and must make that revocation effective immediately." 

Douglas Copeland, an attorney for Missouri Baptist University, said late Thursday that the timing of the shutdown was prompted by information the university received on Wednesday about the financial troubles the academy had. He said transportation, cleaning services, food services and security were going to end Thursday or Friday, leaving a situation where students could not be adequately served.

"Obviously," he said, "our primary concern is the safety of the students. We started thinking of all the possibilities -- kids waiting at the bus stop and no buses coming, kids getting to school with no security and no food -- and it seemed we had to act immediately to protect the kids in the short term."

He said having the St. Louis Public School take over the students' education for the rest of the school year could only be done if the charter were revoked, so the city schools could get compensation from the state.

He said the original plan was to have the city schools conduct classes in the Lyle academy buildings, but arrangements would have to be made with the landlords because the school owes them money too. 

Under Missouri law, charter schools may only operate under a charter granted by a university or another outside institution that is responsible for overseeing their operation.

Current law allows charters only in St. Louis and Kansas City. They operate using taxpayer funds but under their own boards, not under the school boards that operate the public school districts in the state's two largest cities.

Before Thursday, the state had 33 charter schools, 20 in Kansas City and 13 in St. Louis. Previously, seven charters had shut down in Missouri but none in the middle of a school year. In St. Louis, the closures were at: Youth Build St. Louis, CAN Academy and Thurgood Marshall Academy. In Kansas City, the closed schools were: Westport Charter, Academy of Kansas City, Kansas City Career Center and Southwest Charter School.

Asked whether universities that issue the charters are subject to liability or other exposure in the face of financial wrongdoing, a spokesman for the state department of elementary and secondary education said the question is an open one and has not yet been tested in Missouri.

The academy was founded in 2000 and was originally sponsored by Harris-Stowe State University; Missouri Baptist assumed the sponsorship in 2005.

On its website, the school said that "the mission of Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy is to provide challenging and world-class instruction for children so that the opportunity to label these youngsters as 'at-risk' is significantly reduced."

But its academic performance has been less than stellar. In 2008 and 2009, the academy did not meet either of the standards set by the state in mathematics or communication arts, though it did meet the standards for attendance and, in 2009, for graduation rate.

The school's website said its charter is held by the Omicron Theta Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which it says is the oldest Greek-letter organization established by black women in America. 

A few hours after the announcement came of the closing of the Lyle Academy, President Barack Obama issued a statement proclaiming next week National Charter Schools Week, saying:

"Ideas developed and tested by charter schools have unlocked potential in students of every background and are driving reform throughout many school districts. During National Charter Schools Week, we recommit to supporting innovation in teaching and learning at high-quality charter schools and ensuring all our students have a chance to realize the American Dream."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.