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We will broadcast special coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, starting with the RNC tonight at 8.

City school system may sponsor charters of its own

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2011 - If you can't beat 'em, sponsor 'em.

That may become the new attitude by the St. Louis Public Schools toward charter schools, the publicly funded alternatives that the city school system has long treated warily, if not like an outright enemy, for draining students and resources from the cash-strapped, unaccredited district.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams is set to detail to the Special Administrative Board that runs the city schools his initiative to sponsor charter schools, which operate outside many of the restrictions and regulations of district schools. The schools would be sponsored by the school district but operated by outside groups. They would be able to use buildings that the district has closed, either by leasing them or buying them outright.

Adams said the charter school plank of the new program is part of an overall emphasis on accountability, to provide city students the chance at a top-quality education, regardless of how their school is structured.

Noting that in many cases, charter schools aren't performing any better than city district schools, Adams said:

"We just want to make sure we are providing the best possible opportunities for all students in the city. The real issue is accountability."

The plan is one of many planned policy changes, including:

  • Letting eighth-graders choose whatever high school they want to attend, regardless of where they live.
  • Establishing four single-sex elementary and middle schools or classrooms, for all boys or all girls, either at new schools or existing ones.
  • Meeting the growing demand for pre-school classes by expanding the number of tuition-free classrooms.

The city currently sponsors one charter school, the Construction Careers Academy, whose academic performance has been less than stellar. Adams said that the district has learned a lesson there that could carry over for new charters it may become involved with.
"For last 10 years," he said, "we have provided little oversight. What this administration has done now is to look at a lot more accountability, putting them on a one-year probation kind of deal, when we would look at whether we are going to continue our sponsorship."

It may seem counterintuitive for charter schools, designed to operate without the regulations that often encumber district schools, to be sponsored by a district itself. But Cheri Shannon, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, says the arrangement can have benefits for both sides.

She notes that while the city schools may be the sponsor of the charter, they would not run the school; that would be done by a separate board. She uses the example of Washington University, which is the sponsor of the KIPP school in south St. Louis.

"Washington U. doesn't run KIPP," she said. "KIPP runs KIPP. But because the district is the sponsor, they would hold them accountable. So it's really the oversight the district would have to have with any charters they would sponsor."

Where such an arrangement is working well, like Denver and Chicago, Shannon said it is because the city school system stands back and lets a governing board handle day-to-day operations.

"They have autonomy," she said. "They have to have their own governing board; they cannot be governed by the board of the district. They have to make their own decisions on hiring and firing. They don't have to use the services of the district."

Chance for a win-win

Robbyn Wahby, Mayor Francis Slay's education adviser, is enthusiastic about the proposals, many of which she said she has discussed with Adams since he became superintendent.

"We have been working for two years to convince him and the SAB that this is in their best interest," she said of the charter school plan. She also noted that the nearly three dozen vacant but available school buildings in the city could be put to more productive use.

"There is a chance for a win-win here," Wahby said. "The district has excess buildings that in any other industry would be considered an asset, but theirs are a liability. I have been telling the district for ages that if a great model comes to you and you lease a building to them, you can turn that liability into an asset, offer services to them at cost and increase your buying power."

Wahby also noted another potential plus for the city school system in its effort to regain accreditation.

"High-quality charter schools' MAP scores go into your bucket," she said. "You have what they want. They have what you want. Get married. This is in their best interest to do, and it's in the best interest of families who choose to live in the city. We think this is a huge opportunity to rebrand the district."

Enrollment in St. Louis Public Schools is more than 25,000 students, including magnet schools and early childhood classrooms. Another 6,300 city students attend classes at schools in St. Louis County under the area's desegregation program, and about 10,000 students attend charter schools in the city.

Currently, 21 charter schools operate in St. Louis; Missouri law allows charters only in St. Louis and Kansas City, though efforts have been made frequently in Jefferson City to lift that geographical restriction.

The state Board of Education gave approval earlier this week to two more charters set to begin operations in the fall: South City Preparatory Academy, on the city's south side, which will begin serving students in grades 5 and 6 and plans to expand by one grade a year until it goes up to grade 12; and the Jamaa Learning Center, which will begin operations in the Ville neighborhood with grades kindergarten, 3 and 6 and eventually plans to serve students kindergarten through grade 8.

Growth in charter school enrollment in St. Louis would echo a trend nationwide. The Associated Press reports that though fewer than 4 percent of public school students are currently enrolled in charters, that total is expected to rise markedly because of increased political and financial support.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the number of charter schools grew by 6.7 percent to 4,936 in 2009-2010 and is projected to increase by 7.5 percent in the current school year.

As part of last year's $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, more than a dozen states loosened restrictions on charters.

Teachers' concerns

But the increase in charters doesn't necessarily please everyone. Mary Armstrong, president of the St. Louis Teachers Union, says she has "real concerns" about the school system's charter initiative, which she said she first heard about when she read a news story earlier this week.

She is particularly concerned about whether the effort is a ploy to get around the negotiated contract the city schools have with her union, Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers.

Elsewhere, she said, charter schools have negotiated contracts with teachers unions, and she would expect that any school sponsored by the St. Louis Public Schools to do the same.

"One of the things we have said all along about charter schools is that they should be under the auspices of the Board of Education," Armstrong said.

"If these schools are under different management, where an outside entity comes in to manage them, we should have to sit down with them and negotiate a contract."

Such a bargaining agreement, Armstrong said, is designed to help not only the teachers but the students as well.

"You want to make sure you're competitive," she said. "I don't care if it's a charter school or a St. Louis public school, you still want quality education and the best working conditions. We're not going to give up on that."

Adams said that union involvement in charters sponsored by the school district would be open to negotiation. "There would not be a hard and fast requirement that everything that is in our contract would have to apply," he said.

Wahby, Slay's adviser on education, says she has even discussed with the teachers union the possibility of it becoming a sponsor of a charter school. She notes that Randi Weingarten, the national president of the AFT who came off as a harsh opponent to charters in movies like "Waiting for Superman," has softened her stance a bit.

"I have said to Local 420, why don't you apply all the things you think should be done in public school and run a teacher-led school," Wahby said.

"The fact is that charter schools in St. Louis are not an experiment any more. Families are choosing with their feet. If the union wants to survive, they have to get with the program."

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.