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Charter hopefuls face lots of hurdles before seeking a sponsor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2011 - Mayor Francis Slay doesn't have the power to sponsor a charter school on his own, and schools may proceed without his blessing, but he's doing his best to make sure that any new schools that are established earn a City Hall seal of approval.

Robbyn Wahby, the mayor's executive assistant for education policy, divides the charter school era in St. Louis into two parts - 1.0, before 2006, when Slay became heavily involved in the movement, and 2.0, ever since the mayor decided in 2007 to issue a request for proposals for charters that would fill specific needs in the city, in terms of location, age or educational specialty.

Before City Hall got involved, she said, the charter movement was pretty uninspiring and uninspired.

"There was nothing innovative," Wahby said. "The schools were no better in quality, and sponsors weren't really interested. We knew that if we were going to improve charter schools, we were going to have to expand sponsorship."

Since that time, Wahby says, a lot of groups have expressed interest in starting a charter, but many have no idea what they are signing up for.


"Most people have really big ideas," she said, "and I spend a lot of time coaching them into focus. You're not going to save every kid, you can't use the whole smorgasbord of educational tools that are out there, What do you really want to do?"

After that initial stage, Wahby said, a long process begins.

"From the time you call me to the time you have kids in your building," she explained, "it's about two years. Anyone who thinks they can do it more quickly is out of their mind."

What takes so long? Wahby enumerated the steps in the process.

Working with the group who wants to start a charter school, and using checklists and procedures developed by the Missouri and the national charter associations that have developed guidelines, City Hall helps them draw up plans on every part of their operation, from governance to academics to finances.

What should your mission statement say? How do you align your curriculum to state standards and MAP tests? How much money will you get? How should you spend it?

When they think they have worked all those questions out, they are ready to fill out a 41-page application supplied by the mayor's office, which advises all would-be charters to focus on three areas: at-risk students, career and workforce preparation, and providing education that isn't already available, either in terms of location or in terms of design of their school.

Then the evaluation process begins. Charter hopefuls submit 20 copies of the application for consideration by the mayor's charter school advisory board, which meets three times a year. It will determine whether to approve the application, send it back with suggested revisions, or deny it outright, particularly if it has been before the board before but it is clear it will not work.

Since the board began meeting in 2008, Wahby said, no application has been approved its first time out.

Members of the board also may be invited in for an interview so the City Hall panel can get a better idea of what they want to do.

"We get a sense of the reality of the board," Wahby said of that step in the process. "Did they write this themselves or did someone else write this? Do they have the capacity to do this? Is one person in charge, and the rest that person's friends? Do they know what they are getting into?

"We want to hear if they really have a vision for the children."

If the board gives its OK, then Slay reads the application and decides whether to endorse the proposal. If he does, only then does the group begin the next crucial step -- finding a sponsor.

Charter Schools Complete Application Packet

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.