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Decision to close Imagine schools sets off scramble to find alternatives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2012 - The vote by the Missouri Board of Education to shut down the Imagine charter schools in St. Louis at the end of the school year has sent Imagine schools scrambling to consider their options and parents scrambling to figure out where their kids will attend classes this fall.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote in Jefferson City came just one day after the state board assumed responsibility for the Imagine schools and their nearly 4,000 students. The schools had been criticized for poor academic performance and questionable financial management, and their former sponsor, Missouri Baptist University, decided to give up its authority rather than have it taken away by the state.

Missouri Baptist had decided last year to close two of the six Imagine locations. Now, with the others set to close as well, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it had established a transition office in St. Louis to help provide information to families about moving their children to other schools. The office also will work with receiving schools and others in the community to make sure city students have good schools to attend.

“We will know that we have been successful with this intervention when every single child is placed in a better school,” Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for the state, said in an interview.

“The jury is still out. We believe all the right pieces are in place, but this is new territory for the department, the state board and for the schools involved. We have never faced this challenge before with these numbers.”

Doug Thaman, who heads the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the shutdown of the Imagine schools shows that the state’s charter law is working as it should.

“This speaks to the strength of the process,” he said. “This is the first time the state board has taken the authority it has within the law and exercised that authority. Now, the focus has turned to making sure that families have the supports they need to place their children in a quality performing school for next year. We are anxious to support that and help with that.”

But Jason Bryant, the newly named executive vice president for Imagine Schools Missouri, said the state board failed to follow due process and acted without giving his company the opportunity to demonstrate the progress its students are making. He said Imagine is exploring every option to see if it can keep the schools open despite the vote by the state board.

“Obviously we got the wind knocked out of us here,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re very disappointed. It’s very discouraging. We want to keep focused on kids.

“Right now, we’re minute by minute, day by day. At this point, we just don’t know.”

End of a long road

The vote by the state board ended a dispute that began last year when Nicastro, Mayor Francis Slay and others said that consistently poor performance by Imagine students should lead to the schools being shut down. Questions raised about the schools’ financial management only added fuel to that fire.

Responding to that criticism, Missouri Baptist said last year that would shut down two locations and put the rest on probation, reviewing their academic progress on a regular basis before deciding whether to let them stay open for another school year.

But before that could happen, the state board decided in March to call the university into its April meeting to determine whether it should keep its authority to act as sponsor. In response, the university decided to give up its authority and not seek it again for another five years. A spokesman said Missouri Baptist would prefer to concentrate on educating its own students.

That retreat was accepted by the state board on Monday, meaning that the state was now the interim sponsor of the Imagine schools as well as the only other charter that Missouri Baptist sponsored, Carondelet Leadership Academy. On Tuesday, it voted to work with the University of Missouri at Columbia to take over sponsorship of Carondelet, then voted to shut down the Imagine schools altogether.

Bryant said that decision was unfair for at least two reasons. First, he said, contrary to public reports, one of the Imagine schools – the careers high school – was never on probation, and another, the school of environmental science and math, had been taken off probation.

Nicastro said she was not sure about those claims. But in any case, she said, probation is not an official designation that is needed before a school can be shut down but simply a condition imposed by Missouri Baptist on its own.

Second, Bryant said, the poor rating given to Imagine academics is unfair because of how far behind so many of its students are when they enroll.

“It depends on your definition,” he said. “If you’re defining success on proficiency scores, then our students are not going to perform that well. If you define it on how well they are growing after they come into our doors, then we have evidence that we are growing those kids.”

But, he said, Imagine was not given the opportunity to make that case to the state board before the vote to shut them down.

Nicastro said that Imagine’s performance was fairly reviewed, both by the state and by Missouri Baptist before that.

“We had four years of data on their performance,” she said. “The track record of our department in recent years is that with four years of data, we have sufficient cause to take action. We have taken action on other public schools with that amount of data, and we are trying to take a consistent approach in the way that we treat any school that is receiving public funds.”

Student fairs, job fairs

For parents of Imagine students looking for new schools for the fall, Nicastro and Thaman spelled out resources that will be available.

Working with the charter school association as well as the St. Louis Public School, DESE has created a transition website along with a toll-free number parents can call for help finding a new school. A transition team of several education and other officials will also be available.

Student fairs to learn about educational opportunities will be held April 28 at Gateway Math and Science Elementary and Preparatory Schools, 1200 North Jefferson, and May 12 at South City Preparatory, 2900 South Grand. Job fairs for faculty and staff displaced by the closing of the Imagine schools will also be scheduled.

Nicastro said that between the city schools, remaining charter schools and private and parochial schools in the city, there is plenty of space to absorb the students who have attended Imagine schools in the past.

Asked about the option posed by the Turner case – the law that lets students living in an unaccredited district like St. Louis to transfer free of charge to an accredited suburban district – Nicastro noted that both the courts and the legislature are still expected to make decisions on how that law is implemented. The opportunity exists, she says, but it’s not clear how available it is.

“I can’t advise parents about what to do,” she said. “If it were my children, I would want to make sure they were transitioning somewhere successfully. To my knowledge, none of those county districts is taking children from the city right now.”

Also under discussion by lawmakers are proposed changes in Missouri’s charter school law that would let the state board deal more directly with failing charters rather than having the authority to deal only with their sponsors.

Nicastro said that such changes could help ensure more accountability for charter schools.

“We’ve all been frustrated with the limitations of the current charter law,” she said. “The fact that the state board cannot intervene directly in failing charter schools is very frustrating for everyone.

“We have been hesitant up until now to intervene because we knew the minute we did that, we would become interim sponsor, and we don’t have the capacity to do that. But we needed to intervene in the only way we had available to us.”

Asked how the Imagine situation would affect the public’s view of charter schools, Nicastro said:

“I would hope that it would improve the reputation of charter schools in that people would see they are in fact accountable for student performance – that ultimately, through one means or another, someone is going to make sure that charter schools serve children well.”

Thaman, of the charter school association, agreed.

“I think it speaks to the fact that the charter bargain works,” he said. “The charter school premise is autonomy in exchange for accountability. Although we hate to see a school close, and we hate to see the impact that has on families that have to find new schools for their children, charter schools are open as long as they provide quality education.

“If they do not, they do not continue in operation. As unfortunate as this is, it supports the view that the whole idea of charter schools does work.”

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.