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Imagine students begin the hunt for new schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2012 - Even as efforts are under way to try to keep their schools open under new sponsorship, parents of students at the city’s Imagine schools crowded an enrollment fair on Saturday, shopping for new classrooms for their children this fall.

Since the state Board of Education voted earlier this month to shut down the Imagine charter schools, after it became their sponsor for a day, finding new classrooms for more than 3,500 students has become a top priority.

With only an estimated 500 seats available in the city’s existing charter schools, the exercise could become a giant game of educational musical chairs, and no parents want their children to be without a good place to sit when the music stops.

Because it is the boards of the individual Imagine schools, and not Imagine itself, that actually hold the charters from the state, one solution being explored is for the schools to find another sponsor that could agree to assume oversight of the schools and let them remain open for the fall.

Rufus Tate, an attorney working with the boards, told the Beacon that such an effort is on “a super trajectory,” shooting for a spot on the May 15 meeting of the state board.

He said the boards have been working with at least two potential sponsors, though he would not say who they are while negotiations are continuing. He noted that because the groups of students are already together, the effort will be difficult but not impossible.

“There are alternatives within the city of St. Louis,” he said. “It’s not like they are trying to plan to go to California. These parents are not interested in putting their kids in unaccredited schools, so many of them have ruled out the St. Louis Public School system. The question is whether they can find alternatives within the city boundaries.”

“It’s a high wire act at best,” Tate said, adding that the parents and others interested in keeping the students together have been working tirelessly to see if they can pull it off.

“People are stepping up to the plate and rolling up their sleeves and trying to get something done,” Tate said. “The parents are cheerleaders for their teachers and for the environment they had. What they are trying to do is continue that type of relationship with teachers, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that.

“Despite some of the statistics, there are some really dedicated and skilled teachers in that environment. I don’t think the efforts of the teachers have been well reflected publicly, and that’s unfortunate. Even though they may be low-performing schools, their trajectory of improvement has been very good. I think that kind of gets lost.”

Shopping for a new school

While the effort continued possibly to keep the Imagine schools open under new management, hundreds of parents and students crowded an enrollment fair at Gateway Math and Science school at 1200 North Jefferson Saturday, gathering information on what may be available.

Even before the doors opened at 10 a.m. for the four-hour event, lines were forming outside the school and parking lots soon were full. Tables loaded with information about city schools, charter schools, the voluntary transfer program and more were available for parents and students checking out their options.

Gwen Westbrooks, who has been named to head the transition effort for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was thrilled with the turnout.

“This is fabulous,” she said. “We were hoping families would show up today and get the information they need to make informed decisions about the education for their children. But we didn’t know what to expect.

“This crowd speaks to the commitment the Imagine families have for their kids. That’s what this is all about.”

With the short time frame before the Imagine schools officially close on June 30, Westbrooks said every possible effort will be made to make sure students are enrolled in the right kind of classroom for the fall. She noted that a second enrollment fair is scheduled for May 12, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at South City Preparatory school, 2900 South Grand, and if necessary, other events will be held as well.

For teachers and other staff whose jobs will disappear when the Imagine schools close, job fairs will be held May 5 at Construction Career Center, 1224 Grattan, and May 19 at Confluence Preparatory Academy, 310 North 15th.

On Saturday morning, among the crowds of parents and children filling out applications for the fall, Destiny Davenport, a 6th grader at Imagine’s science and math school, was interested in the Grand Center Arts Academy. An aspiring drummer, she and her mother, Kesha Hollis, said they had considered the city’s performing arts magnet school at Carr Lane, but Hollis said she had heard from several people that the atmosphere there isn’t the best.

“I’ve heard that the teachers aren’t teaching and the kids are just doing what they want to do,” Hollis said.

Asked if she would be sorry that her Imagine school would be closing, Destiny said not really. “It’s not a very good school,” she said.

That sentiment was shared by Mia Cotton, an 8th grader at Imagine’s careers middle school who said she and her mother, Tee Trice, were checking to find a school with better qualified teachers.

“I’m kind of sad that it’s closing,” Mia said, “but at the same time, there’s more a school can do, in terms of academics and sports.”

Gerald Brooks, a 10th grader at Imagine’s college preparatory academy, had a similar view.

“Some of my classes are a waste of time,” he said. “I got good grades, but it wasn’t very challenging.”

Brooks was filling out an application for the Soldan international studies magnet school run by the St. Louis Public Schools system, but he confessed his interest was not so much in international education.

“I like their basketball team,” he said.

Plenty of room in city schools

For students like Brooks, who are interested in a city school, spokesman Patrick Wallace for the public school system said there is plenty of room to accommodate the Imagine students, at magnet schools and non-magnets alike.

In fact, parents who expressed an interest in an elementary or middle magnet school that had room could get an assurance on the spot Saturday morning that their student had been accepted.

“When they leave here today,” he said, “if that is what they choose, they will have their spot guaranteed.”

The acceptances were good for elementary and middle schools, Wallace emphasized; magnet high schools may have more requirements for admission.

Still, he said, in general the city school system will work to make sure that anyone who wants to attend its schools will be able to do so, even if the system has to open new buildings or move boundary lines to accommodate them.

Tight deadlines

For the effort to try to keep the Imagine schools open under new sponsorship and new management, the tight timeline posed problems, according to Westbrooks and others.

“If we haven’t heard about it yet,” she said, “how in the world are they going to have things ready for the beginning of the school year? I don’t know if there is enough time. We are encouraging parents to have alternative plans.”

Even if the boards can get arrangements completed, Doug Thaman, head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said such hastily completed arrangements often don’t succeed.

“We typically recommend to a group that is interested in opening a school that it is a minimum 18-month planning process,” Thaman said, “and it’s better if it’s 24 months. Our experience is that those who attempt to receive approval and open a school in less than 18 months generally struggle a great deal because there has not been the proper planning in development of curriculum, organizational structure, policies, procedures and financial practices.

“If you put together something quickly like that, the program is just not sustainable, and typically those groups run into a number of challenges.”

Even though the student and teacher groups would be intact and simply seeking a new sponsor and new management structure, Thaman added, “they would still require a drastic modification to their charter, to remove all references to their old management company and all of the policies and procedures that management company has proprietary ownership of.”

Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said her department will do what it can to support and expedite any efforts to keep the schools open, and there may be some sponsors that have charters in the works that could be approved in time for an opening this fall.

Still, she said, with time growing short and parents likely to be weary of the drama that has surrounded their children’s education, decisions need to be made soon.

“I think the vast majority of those kids will be going somewhere that already exists,” Nicastro said. “Parents are going to want to know where their children are going to go to school, and they may not feel comfortable waiting until May or June to make those decisions.”

Imagine backs away from Missouri

Meanwhile, officials with Imagine schools said they would work with the boards and the families in the transition process and help them through a difficult time.

“Our first goal is that the needs of the students and their families will be attended to and listened to,” said Eileen Bakke, vice president of education for the Virginia-based company. “We have 2,500 families who have chosen Imagine schools and are very upset about how abruptly this decision was made.”

She said that the company still feels that due process was ignored in the way that state education officials accepted the resignation of Missouri Baptist University as sponsor, took over sponsorship themselves, then voted to close the schools. She called the process “damaging to school choice and damaging to school reform in the state.”

Bakke noted that two campuses in the Kansas City area that had been operated by Imagine also are closing their doors at the end of the current school. Does that mean Imagine is leaving the state for good?

“We’re not giving up on Missouri,” she said. “We don’t ever give up. But we are taking a step back.”

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