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Jamaa Learning Center will close in June; charter school raised financial, academic concerns

Students at Jamaa Learning Center. The charter school, under the sponsorship of the University of Missouri-Columbia, will close at the end of the current school year.
Jamaa Learning Center Facebook with permission
Students at Jamaa Learning Center. The charter school, under the sponsorship of the University of Missouri-Columbia, will close at the end of the current school year.

Update 11:45 a.m., Dec. 17 with parent reaction. After five years dedicated to helping “educate and empower students and families” – but losing its charter from its sponsor – JamaaLearning Center will close its doors at the end of the current school year.

The north St. Louis charter school, operating at 3108 North Grand, has struggled both academically and financially since it opened in 2011 under the sponsorship of the University of Missouri-Columbia. It has been on probationary status for the past two years.

The final day of class is scheduled for June 2.

In a letter to Wayne Crull, chairman of the board at Jamaa, Deborah Carr, who heads charter school operations at Mizzou, said the university “continues to have substantive concerns related to fiscal viability and academic infrastructure of the school.”

She said the university would let Jamaa’s charter lapse when it expires on June 30, 2016. Carr also said Mizzou “will assist with the transfer of sponsorship should a new sponsor be obtained by Jamaa during this upcoming academic year.”

But Trina Clark James, founder of the school, said that since being notified in June that the charter would not be renewed, the school had been unsuccessful in finding another sponsor.

In an interview, James said that, though scores on state tests and Jamaa’s annual report card had been consistently low, she did not feel those numbers accurately reflected what the school has accomplished.

“We have had families that have come to us and said their child has not been able to be successful,” she said, “and they see so much growth in their child academically after they came here.

“In some cases, it was because we were able to identify that that child had a disability and so we were able to start providing special education services that had never been diagnosed.”

In a letter to parents, James and members of a transition team that will handle the school’s final months gave assurance that the school will continue to provide educational services until the end of the school year.

“Equally important as your child successfully completing this school year is finding the best school for your child for the 2016-2017 school year,” the letter said. “Both Jamaa and the University of Missouri are committed to helping to you do so.”

And, the letter said, the closure may not mean the end of Jamaa. 

Trina James, founder of Jamaa Learning Center.
Credit Provided
Trina Clark James, founder of Jamaa Learning Center.

“Work is still being done to secure a future for Jamaa Learning Center for future school years,” it said. “We will keep you informed on this process as more information is available.

“However, because that process has not been completed we believe it is in your child’s best interest to consider all of your educational options for next year, which include attending St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS), applying to another charter school in the city, and any other options of which you may be aware for your child.”

Transition team will help families

Some parents and teachers are maintaining hope that Jamaa Learning Center will find a new sponsor.

“I think they’ll be fine. I really do. I think that there’s someone out there that will take (Jamaa) up under their wings and they should be okay,” Eddie Benion said Thursday morning as he dropped his son, Keshaun Benion, off for another day of fourth grade.

“I think that the school has done an excellent job and I think they’ll continue to do an excellent job,” Benion said, adding that he’ll “go through the process” of finding another school for his son “just in case” Jamaa doesn’t find another sponsor.

Bttye Marshall, meanwhile, said she’s not removing her daughter from the school “until they close the doors.”

“I am so shocked that the University of Missouri is trying to close this school because they should keep it open,” Marshall said. “My daughter is in fourth grade and she’s excelled two grades in one year from the teaching here.”Members of a transition team named to guide Jamaa’s closure will be available to answer questions from parents and others at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday.

Earl Simms, who is a member of that team and works with charter schools sponsored by Mizzou, said the university originally had moved to pull its sponsorship after two years, but it relented and gave the school more time.

He said there is no simple answer to the question of why Jamaa fell short of success, but questions persisted about both its success in the classroom and its ability to persist financially. “The academic and financial outcomes for sustainability at the end of the day just weren’t there,” he said.

Simms said the bills the school owed amount to twice as much cash as it had on hand – a situation he called “persistent and trending in the wrong direction.” But, he added, the school’s board says it has a plan to make it through to the end of the school year.

Jamaa – pronounced Ja-MAH -- is named for a Swahili word meaning family, village or tribe. It opened with 75 students in kindergarten, third and sixth grades. As it has expanded to include kindergarten through eighth grade, enrollment has held steady at about 160 students.

Its scores on this year’s MAP tests as released in August by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed 19.7 percent proficient or advanced in English, 8.3 percent in math and 6.7 percent in science. The school earned 25 out of 50 possible points on its annual performance review.

But James said those raw numbers don’t show the true extent to which Jamaa had succeeded in helping individual students progress.

“It might not look like that it’s positive for the school as a whole,” she said. “What they don’t see is one student who came to us and started in kindergarten and taking the MAP test and doing really well.

“Most of our scholars are coming to us with educational experience that has not been working well for them. So they’re coming, and we’re seeing growth after they’ve been with us one or two or three years.”
Operationally, James added, the school has had a hard time. Since its early days, funding outside of the traditional support Missouri pays to all public schools has been hard to come by.

“We don’t have any major organizations we’re affiliated with,” she said. “We really are a small, home-grown kind of mom and pop type school, so we have been operating off of just the public funding that all public schools, district or charter, receive every year.”

James grew up in St. Louis and attended Clayton schools under the voluntary desegregation program. She said she started Jamaa so students living in the city would have an option for a quality education near their homes.

Its guiding philosophy is based on what its website calls the “Five E’s” – academic entitlement, cultural and arts enrichment, health and beauty enhancement, financial empowerment and emotional and spiritual enlightenment. 

While Jamaa will be closing next June in its current form, James hopes the spirit of the school will be able to live on.

“We don’t see that as us not being able to live up to what the original vision was or to create something that is sustainable,” James said. “We see it as this is no longer the path of our going forward, and we are working on other options.”

Reaction to the closure 

Responding to the upcoming closure, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released this statement from Chris Neale, assistant commissioner in the office of quality schools:

We will support the school and the sponsor in ensuring a smooth process for closure. Our first priority is making sure their students find other opportunities for a high quality education In the St. Louis region.

In a separate statement, Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said accountability has to be the most important factor in deciding whether a charter school should remain open.

“The idea of a school closing is never popular,” Thaman said. “Parents and children have developed relationships with staff making it difficult to see things come to an end. A school closing places a hardship on the students and parents faced with transitioning to a new school as well as the staff having to gain new employment.

“However, under the charter public school model, the educational outcomes and the overall operational health of any school must be at a high level to justify continuing operation best serving the children.”

He said his association would work to help ensure the closure goes smoothly and students move on to a high quality school.

“We encourage all stakeholders to place personal feelings and agendas aside,” Thaman said, “keeping the students' best interests at the focal point of this process and minimizing the impact on their education. That is the most important factor for all parties moving forward.”

Special Education teacher Mary Tovar greets students entering Jamaa Learning Center on Thurs. Dec. 17, 2015.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Special Education teacher Mary Tovar greets students entering Jamaa Learning Center on Thurs. Dec. 17, 2015.

Special Education teacher Mary Tovar also hasn’t given up hope for the school’s future. As she stood by the school’s front door Thursday morning shaking each student’s hand and greeting them by name, Tovar said she won’t start looking for another job “until they lock the doors and say, ‘Miss Mary, you cannot come in.’”

Tovar said she is the only teacher who stayed at Jamaa after Mizzou first indicated it might revoke its charter in 2013.

“I found myself going to the big cattle call for St. Louis Public Schools in the spring and found myself talking about how great this school was and trying to recruit teachers,” Tovar said. “Having been through that, I just know the strength and perseverance that Jamaa has, and we will persevere through this latest setback.”

Tovar said the strong support and family-feel of the school makes it unique, as does its policy of keeping students with one teacher for three years.

According to data from the association, more than a dozen charter schools have closed in Missouri, including Imagine, Paideia, Shearwater, Thurgood Marshall and Ethel Hedgeman Lyle in St. Louis.

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter @dalesinger and Camille Phillips @cmpcamille.

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.