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Catching up with the Charter School Commission. Rigorous approval process snags plan in Normandy

KT Klng | Flickr

The Missouri Charter Public School Commission had a good reason to locate its office in the heart of the Cortex entrepreneur mecca in St. Louis.

Robbyn Wahby, who became the commission’s first executive director last year after serving as education adviser to Mayor Francis Slay, said she hopes to work with a wide range of people who are interested in starting charters. Her office in the CIC building on South Sarah is a good place to bring such people together, she said in a recent interview there.

“We want to engage with entrepreneurs and folks who are inventors and see if there is something that they might want to think about,” Wahby said, “taking a concept and actually trying it out in a school.”

That expansive outlook is a big part of the commission’s purpose. The Missouri legislature created it in 2012 as an independent agency that could be added to the universities and others that sponsor charter schools. Its nine members are appointed by the governor for four-year terms from slates proposed by school officials and legislative leaders as well as the governor himself.

Charters are publicly funded schools that operate independent of local districts. Currently, they exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City, with about 20,000 students attending about three dozen schools. They are also allowed in unaccredited districts – currently Normandy and Riverview Gardens – and can be started in other school districts if their elected school boards act as sponsor.

So far, the commission has sponsored only one charter, the Citizens of the World school that opened in Kansas City in August of this year. Wahby said the school is just what the commission is looking for: an alternative learning experience that is powered by the local community.

“It was parent driven,” she said. “The community and parents worked for several years before we ever got involved in establishing the kind of school they wanted. They designed it. They thought about it. And then they actually went out and asked for bids. They asked for schools to come in and open.”

A detailed process

In her education job at City Hall, Wahby helped establish a detailed process for starting charter schools, one that typically involved an initial application that required a lot of refinement before it could move forward. The commission is operating the same way, she said.

Most people who are interested in starting a charter are referred to the commission by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. They then submit a letter of intent and a brief description outlining its plans.

“If that letter of intent and prospectus look appealing and look like they have the capacity to actually implement a high performing public school in Missouri,” Wahby said, “then we'll invite them to apply.”

Typically, that’s just the beginning. Outside evaluators look at any application to determine what additional information may be needed – or whether the proposal is unlikely to succeed no matter what changes are made. The questions cover a wide range, from education to operations to finances, Wahby said.

“Does the application meet state standards and state law?” she said. “Does the applicant have the capacity to actually implement and start a strong organization that provides public education? Do the plan and the finances and the human capital all line up to actually achieve the results that they say they want to achieve. Are those results in alignment with what high performing schools do?

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission
Credit Missouri Charter Public School Commission
Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission

“So we look at all of those things. We look at the coherence of the alignment of the pieces of the application, and then we look at the capacity of the group, and we look at the particular standards.” 

The whole process, Wahby added, is really more of an art than a science — not just going down a list and checking yes or no. And all of the questions are geared toward one goal.

“Our interest is getting high-performing schools open,” Wahby said. “So if the applicant looks like it really can deliver on a high-performing school, we'll continue to work with that applicant. We'll provide them additional feedback, and then move them through the process, which includes a public hearing and interview with the board.

“At that time, the commission will make a decision as to whether to sponsor it. At any time through the process, if it appears as if the applicant is not able to really open a strong school, and then produce a high performing public school, then we'll decline the application.”

Giving the public a say

One feature the commission has added, Wahby said, is a public hearing that comes when the commission feels it’s time to open the process.

“We thought it was really important to go into a community and give the community time to come in and speak to the commission,” she said, “and have them advocate for or voice any concerns they might have. It also gave us a chance to see this applicant in action with the community.”

From concept to application, she said, the process takes a couple of years. No St. Louis area schools have reached the public hearing stage. That fact has frustrated Shawntelle Fisher, who wanted the commission to sponsor a charter school in Normandy.

She submitted documentation in May for a charter based on what she termed experiential learning, with a focus on the STEM fields and character education. It was sent back for revisions, and she submitted it again with the expectation that the commission would give her group a hearing at its October meeting.

Instead, she was told that after a review, the commission decided not to move forward – a decision she found confusing after she took a look at what other groups have one.

“They gave us two charter school applications to use as models,” Fisher said. “Now, looking at our application, we know it is a quality application, compared with opened charters. There's no comparison. You wonder how did they even get a charter.”

Wahby told Fisher that her application fell short in several ways.

“The charter school application is designed to showcase the potential school beyond a series of compliance requirements,” she wrote. “It must demonstrate capacity, alignment and rigor.

“This application lacked these elements. Without these key elements the school would not open strong and would not become a high-performing school. Few groups make the effort that Fisher STEM has and the team is to be commended. It is important to remember, very few move beyond the review stage.”

The decision not to move forward was not an easy one, she added.

“It's not just so simple as to say, that's a good idea,” Wahby said in the interview. “There's plenty of great ideas. But can this team of people that are trying to open this public school, do it well, and do it in alignment with what the regulations are of the state and the commission.

“So it's putting those things together, and examining the totality of it, and that's how we determine whether something should move forward or not.”

'There's plenty of great ideas. But can this team of people that are trying to open this public school do it well?' -- Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the commission

Unhappy with the decision not to move her application forward, Fisher branded the whole process “highly political” and said she plans to approach other possible sponsors. Wahby said that alternative is a good path to follow, and both women agree that Normandy families deserve good alternatives for quality education.

“Students shouldn't have to be bused away from their home district just to receive a quality education,” Fisher said. “They should be able to receive it right in their home district.” 

Added Wahby:

“I think we want to give families choice. Right now, only people with means have choice. You can move. If you can buy a house someplace else, you can get that school district. And I think we want to be able to make sure that we can also take choice to families where they live.”

But Wahby denied any political aspects of the application and approval process. She noted that while the commission got startup funds from the legislature, its ongoing revenue will come from a 1.5 percent fee based on student attendance of schools it  sponsors.

“My interest is to open as many schools as possible, because I would be generating revenue from it,” she said. “We're all committed — the commissioners who have been selected by the governor and appointed to this commission, and the staff who has been hired by the commission — we are committed to high quality public schools.”

The commission may be off to a slow start, Wahby said, but the deliberative approach has a purpose.

“Check on us in a few years,” she said. “We're going to have great schools throughout Missouri.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.