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Missouri board of education critical of St. Louis’ largest charter network, still reauthorizes it

Andy Sminds

Updated 9:40 a.m. — This story and the accompanying photo have been corrected to reflect the charter sponsors of the Confluence Academy network.

Missouri’s State Board of Education has limited power when it comes to charter schools, mostly making sure they meet the state’s requirements, such as staying open a certain number of days. Academic performance is out of its hands.

So when the board considered its continued consent of two charters Tuesday — including Confluence Academy, the largest in St. Louis — with poor student test scores, it was critical but, ultimately, let them stay open.

Members of the board chided one of Confluence’s sponsors, the University of Missouri-Columbia, for allowing it to have dismal test scores and no written curriculum at the four schools it sponsors, as well as putting too little pressure on Confluence to improve.

“I guess I see that as a shirking of responsibility,” board member John Martin said.

Confluence, which has been operating for 14 years, has been sponsored by the University of Missouri-Columbia since July 2014. The director of Mizzou’s charter office, Gerry Kettenbach, said that there have been changes, such as hiring a curriculum director. But those improvements resulted in “mixed outcomes, mixed progress,” he noted.

“Our decision to renew was partially based on the progress they have made,” Kettenbach added, “granted it’s not where we want them to be.”

During the several hours it spent reviewing the charters’ applications, the board made clear its dislike of the system of publicly funded but independently operated schools in Missouri, which could be expanded beyond Kansas City and St. Louis by the state Legislature. The board has less control over charter schools’ governance and performance than a traditional public school district.

Kettenbach said Confluence is too big a school network for it to simply close in June, reasoning that didn’t sit well with board members.

“That’s not something we can take lightly,” Vic Lenz said. “We take the responsibility of approving you as a sponsor. And if you’re going to be the sponsor, step up and make it happen.”

Confluence has 2,800 students in its five St. Louis schools. Most of those kids are scoring below grade level on state tests. The Grand Center Arts Academy middle and high school operates under a separate charter and sponsor, Saint Louis University, and is performing at state standard.

Board members made sure to point out that students in Confluence’s schools are doing worse than those in St. Louis Public Schools, which only just regained full state accreditation but remains under state control, that if Confluence were a public school district, it would be unaccredited.

Confluence dropped a for-profit management company and its original sponsor three years ago. In January, it brought in a new leader, Dr. Candice Carter-Oliver, who previously worked as an assistant superintendent in Normandy, whose school system is unaccredited, and St. Louis schools.

Confluence’s reauthorization is good for five more years, but Kettenbach said his office has set performance benchmarks for the schools. If they’re not met in two years, he said he will put Confluence on notice that it will either have to find a new sponsor or close.

Board members requested Kettenbach return to the board in a year to give a progress report.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Clarification: The University of Missouri-Columbia sponsors four of Confluence Academy’s five charter schools in St. Louis, which were reauthorized by the State Board of Education on Tuesday. Grand Center Arts Academy is run on a separate charter with a different sponsor.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.