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Tougher expectations from sponsors lead to fewer charter school applications in St. Louis

Students at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls on May 12, 2017, a St. Louis charter school that opened in 2015.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Students at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, a St. Louis charter school that opened in 2015.

The pace of new charter schools seeking to open in St. Louis has slowed, according to the universities that act as sponsors and receive formal applications.

While the reasons vary, charter sponsors say they’ve learned more about what it takes to successfully open and sustain a school both financially and academically, which is helping them weed out weak applications.

“We’re not letting a thousand flowers bloom,” said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

Charter schools — which are tuition-free, independent public schools — first opened in Missouri in 1999 as an alternative to the then-struggling St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. About a third of St. Louis’ public school kids attend charter schools, which are required by state law to have a sponsor that’s responsible for holding the school accountable.


It takes about two years to open a charter school. Growth of charters peaked from 2009 to 2011 when more than 10 opened in St. Louis, though not all have lasted. Only one new school is scheduled to open its doors St. Louis for the 2017-2018 school year.

Bill Mendelsohn, executive director of charter operations for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there’s been a reduction in applications.

“I’m not getting a lot of them, to be frank,” he said, adding that five years ago he reviewed eight to 10 applications; he got three this year. “And at this point I don’t have any potential schools on the horizon,” he said.

Both sponsors and founders said that fundraising and finding a facility to house a school are major hurdles to opening a charter school, delaying or even derailing the process.

While there is still interest in starting new schools, Saint Louis University assistant provost Steve Sanchez said, the expectations of sponsors “have been ratcheted up pretty significantly,” to the point that he’s discouraged some who’ve inquired about starting one but “have no idea what they’re doing” from submitting an application.

SLU gets one or two applications a year these days, Sanchez said, half as many as it once did.

There’s “a lot of time pressure” to get materials approved on time, according to Kathleen Mueller, who is the founder of the Arch Community School, set to open in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood in August. “All along the way, you’re never certain of the outcome.”

The state commission run by Wahby, who used to work for ex-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, received four applications for schools to open this fall, none of which were approved. It’s reviewing one to open a school in St. Louis in 2018 and none for 2019.

The mayor’s office endorses charter applications and helps play matchmaker with sponsors, but didn’t endorse any new schools in the final 16 months of Slay’s administration, according to Carl Filler, who now works for Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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