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From Competition To Cooperation: District And Charter Schools Are Working Together

Samuel Williams helps his two children onto the Jefferson Elementary School morning shuttle bus Friday, March 2, 2018. Williams said since it started in January, the shuttle provides safety and a routine for getting to school.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A father loads his children onto a school bus in St. Louis' Carr Square neighborhood. St. Louis Public Schools and two charter providers are studying ways to share transportation costs.

It’s not unusual to see several school buses crisscrossing St. Louis neighborhoods early in the morning, each carrying just a few kids.

There’s a chance that soon, students who live in the same neighborhoods but attend different schools, whether KIPP or Confluence charter schools or St. Louis Public Schools, could all pile onto the same bus.

“We are all running buses, in many cases not only to the same neighborhoods but to the same blocks and in some cases literally to the same houses,” said Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis charter schools. 

It’s inefficient and expensive, Garrett said. “We can do a better job.”

It’s the latest example of how two decades after independently run charter schools entered the education space in St. Louis, the city’s traditional school district — St. Louis Public Schools — and its two largest charters are finding more ways to get along.

While SLPS educates about 21,000 students, Confluence Academies educates another 3,000, and KIPP St. Louis about 2,300 students. 

Each runs buses to get their students to school each day. 

Transportation coordinators are trying to figure out ways to share buses — and their costs. If the right scenario is found, the plan will be put into action, the administrators said.

When charter schools first began opening in the early 2000s, the relationship between the independently run schools and the traditional school system was much more adversarial. In fact, charters looking for a place for their school were met with deed restrictions on SLPS schools being closed by the elected school board. That effectively blocked any sale to charter providers.

When a state-appointed Special Administrative Board took the district over 12 years ago and brought on Kelvin Adams as superintendent, relations began to thaw. 

A decade ago, it warmed further when KIPP approached SLPS about using an empty school building, and Adams took the idea under consideration. SLPS now rents two of its former schools to KIPP at no cost. In exchange, the district gets to count the academic performance of the students in that building as its own.

That partnership has taken small steps forward since.

“I think we both realized that there is a limited amount of money to support public education,” Adams said. “To the degree that we can work together to reduce our overhead, to the degree that we can, I think we should.”

Adams ticked off a few other areas in which SLPS has worked with KIPP: They now have a single contract for school lunches. And they’ve run joint teacher training sessions.

KIPP’s Garrett uses a term often said when making the argument for charters overall, that the healthy competition charters are meant to spur is about what’s best for kids. Now, he’s using it for cooperation.

“If we’re fighting each other, it's not going to benefit kids,” he said. 

Confluence Academies was a later arrival to the table. Its executive director, Candice Carter-Oliver, said it didn’t take much of a sell from Adams to sit down.

“I think we have just come to the realization that competition may not be the answer,” she said. “The answer may be rooted in cooperation.

“When you start to look at what you have available to you and you’re thinking about ways to do things better, and exploring or studying, that is really the work of education.”

All three school leaders say they’re open to even more cooperation. That could be around collectively recruiting students to public education or coordination of opening and closing schools.

Adams says any partnership will only go so far as it improves SLPS’ bottom line. And the battle still exists for the shrinking number of school-age children in the city and the tax dollars that follow them.

Adams even has a word for it: “Coop-etition, if you will.”

That’s cooperation combined with competition.

Correction: The audio version of this story had the charter school that the University of Missouri-Columbia sponsors wrong. The university sponsors Confluence Academies.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

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