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St. Louis County May Get Its First Charter School

Parents and alumni wave signs welcoming students back to Normandy High School for the 2013 school year.
File photo / Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio
Parents and alumni wave signs welcoming students back to Normandy High School for the 2013-14 school year. Some officials in the community are not cheering the possibility of a charter school opening within the district next year.

The possibility of the first public charter school opening in north St. Louis County, within the struggling Normandy school district’s borders, is being met with opposition from some local government leaders.

If approved by the Missouri State Board of Education, the Leadership School will launch in fall 2021 as the first charter school to open outside of either St. Louis or Kansas City in the two decades of the program's existence.

Several mayors of the small towns that make up the Normandy Schools Collaborative held a press conference Thursday afternoon to voice their opposition to the new school, saying elected representation should be involved in improving the district.

“We say to anyone who wants to come into our community to help in that fight, we welcome you,” said Brian Jackson, the mayor of Beverly Hills. “But we have to say to you, not without us.”

The officials argued Normandy is turning its school system around despite inadequate resources. A charter school opening nearby will further starve the district of funding, they said.

Charter schools — which are publicly funded but run independently from elected local school boards — have opened only in St. Louis and Kansas City since their 1999 creation. They’re allowed by current state law to open outside those two cities if the school district is not fully accredited.

Kimberly Townsend is the Leadership School’s founder. She taught for 18 years, including a time in Normandy. A resident of north county, she said too many parents in the community are paying for private schools or moving to other parts of the county in search of a high-quality education for their children.

“But we found some parents were really taking a chance and hoping and praying for a good teacher,” Townsend said.

The Leadership School would start with 125 children in kindergarten through second grade with plans to grow a grade each year until hitting 450 students through eighth grade. Its model, Townsend said, is to give students a voice and choice in their education by prioritizing leadership training.

“It's about coupling a sense of belonging with a rigorous academic experience,” Townsend said.

There have been other applications for charter schools in Normandy, but none has won over a sponsor. Attempts by some Republican lawmakers in recent years to allow charter schools to open across the state, regardless of accreditation status, have failed in the Legislature.

The Normandy Schools Collaborative was granted provisional accreditation in 2017 after first being stripped of the state school board’s full endorsement in 2012.

The district educates children from 24 municipalities in near-north St. Louis County. Its enrollment has been dwindling for the past two decades, down to about 3,100 students from nearly 5,900 in 1991.

When Normandy lost its accreditation, it triggered a controversial student transfer law that allowed students to enroll in neighboring districts at Normandy’s expense. About 600 students were still involved in the transfer program in 2018 when it began being phased out, to the disappointment of some parents.

The Leadership School won sponsorship from the Missouri Charter Public School Commission this fall. It still needs approval from the state school board before being able to open. A vote by the state board is expected in either December or January.

The commission has declined to sponsor other applications for charter schools in the past, but Executive Director Robbyn Wahby said, “This is an incredibly strong application.”

Townsend developed the school with the support of the Opportunity Trust, an education advocacy organization. The Opportunity Trust was co-founded by Marcus Robinson, who became Normandy’s superintendent in April.

Robinson advised Townsend and was a founding board member of the Leadership School, according to the charter school’s prospectus. But his involvement with the charter school ended long before being hired by Normandy last spring, Wahby said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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