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St. Louis County’s First Charter School Wins State Approval

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
A charter school has won state approval to open next year within the Normandy school district's boundaries. It will be the first charter school in the state outside of St. Louis and Kansas City.

Charter schools have broken out of the boundaries of Missouri’s two largest cities for the first time.

The Leadership School won a charter from a divided state school board Thursday and plans to open as an elementary school in north St. Louis County next fall. It will be located somewhere within the boundaries of the provisionally accredited Normandy school district.

The Leadership School’s model is to give students a voice and choice in their education by prioritizing leadership training. Founder Kimberly Townsend said the school will offer students a sense of belonging and strong academics.

“I just have a belief that every kid deserves to have an amazing school where they are known and loved. And parents deserve to have high-quality options so they can make better choices for what's the right fit for their children,” Townsend said in an interview last month.

The state board approved the school 6-1, with one abstention.

“There is a huge need in this area; this is the lowest-performing district in the state,” said board member Carol Hallquist. “It’s a very strong and well-done application.”

Normandy lost its state accreditation in 2012, triggering a student transfer law that bled it of funding and students. The state school board bumped the district up to provisional accreditation in 2017. Academics have improved in recent years, but the district still struggles. Less than half of third graders passed state math and reading assessments in 2019. Its high school graduation rate in May was 69%.

Because of the district’s obstacles, state board member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, who previously served on Normandy’s governing board, voted against the charter.

“You can’t morally advance options and choice for one group by taking away the rights and choice of another,” she said.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed, beholden largely to their sponsor instead of an elected school board. Colleges and the Missouri Charter Public School Commission have the ability to sponsor charters. In the case of the Leadership School, the commission is backing its charter.

Charter schools are allowed in St. Louis and Kansas City. They can open outside those places if they’re sponsored by a school board or if a district lacks full accreditation. Some state lawmakers and charter school advocates have tried in recent years to make it easier to open charter schools across Missouri, but the attempts never won over the Legislature.

Previous proposals for charter schools within the Normandy school district failed to gain a sponsor.

Some elected leaders who represent the towns in the Normandy school district oppose this new charter, arguing that all available resources should be poured into improving the district’s struggling schools.

Normandy’s school board is also skeptical of the encroaching school. Townsend went before the board Monday to offer partnership opportunities, but board member Ronald Roberts said the school’s track record doesn’t give him confidence for the future.

“It sounds like the community engagement process was disjointed, for lack of a better term, and there were missed opportunities for collaboration,” he said.

Other members called Townsend an outsider because she grew up in Chicago. She’s lived and taught in the St. Louis area for 18 years, including some in Normandy. She met with area parents and held virtual sessions this year to promote the new school.

Normandy educates children from 24 municipalities in near-north St. Louis County. Its enrollment has been dwindling for the past two decades, down to about 3,000 students from nearly 5,900 in 1991.

The Leadership School will start with 125 children in kindergarten through second grade, with plans to grow a grade each year until hitting 450 students through eighth grade. The location of the school has not been determined. The Special School District will provide special education services, as it does for all public schools in St. Louis County.

The school’s first charter is for five years before requiring renewal by the state school board, although its sponsor could move to close the school sooner.

“We believe the team can build and grow an exceptional public school in Normandy,” said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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