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First charter school opens in St. Louis County, despite ongoing controversy

A child waits for information during grade school orientation
Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
A child waits for information during orientation on Aug. 16 at a registration table for the new Leadership School in Pagedale.

It’s back-to-school time across much of St. Louis — and Monday is the first day for a new county charter school.

For years, Missouri law permitted charter schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Now, the Leadership School in Pagedale is opening for families in the municipalities that make up the Normandy Schools Collaborative.

The school is starting with 125 students in kindergarten through second grade. It will eventually expand to 450 students through 8th grade, said founder and Executive Director Kimberly Townsend.

“I am really excited,” Townsend said. “A bit overwhelmed, honestly. It's been such a long journey over these last few years, but our parents have been amazing.”

Missouri law allows charter schools outside of the cities if a school district is not fully accredited. The Normandy school district lost accreditation in 2012 and became provisionally accredited in 2017.

The Leadership School was originally supposed to open in 2020 but experienced multiple delays.

 Kimberly Townsend, founder and executive director of The Leadership School  —  the first charter school in St. Louis County— speaks to families
Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
Kimberly Townsend, founder and executive director of the Leadership School, a new charter school in Pagedale, speaks to families during orientation last week.

Mayors of cities in the school district have spoken out against the school since it was announced, including Beverly Hills Mayor Brian Jackson.

“We were starkly against it, mainly because we believe it to hurt our school district,” Jackson said. “And we believe that it's not a good source of education for our young people and it's not good for taxpayers.”

The Normandy Schools Collaborative recently elected its first school board members after years of governance by a state-appointed board. The return to a locally elected school board is a step toward full accreditation.

The district is also searching for a new superintendent after Marcus Robinson resigned. Robinson was never certified to be a superintendent in Missouri, which can impact a district’s accreditation status. Robinson is also a former employee of the Opportunity Trust, which supported the opening of the Leadership School, and Robinson was a founding board member of the Leadership School.

Townsend said the number of students enrolled shows there was a need for the school.

“The fact that parents have signed their children up, I think they're looking for something new and different,” Townsend said. “And so I just think that if people talk to parents about what it is that they want, those who have young children, they'll hear a different perspective.”

Mourisha Ross is one of the parents who was looking for something different for her 7-year-old son Damari.

“We live in the Normandy school district, and he went to Normandy the last two years,” Ross said. “We just didn't have the best experience from virtual school to transitioning back to regular school. Everything was just really unorganized, and nobody knew up from down.”

Ross is excited for a smaller school that she hopes will mean more individual focus on her son.

At an orientation for students and families, Denetria Neil, director of student and community affairs, gave students high fives as they entered the building.

The former warehouse on Pennsylvania Avenue now has classrooms and the multicolored floor tiles that are common in new schools, but construction to convert the building was not quite finished last week. Before beginning her welcome speech, Townsend warned families that there were issues with some of the bathrooms. Balloons framed the entrance to the school, but so did a few pieces of discarded lumber.

“We definitely have a few things to iron up over the last five days, but it definitely looks like a school, it feels like a school now,” Townsend said. “Our teachers have been working diligently this week to get in here and start setting up their classrooms.”

Townsend says the school will have a ribbon-cutting event after Labor Day.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.