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Public school advocates want to stop Believe STL charter school from opening

School teachers ghost
Sarah Gonzales
Special to NPR
Community members and parents in north St. Louis want to stop the opening of Believe St. Louis Academy, a charter school supported by Opportunity Trust. North St. Louis residents say opening charter schools reduces funding from SLPS, creates layoffs and disrupts children's learning experience.

Some parents, community members and former educators in north St. Louis do not want a new charter school to open in the St. Louis Public Schools district. They say it will take away school funding and could shutter area public schools.

The Missouri State Board of Education approved Believe St. Louis Academy’s application last month; however, the St. Louis Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the charter on Nov. 9, saying the board did not receive proper notice in the application process.

Members of Communities One Project, a group that supports the city’s school district, have been protesting over the past few months to stop the privatization of schools in communities of color across the region.

Believe St. Louis founders are trying to push charter schools in communities that already have enough schools, said Gwendolyn Cogshell.

“What people don't understand, when you close a school — that's what happens when a charter is coming in and schools get closed — it disrupts the community,” she said.

Cogshell remembers when SLPS closed Dunbar Elementary School. She said the closure caused some families distress as they had to find new bus stops for their children and rides to pick up those bused to other elementary schools farther away.

“Charter schools disrupt, and they take money away from our existing schools,” Cogshell said. “It just evokes emotional distress from the community because they see a loss in a community.”

Parents say opening Believe St. Louis, which is partly funded by the Opportunity Trust, will decrease funding from the public school system, because resources and funding follow a child who leaves the district and attends a charter school.

“There are a number of high schools in the city of St. Louis, so this organization, bringing in a new high school, it's really unnecessary, because of the enrollment decline,” said Gloria Nolan, who is a parent of two children in the St. Louis school district and a board member for the Network for Public Education Action, a national group that advocates for public school systems.

Nolan is protesting new charters schools opening because she doesn't like how some have opened in the city then closed a handful of years later, such as Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls and La Salle Charter Schools, which both shuttered earlier this year in north St. Louis. These closures are disruptive to children’s learning experiences, she said.

“They’ll have some success, and then they will start dwindling, and then the students will be struggling,” Nolan said. “And the organization will struggle to keep the school doors open, then they'll just close it and then try to do another one. That's wasting a lot of people's time.”

Believe St. Louis’ founders say they do not have a specific location in north St. Louis just yet, and to limit school closures, they do not plan to open a school that is next to another public school.

“Our goal is to be located in a place that allows us to serve students that need us,” said Kimberly Neal-Brannum, founder and CEO of Believe St. Louis.

Neal-Brannum said she has only heard positive reflections from parents about the potential opening of Believe St. Louis and has reached out to community members who are not in support of the charter, but has not heard back from anyone.

She said she is aware that many area residents are concerned about layoffs and resources being pulled from area public schools. She wants to open the school to bring more teachers and staff to the city and keep students in the neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, we're also losing a ton of our students, specifically our Black students … to schools in north county,” she said. “A lot of them [parents] are going to charter, because they don't feel like their kids are able to get the education that they need.”

Nolan disagrees with the criticism of SLPS and hopes in the future that schools will be better funded to keep children.

“They deserve to have fully funded schools, with all of the resources, and all of the extracurriculars available to them,” she said. “Every time we stretch those resources and funds, then the students in St. Louis public schools, they lose.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Gloria Nolan's comments and affiliations.

The Opportunity Trust is a financial supporter of St. Louis Public Radio. STLPR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations by members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in STLPR's journalism.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.