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Paideia Academy's future remains unclear; school won't say if it plans to reopen

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2010 - The sign above the door at Paideia Academy in north St. Louis proclaims NOW ENROLLING, with another banner saying: Classes Begin Aug. 20th.

But four days before its school year was supposed to begin, Paideia Academy -- the north St. Louis charter school that lost its charter, its sponsor and its lawsuit to remain open -- isn’t saying whether it will be teaching students this fall or when those classes might really begin.

On Monday, Clarence Jackson, who has been designated the school's spokesman, said he was not sure of the school's plans. Neither its executive director, Brenda Johnson-Pruitt, nor its board president, Fred Robinson, would answer questions about the school's fate.

"We have a potential start date, but I'm not at liberty to release that right now," Robinson said in a brief telephone interview.

"We are in litigation. There are certain things we can't talk about. When we have information, we will release it in a written press release. I will not give any verbal information to anybody."

When it was pointed out that this is the week that many schools in the St. Louis area are starting class, Robinson said:

"We don't do what all the other schools are doing."

Jackson said that the sign advising families of the Aug. 20 opening date has been up for a few months, but he couldn't promise that teachers and students would be starting then.

"The school is making preparations to open" is about as definite as Jackson could get during an interview at Paideia's headquarters at 5223 N. 20th St.

For Friday's deadline to be reached, Jackson said, "a confluence of factors must be aligned," including partnerships and relationships with outside groups that he would not specify. He also would not answer questions about whether teachers are under contract to start the school year.

He said that Paideia has enjoyed "such a strong sense of loyalty from students and their families, they won't have any problem" opening quickly if the necessary conditions are met.

Such support hasn't come from the city's political establishment, Jackson said, though again he would not be specific about who has blocked the way for Paideia to open.

"We believe quite frankly that the political leadership, this was not a school that originated, so it doesn't fall under their hegemony," Jackson said. "The political winds were such that they didn't favor Paideia Academy."

The school had been sponsored by the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, but it backed out of that role and was never replaced. Lincoln University in Jefferson City had expressed possible interest, but once the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education revoked Paideia's charter, citing low student test scores, Lincoln backed off.

Paideia took the issue to court, but Cole County Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled last month that it could not operate because of the state's action. "No sponsor," Beetem wrote, "no charter."

The legal uncertainty and the lack of public communication has left parents and potential students in an awkward position. State education officials say Paideia cannot operate as a charter, and it is not part of the St. Louis Public Schools system, so it cannot open as a traditional public school. City schools began classes on Monday.

The only other option is to become a private school, and Jackson said Paideia is not going that route. He again emphasized that partnerships are key, but he would not specify that those partnerships would pay for, if the school is not going to become private.

Orlando Fleming, who said that he had six children who had attended Paideia over the past few years, will not be sending them back there this year. But his decision is based not on the school's shaky legal status but on the fact that he moved from north St. Louis to south St. Louis, which he said is too far from the school's location at 2017 East Linton Ave.

Fleming said he was satisfied with their academic experience at Paideia. He also said he had received a call three days ago that he should bring his students up to the school on Thursday for this year's registration. School officials would not confirm that date.

The Linton location was one of two campuses that Paideia had operated. The other, at 7604 Michigan Ave. in south St. Louis, is set to reopen next Monday as the Carondelet Leadership Academy, one of four new charter schools in the city this fall.

The others are Shearwater High School, designed to attract students who had been disconnected from school and want to re-enter, which opened two weeks ago at Ranken Technical College at 4470 Finney Ave.; Grand Center Arts Academy, which opened Monday in temporary quarters at Third Baptist Church at Grand and Washington while its permanent site in the Beaux Arts building; and the Gateway Science Academy, which opened at 6576 Smiley Ave.