Imagine demise in St. Louis may signal end of era

2012-05-02T00:10:00Z 2013-04-30T14:01:09Z Imagine demise in St. Louis may signal end of eraBY ELISA CROUCH • ecrouch@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8119 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • Leaders of Imagine Schools are making a last-ditch bid to keep beleaguered campuses open — but without any involvement from the for-profit corporation that brought the network of charter schools to St. Louis.

In fact, no one representing Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc. was at a meeting last month when board members from Imagine Academy of Careers answered questions from teachers and parents about the future.

Now, the corporation that crafted the charter schools in its image finds itself without a role in their fate.

It's a remarkable reversal of fortune for a company that has dominated the St. Louis charter school landscape for the past five years, cornering more than a third of the market. More broadly, many say Imagine's demise here signals the end of the era for large, for-profit companies in the management of St. Louis charter schools.

"We don't have anything to do with what Imagine decides to do from this day forward," said Reynaldo Anderson, president of the Imagine Academy of Careers board, at the forum at Imagine College Preparatory Academy.

Anderson said Imagine Schools will play no part in the board's uphill battle to find a new sponsor for the schools, which are on their last breath after the state yanked their authority to remain open beyond June 30.

Should the schools live on in any way, it will be without Imagine Schools Inc., Anderson said.

From the start, the influence of Imagine Schools Inc. permeated the six schools that bear its name.

Imagine executives handpicked the school board members. The company hired faculty and determined everything from curriculum to staff salaries to the amount teachers could spend on classroom supplies.

Yet for all that power, Imagine Schools was sidelined in discussions over shutting down the campuses. That's because legally, the charter schools' independent boards — and not Imagine Schools — have the authority to govern the schools. And even that authority only exists so long as the schools have a valid sponsor, in this case Missouri Baptist University.

Missouri Baptist surrendered that sponsorship to the state last month after continued pressure to improve the schools. The day after the surrender, the state board voted unanimously to close the schools.

Imagine representatives didn't even have a chance to testify.

"That was a very rushed process," said Eileen Bakke, co-founder of Imagine Schools. "We felt like the better thing would have been to slow things down and taken time as an authorizer to talk to parents, to talk to teachers, to have a public meeting, a public hearing, a public view of the school improvement process that had been in place."

LARGE-SCALE OPERATION

Imagine Schools Inc. entered St. Louis' charter school scene in 2004 when it bought Chancellor Beacon, an education management organization that operated three schools in the city at the time — St. Louis Charter School and the now-defunct Thurgood Marshall and Ethel Hedgeman Lyle academies.

Almost immediately, executives from Imagine were in St. Louis looking for property.

The company's real estate strategy, which involved complex land deals, was criticized by some as diverting education dollars from the classroom to private companies and developers. It allowed Imagine to open large and quickly in St. Louis. About 3,800 students — one-third of those enrolled in charter schools in St. Louis — attended an Imagine school this year.

And now those students are looking for new schools. Over the weekend, hundreds of families attended an enrollment fair at the Gateway Complex on Jefferson Avenue to figure out where to send their children in the fall.

"The displacement of this many students is a huge concern for us," Bakke said. "I don't think it's in the best interest of parents who have chosen these schools nor the students to disperse them out to surrounding schools."

But state educators have said students at Imagine schools — where standardized exam scores are worse than at all other public schools in the city — would be better off just about anywhere else.

NO APPEAL

Now that the schools are scheduled to close, Imagine Schools officials have no plans to fight to stay in Missouri, they said.

The question is what to do with five school buildings the company is still responsible for leasing, despite the fact that no students will be in them. The company does not expect to sue the state or anyone else over the closures.

"The charters are held by the boards, as you know," Jason Bryant, executive vice president for Imagine, said last week. "Imagine is not going to pursue a lawsuit."

The exit of Imagine comes as another for-profit company, EdisonLearning, appears to be leaving St. Louis. Like Imagine Schools, EdisonLearning also operates a cluster of mostly low-performing schools called Confluence Academy. The governing board is negotiating an end to the relationship with the hope of improving academics.

The expected exodus of both companies means that just about all charter schools in St. Louis will be run as free-standing schools operated by nonprofit organizations or the local residents who opened them.

The trend in St. Louis is the opposite of what's happening nationally. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an increasing percentage of students are attending charter schools operated by management companies.

Robbyn Wahby, education liaison for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the change is a good sign. "The idea here is perform or close. Those schools started under a different set of principles," she said of the Imagine and Confluence schools.

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