Missouri calls it quits on Imagine charter schools in St. Louis
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Missouri calls it quits on Imagine charter schools in St. Louis

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JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Board of Education put underperforming charter schools statewide on notice Tuesday by voting to close all Imagine charter schools in St. Louis.

The move likely means more than 3,500 students in the city will be looking for new schools before fall. A transition office staffed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is being set up to help families through the process. A letter to every parent with a child at an Imagine school is to go out today informing them of options. And already, St. Louis Public Schools is determining how to take on the expected influx of children.

"The sole objective here is to make sure we transition the children successfully and that there's no break or interference in their education," Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said after the vote.

The move follows months of increasing scrutiny of the schools' financial, leadership and academic problems. The schools are operated by Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc., a for-profit charter school management company. Students enrolled at the schools make up about one-third of the city's charter school population.

State test results from 2011 showed that nearly all students at the city's Imagine schools were performing below grade level in reading and math, prompting St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Nicastro to call for the closure of the schools.

In December, their sponsor, Missouri Baptist University, announced it would close two of them — Imagine Academy of Academic Success and Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts — this spring, and place the other four on probation.

On Monday, Missouri Baptist University relinquished its sponsorship of the six charter schools, handing all regulatory authority over to the state. And one day later, the Board of Education voted to close them.

But even as the state moves toward shuttering all schools by June 30, some have discussed a long-shot option of keeping some version of the schools open.

St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said one such plan would have the district sponsor the schools without the involvement of Imagine Schools Inc.

"We have had some conversations with individuals," he said, "but nothing has been submitted to us."

Under the law, the schools could conceivably remain afloat so long as they have a state-approved sponsor.

Wayne Harvey, an attorney for the governing boards at the Imagine schools, said the boards plan to "move to acquire a new sponsor," he said. "There are ongoing negotiations with that now."

Tuesday marked the first time the Board of Education had taken such a step, signaling a growing intolerance by the state for charters that don't perform at least as well as their home school districts.

State school board member Michael Jones said the children at the Imagine schools "don't get these years back. We have a legal and moral imperative to act on their behalf."

Also on Tuesday, the state board voted to allow the University of Missouri-Columbia to sponsor Carondelet Leadership Academy on the city's south side. The school had been sponsored by Missouri Baptist but is not operated by Imagine.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school districts. State law allows them only in St. Louis and Kansas City, though some Missouri legislators are pushing to allow them statewide.

The expected closures would mean that Imagine Schools, the largest charter school management company in the nation, will no longer have any charter schools in Missouri. Last summer, the governing board at Imagine Renaissance Academy in Kansas City severed its ties with Imagine and will close the school this year.

The state board's vote was "abrupt," said Ed Hayes, attorney for Imagine. "We've had school closings before, but nothing like this."

Officials from Imagine will be working with the state's transition office to get children into other schools, he said. The company is still responsible for paying rent on five of the six buildings it has been using. Imagine officials haven't ruled out legal action.

The vote by the seven-member board was taken without debate or public discussion. Imagine officials said they had hoped to show state educators the progress made at its St. Louis schools this year.

"The voices of over 2,500 St. Louis families who have chosen Imagine charter schools have been ignored," said Jason Bryant, executive vice president for Imagine, in a news statement.

Imagine has received criticism for spending millions of dollars in state money that came into the schools on rent and administrative costs, rather than on teachers, textbooks and other classroom support.

But they have remained popular with some parents. "I compare these academically to the Montessoris," said Beverly Jackson, the grandmother of a kindergartner at Imagine Academy of Environmental Science and Math, 1008 South Spring Avenue.

She'd heard earlier in the day that the school would be closing. "It's devastating."

Parents at Environmental Science and Math had received conflicting messages about the school's fate. A banner outside the school announced it was still enrolling students.

One parent shared a "voice mail blast" sent from the school Tuesday morning. In the message, an administrator warned not to listen to the "inaccurate press" and assured them that "our school will remain open."

Adams said the city school district has enough room for every Imagine student if all were to transfer, though that could include reopening unused classrooms.

On average, children at Imagine perform worse academically than those in the city's school system, which has shown steady gains in the last three years. Adams said he's not concerned that the Imagine students might hurt his district's attempts to regain accreditation.

"I don't want to label the kids by a score," he said.

If Imagine students cause any school to experience an enrollment increase of 10 percent or more next year, the test scores of the Imagine students would not count against that school for one year, Nicastro said. On the second year, school officials could either keep or throw out their scores. By the third year, the scores would count, she said.

"The last thing we want to say is these children don't count," Nicastro said.

In addition to empty spots in city public schools, the city's other charter schools have room for about 500 students, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

In the past two years, charter schools in St. Louis have begun to show improvement, with several outperforming St. Louis Public Schools, as well as the state, on last year's standardized tests.

The public is less likely to judge charter schools as a group as in the past, he said.

"The longer we see charter schools provide positive results," Thaman said, "the more likely the community will judge charters individually."

Jessica Bock and Elizabethe Holland, of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.

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