PINE LAWN — A charter school is coming to the Normandy school district next fall, despite the most organized opposition since the taxpayer-funded schools first opened 20 years ago in St. Louis.
“We reject the idea of experimenting with our educational system with our children,” said Joyce McRath, a former Normandy School Board member. “The push for charter schools rarely happens in rural communities or communities that don’t look like ours.”
The Leadership School would be the first charter school to open outside of St. Louis or Kansas City, accomplishing a longtime goal for proponents of school choice. School leaders, who haven’t identified a location yet, plan to open with 125 students in kindergarten through second grade, and eventually grow to 450 students through eighth grade.
Mayors and elected officials in the 24:1 Municipal Partnership hosted a town hall meeting Thursday to voice their opposition to the charter school. The leaders said they are leery of outside entities that would siphon students and tax dollars and make it more difficult for Normandy to improve its schools.
Last month, the Normandy School Board approved a resolution expressing “its complete discontentment with the process” by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission because board members were not included in the discussions about The Leadership School.
“The promise of public education is that it is available to all, not just those lucky to be selected for the new school,” said Patricia Ross, mayor of Velda Village Hills.
Charter schools receive public funding but are operated by independent boards. Under state law, charter schools can open in St. Louis, Kansas City and other districts that persistently fail to meet accreditation standards, including Normandy.
The state board of education is expected to vote Dec. 8 on The Leadership School’s application, although under state law the board’s approval is not required for the school to open. In September, some board members signaled unease with charter expansion after greenlighting Atlas charter school, opening in St. Louis next fall.
Board member Carol Hallquist of Kansas City said the growth of charter schools has not improved crime rates or other socio-economic measures in St. Louis and Kansas City and has caused “an erosion of money and students” from public school districts.
Supporters of the charter school say Normandy has failed its students for decades, and families deserve a choice other than paying tuition or moving into higher-performing districts.
“Our kids need something new and different now,” said Kimberly Townsend, the school’s founder and executive director. “This is long overdue for kids in north St. Louis County where their districts are not fully meeting their needs.”
Townsend has been developing her plan for the school for two years as an employee of the Opportunity Trust, a nonprofit funder of charter schools in St. Louis including Atlas. The Leadership School model is based on personalized learning, she said.
Rather than damaging existing public schools, opening The Leadership School is like “sending another fire truck to the fire,” said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the state Charter Public School Commission, which sponsors the new school.
Normandy schools have not been fully accredited for the last decade and are under the control of the Missouri Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Starting in 2013, the district paid tuition and transportation for about 1,000 students to transfer to higher-performing districts, as allowed under state law. The district nearly went bankrupt after spending $35 million on the transfer program. It returned to provisional accreditation in 2017, effectively ending the transfer program.
The district’s test scores still rank as lowest in the state, with 15% of students proficient in English and 7% proficient in math in 2019. There have been recent improvements, including the graduation rate at Normandy High rising from 53% in 2013 to 78% in 2019.
In 2017, the district passed a $23 million bond issue that allowed for construction and improvements to schools. A new early learning center opened to serve up to 500 preschool and kindergarten students, and elementary schools were converted to serve first through eighth graders.
But enrollment fell by 316 students this year to a total of 2,770. The district is considering school closures or consolidations next year because of the decline, officials said.
Townsend said she expects the new charter school will attract families who live in the district but send their kids to private or parochial schools. About 70 families have expressed interest in The Leadership School so far, she said.
Crystal Ulett of Bel-Nor said she is considering moving her three youngest children out of private school and into the new charter school next year, but she worries about families in the Normandy district who can’t move or pay tuition.
“I think families should have a choice and not just have to accept whatever the school district gives to them,” Ulett said. “I’m all for bringing up the community. I would love to stay here and continue to see Normandy get their accreditation back, but I would love another option.”
Charter schools have a mixed record in St. Louis. About half of the 30-plus schools that have opened since 2000 have been shut down for academic or financial failure. In June, Carondelet Leadership Academy was the latest to shutter, displacing 400 students and 50 staff members.
Dorothy Rohde-Collins, president of the St. Louis Public Schools board, said she was encouraged by the questions about charter expansion in Normandy and support for the school district.
“If this had happened when charter schools first entered the city of St. Louis 20 years ago, we would have a less fragmented education system, and one that is better equipped to meet the needs of our children,” she said.
Opponents of the charter school also raised concerns about the hiring last spring of Marcus Robinson as superintendent of the Normandy Schools Collaborative. Robinson served as a founding board member for The Leadership School and previously worked for its fiscal sponsor the Opportunity Trust, which has also donated more than $1.5 million to the Normandy district this year for its strategic plan and other expenses. Robinson previously led a charter school network in Indianapolis and testified at a Missouri legislative hearing in 2019 in favor of charter school expansion.
Robinson said he stopped working on plans for The Leadership School in December 2019, and that his loyalties are with the district. Robinson’s son, Maxwell, attends the district’s Jefferson School. There are no plans to convert any of the district’s schools to charters, he said.
While the district has no authority to stop The Leadership School from opening, Robinson said he is not intimidated by the competition.
“We need as much innovation to uplift all the kids and provide a quality education for all students,” he said.