St. Louis' largest charter school network got a five-year renewal Tuesday even though it has not met state performance expectations in its almost 14 years of operation.
Confluence Academy, a nearly 100 percent minority and low-income charter school network founded in 2003, educates about a quarter of all St. Louis charter school students. Charter schools are independently run, publicly funded schools that require a sponsor — usually a university — to operate.
According to state standards, only two other current St. Louis charter schools performed worse than Confluence last year: Preclarus Mastery Academy, which is in danger of closing after losing its sponsor last month, and Carondelet Leadership Academy. Confluence has more than six times as many students at its four campuses as Carondelet, and more than 18 times as many students as Preclarus.
Only 17 percent of Confluence students who took state math tests scored proficient or advanced last year, while 32 percent did so for English. The schools' worst score is in science. Only 6 percent of students scored proficient or advanced.
In 2016, the state gave Confluence a school score of 48.3 percent, without factoring in that state tests were changed last year. Confluence has improved its score from 2013, when it got 28.3 percent. But that also means Confluence has always performed as poorly as an unaccredited school district.
Confluence's sponsor, University of Missouri-Columbia, bore almost an hour of blows from the Missouri Board of Education at its meeting in Jefferson City Tuesday.
The board hammered Gerry Kettenbach, Mizzou's director of charter schools, for failing to hold Confluence to a higher standard and acknowledge when it's time to close schools that board members say have been failing students for more than a decade. State law gives sponsors, not the state board, the power to close charter schools.
“You'd be an unaccredited district today,” said state board member Peter Herschend at the meeting. “Yet here we are debating about, well, maybe we should let this unaccredited district roll forward for another five years. I don't find that to be a satisfactory position at all.”
Kettenbach argued Tuesday that closing Confluence would be too traumatic for its 2,800 children. If Confluence closed, those students might have to attend district neighborhood schools nearby that are even worse than Confluence.
“School closures are always the last option,” Kettenbach told the board Tuesday. “It's a moral issue. And it's a public responsibility issue.”
Kettenbach also said he believes that Confluence's new CEO, Candice Carter-Oliver, will be an agent of change for Confluence. Carter-Oliver is a month and a half into her new job and was previously an assistant superintendent at Normandy schools, a similarly majority-minority, low-income district that has showed improvements in the past two years.
The state board voted unanimously to grant Kettenbach's application to renew Confluence's charter, since the application and sponsor satisfied state requirements.