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These St. Louis charter schools have struggled for 14 years, but continue to evade closure

These St. Louis charter schools have struggled for 14 years, but continue to evade closure

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Of the more than 10,400 children who attend charter schools in St. Louis, few perform worse as a group than the 2,800 who attend Confluence Academies.

The network of five schools on four campuses has lagged far behind state averages on Missouri standardized exams throughout its 14-year history.

That kind of persistent failure is supposed to be at odds with the very concept of charter schools. The independently run, publicly funded schools are founded on the idea that, if they fail in their promise to provide a better alternative to traditional public schools, they should be closed.

And yet on Tuesday, Missouri’s Board of Education said it had no choice but to grant the schools a fresh five-year license to operate.

In fact, Missouri law generally gives the board, which is the state’s highest authority in K-12 education, no direct oversight of charter schools. Its role is more about making sure paperwork is complete than it is ensuring students are learning. It’s a reality that makes some board members fume.

“We’ve been baffled. We don’t like what’s going on, but we can’t do anything about it,” state board Vice President Victor Lenz said last week. “We’re tired of having to approve something that obviously shouldn’t be going on.”

So the board voted unanimously to renew Confluence’s charter, but not before spending the better part of an hour scolding its leaders for failing to show satisfactory results after 14 years.

“I come back to almost 3,000 students, some of whom have gone through an entire school generation in failed schools. In failed schools,” state board member Peter Herschend said at the meeting. “And that’s inexcusable.”

Dependent on sponsors

When traditional public schools have failed, the Missouri State Board of Education has revoked their accreditation, taken over schools and even shut down an entire district.

But when a charter school shows poor performance, the state board can sanction its sponsor but not the school.

Every Missouri charter school requires a sponsor, usually a university, to operate. Some board members say they can do little more than hope the sponsor either turns the school around or has the sense to close it. In extreme cases, the board can remove a sponsor and prohibit that organization from sponsoring future charter schools. It has never done so.

Sponsors must reapply every five years for the state to renew their schools’ charters, or else be closed off from state funding.

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Public Charter School Association, said the law is working as it was intended. Limiting the state board’s power, he said, is a deliberate way to ensure charter schools remain independent and free to pursue educational reforms.

“I think it’s an important separation,” Thaman said. “The State Board of Education is not in the business of operating school districts or managing school districts.”

In the 18-year history of charter schools in Missouri, the state counts 21 times when a charter school has closed. The vast majority of those closures happened because the university sponsor revoked its sponsorship.

The two times when the state board did close charter schools happened after sponsors of failing schools handed off sponsorship to the board. That gave the state the authority to close them. Such was the case with Imagine Schools, which the state board shuttered in 2012, causing a sudden influx of 3,800 children in St. Louis to other schools.

The state board’s lack of direct oversight authority was evident at last week’s meeting when another charter school applied for a renewal.

The Academy for Integrated Arts, sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has just 12 percent of students who passed state math tests, and 32 percent for English.

State board members came up empty when thinking of reasons to keep the 176-student charter school open. And so they voted 3-2, with two members abstaining, against renewing the school’s charter.

Then the board abruptly retreated into a private session to rethink its action.

After returning to the public meeting, the board voted 6-2 to renew the charter, because members knew they would be sued for violating state law if they didn’t, said Mike Jones, the state board’s St. Louis representative.

“At a certain point, you learn to live with these paradoxes, but that doesn’t make it right,” Jones said.

The state board’s frustration on oversight comes as legislators are looking to expand charter schools to counties throughout the state. Currently, charters enroll about 23,000 students only in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Troubled history

at Confluence

Confluence Academies has continued even as other charter schools with low performance have shuttered.

In 2012, Confluence was under threat of closure when its then-sponsor, Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, placed the school on probation.

That probation was lifted a year later, triggering complaints from the State Board of Education. Confluence gained sponsorship from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2014. Tuesday’s vote marked the third time the State Board has renewed a five-year charter for Confluence.

But even as that vote was cast, board members rebuked Mizzou as the school’s sponsor for what they said was lax oversight. Many directed their comments to Gerry Kettenbach, Mizzou’s director of charter school operations, saying he should have the guts to close Confluence.

“You have the responsibility to make sure they’re doing what they need to do in order to continue,” Lenz said to Kettenbach. “This is 2,900 kids. That’s not something we can take lightly.”

Kettenbach holds to the belief that Confluence is improving and deserves another chance, or at least that closing Confluence would be worse than keeping it open. Kettenbach argued that abruptly closing Confluence would be traumatic, like it was for Imagine students, suddenly leaving 2,800 students without a school.

If Confluence closed, those students might have to attend neighborhood district schools .

“School closures are always the last option,” Kettenbach told the board. “It’s a moral issue. And it’s a public responsibility issue.”

He also claimed a closure would “become a litigious thing,” echoing a complaint by charter-school sponsors that their efforts to revoke sponsorship have been met by lawsuits.

Kettenbach pointed to the hiring of Confluence’s first chief executive, Candice Carter-Oliver, as a promise that the schools will turn a corner. Carter-Oliver was previously an assistant superintendent for the similarly high-poverty, majority-black Normandy School District in north St. Louis County. That district has improved significantly from bottom-level scores in 2014 but still performs as poorly as a provisionally accredited district.

The early years

In many respects, Confluence is a carryover from how charter schools used to be in St. Louis.

In the first years after charter schools opened in St. Louis in 2000, most tended to be large, multi-campus operations managed by for-profit companies, often with questionable reputations.

Most schools from that era have gone extinct amid failing academics and financial woes. Now, building on lessons from that generation, new St. Louis charter schools tend to start and remain small, adding a grade a year, and are run by nonprofits or community members.

Confluence’s first school opened in 2003 in Old North St. Louis with 240 students under the for-profit management of EdisonLearning. At the time, the controversial company was trying to salvage its reputation amid financial failure while managing dozens of other public schools in the country. Nine years later, Confluence severed ties with EdisonLearning.

Confluence grew quickly. After just five years, Confluence had three schools with nearly 2,300 students.

Today, almost all Confluence students are minority children from low-income families. Just 17 percent of students who took state math tests scored proficient or advanced last year, while 32 percent did so for English. The schools’ worst test score is in science, for which just 6 percent of students scored proficient or advanced.

The schools as a group passed just 48.3 percent of the state’s accreditation standards, meaning they fare as poorly as an unaccredited school district.

Even so, school leaders say the score is significantly higher than the 28.3 percent rating in 2013.

Leaders also point out that they serve a high-poverty student population, with Confluence schools outperforming district schools in the neighborhoods where they operate. For example, 33.2 percent of students at Confluence’s Aspire Academy scored proficient or advanced in English, compared to just 10.6 percent for Walbridge Elementary located two blocks away and 15.2 percent at nearby Herzog Elementary.

Parent and Confluence board member Essence Owens is among those who see Confluence as a better alternative to district schools. She said she enrolled her two children at Confluence-Old North largely for the simple chance to choose where her children go to school.

“Just having the choice was the biggest thing,” she said.

High turnover of teachers

Carter-Oliver is working on adding Advanced Placement courses — currently Confluence offers none — as well as dual enrollment in local college courses and a high school biomedical track. She wants to offer project-based learning and internships. The more students are engaged in learning, she said, the less likely they’ll be bored or act out.

“We aim to keep schools safe, but suspension is not the answer,” Carter-Oliver said. “When children are engaged, you reduce misbehavior.”

One of the biggest problems Carter-Oliver has to face is a teacher turnover rate of 17 percent. Kettenbach has said that kind of turnover has forced the school to start “from square one, rather than building upon teachers’ knowledge and taking the program to the next level.”

Confluence attributes the faculty loss to “administration taking instructional accountability to higher levels.” However, some teachers have described out-of-control student behavior and high-stress environments.

“After those two days at (Confluence Preparatory Academy), I told them, don’t ever send me back,” said Tosha Phoenix, a substitute teacher Confluence hired through a third-party agency. “They can’t pay me $24 an hour to go back to CPA. They can never pay me to go back.”

Carter-Oliver is working with staff to offer tuition reimbursement for teachers, student loan assistance and expansion of a teacher academy.

Those kinds of initiatives makes Kettenbach optimistic that Carter-Oliver will bring needed change to the schools.

“We believe she will effectively lead Confluence Academy to greater success in the next five years,” Kettenbach wrote in Confluence’s charter renewal application that the State Board said it had no choice but to renew.

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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