The inaugural year for Mississippi’s first charter schools could be a lesson in what kinds of charter schools are successful and which face more challenges.
Staff turnover, lack of oversight and poor planning plagued Midtown Public Charter School in Jackson during its opening year. The rollout of its counterpart across town, ReImagine Prep, seemed to go more smoothly, partly because of the larger network of support it found in its parent organization, RePublic Schools.
Midtown saw as many as 10 teachers and staff members — including the principal, chief operations officer and special education director — resign during its first year. Several current employees in the small staff of about 13 are not planning to return next year, and only one out of three teachers will be back.
Mississippi lawmakers have over the past few years pushed for the creation of charter schools, or publicly funded independent schools created by community groups or larger charter organizations. The schools operate under a charter, or contract, with an authorizing agency such as Mississippi’s Charter School Authorizer Board.
Many, including the state’s Republican leadership, say charter schools will give better options to students in Mississippi, a state that regularly ranks at the bottom in education. Critics say charters will deplete already struggling public school districts by siphoning off its students and their per-pupil funding.
This year, the Legislature expanded the state’s 2013 charter school law to allow public school students in C, D and F-rated districts to cross school district lines to attend charters in other areas.
While ReImagine Prep had its Nashville-based organization to rely on, Midtown worked from scratch, and did so somewhat under the gun. The nonprofit organization Midtown Partners, Inc., which works toward economic and social revitalization of the Midtown neighborhood, birthed the idea for the school and submitted an application to the charter authorizer board. The board approved the application in December 2014 and the school began its first year for 104 5th and 6th graders last fall.
ReImagine, on the other hand, spent a year planning before opening its doors to 5th graders. RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta acknowledged how much it helped ReImagine to have the help of RePublic officials who had been involved in the opening of its four schools in Nashville.
“I can only compare it to my first year starting Nasvhille Prep which was not connected to a network then,” Gupta said. “Comparing our experience to that, it’s wildly different and much smoother and more predictable for families and kids,” Gupta said, noting how the Nashville-based network helped with everything from hiring to securing a building to budgeting.
The team stepped in to help on unexpected challenges, too. The principal was carjacked at gunpoint and robbed during the school year. When that happened, someone from RePublic took over until she returned.
Challenges at Midtown
Right off the bat, Midtown had issues. More than 100 5th and 6th graders began the year in Jackson State University’s recreation center until the Adelle Street building was ready a few weeks later. Six months into the year, Midtown had already lost principal Adam Mangana, who was hired in the spring of 2015.
Mangana resigned in October and was replaced by interim principal Jemar Tisby, the former chairman of the school’s board. Mangana declined to speak on the record about his experience at Midtown.
Babak Mostaghimi, who served as the chair of the school board while getting his doctorate at Harvard in Boston, said turnover is typical for any startup.
“We kept our focus on what’s best for the children,” Mostaghimi said.
He also noted that somewhere around 95 percent of students are returning next year, a testament to the school’s success.
Tisby continued his job as the director of a program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Former and current employees who spoke off the record for fear of retribution said that meant he was frequently away from the school.
One former employee said Tisby told staff that he had things to take care of that were in place before Midtown while staff was “expected to give our blood, sweat and tears every day.”
Tisby said he took a “leave of absence” from his former job, though he told former employees he may have to be gone for “events related to my job at Reformed Theological Seminary,” according to an email sent by Tisby in January and shared with Mississippi Today.
“I withdrew from the doctoral class I was taking in the Fall, voluntarily designed to take any classes in the Spring, and I almost completely delegated out my other professional responsibilities for nearly a year,” Tisby said. “I would do it all again, and it is always a privilege to serve kids.”
Rachel Usry was hired as Director of Operations last June, though her role would later change after the school’s Chief Operations Officer resigned. Usry, who left Midtown in February, believes the lack of a planning year was a mistake.
“We wanted to provide a better school for students in Midtown, but we should’ve waited and planned things out to make sure what we were promising families, we were able to deliver,” Usry said. She now works at a Rocketship Education charter school in Nashville.
Charter School Authorizer Board Director Marian Schutte said Midtown’s application was approved in the second cycle of applications in 2014, while ReImagine’s was approved in the first. The board has since changed its approval process.
“The Authorizer Board has since moved to an annual RFP (request for proposals) cycle and the Authorizer Board approves or denies applicants who wish to open schools in the following year or beyond at its regular September meeting,” Schutte said. Going forward, all charter schools will have at least an 11-month planning period.
Midtown’s application based many of its plans for the school on the practices of Brooke Charter Schools in Boston. But several of Brooke Charter School’s key features that Midtown said it would replicate didn’t materialize, according to employees.
At Brooke, each classroom is self-contained and taught by two teachers – one language arts and social studies and one math and science – and the day includes sessions for teachers to provide individualized feedback to students. While Midtown started out that way, it eventually departmentalized all 5th graders (having them switch from class to class) due to behavioral issues, one employee said, and one 6th grade class only had one teacher, though it remained self-contained.
Brooke also has regular teacher training days, which Midtown set out to do weekly. However, because of complications with the after school program, employees say the training rarely happened. Same with the daily individualized sessions with students.
Schutte said the board was aware the classroom setup at the school had been changed, and the school has submitted a proposal to amend its contract with the board.
“Midtown continues to work with Brooke charter schools as they continue into their second year of operation,” Schutte said. “They recently sent two staff members to visit Brooke Charter Schools for additional training.”
Some successes at Midtown
School officials, however, say the year has been a success, and all of the challenges faced by Midtown are typical of startup charter schools.
Students have altogether taken about 12,000 hours of coding this year in accordance with the school’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in addition to visiting three colleges and taking other educational field trips, Tisby said.
Several parents, too, sing the praises of Midtown and its impact on their children.
Shante Crockett’s son Joshua will be in the 6th grade next year at Midtown. Before coming to Midtown, he was at the arts school Power APAC, but had more of a hunch for math and science. For her son, already a straight-A student, Midtown has been perfect.
His coding teacher, Crockett said, was “fabulous. He always talked about how good she is.” She mentioned the school’s youth hack-a-thon, in which Midtown students collaborated with ReImagine Prep students on computer software programs, as a highlight of his first year.
Ketina Moore’s daughter was in 6th grade this past year at Midtown. Moore said the smaller environment and field trips in the community were a good fit for her.
“The year has been really rewarding for her. … She came out with the highest classroom average in the class, and her math and reading scores remained on top,” Moore said.
When asked for data of how students performed on assessments throughout the year, Tisby said there was “positive growth” in reading and math for all classes, meaning on average the students showed some amount of growth but did not specify whether they reached grade level.
Two-thirds of Midtown’s students came into school reading below grade level, according to what Tisby told the board earlier this year.
Oversight and accountability
Students who require special services went at least two weeks without their special education teacher and director after she resigned in the spring, employees said.
According to state law, a district or school is responsible for providing all services listed on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which can include specially designed instruction in the classroom and individualized time with the teacher among other services, regardless of personnel issues.
“The special education person resigned abruptly. … So there was a week or two when we were conducting that search, and we let parents know and everything like that and got that need filled as soon as we could,” Tisby said.
He said, however, that the school “fulfilled all legal obligations” with regards to the special services.
But some don’t agree.
One former employee who worked in the public school system said Midtown “would not stand a chance” of meeting oversight requirements in special services for public schools.
As it stands now, the charter school law states the authorizer board is, among other duties, responsible for “ongoing charter school oversight and evaluation,” including monitoring the schools’ performance.
The board receives data from the schools throughout the year and conducts formal and informal visits to the school. The formal visits can include audits of the school’s policy and procedures, classroom visits, reviews of the facility and interviews with the school leader, among other components, the board’s performance framework says.
When Mississippi Today requested the documentation from both schools’ yearly site
visit, however, the only information each included was a 3-page document with a review of the facility, a list of teachers’ certification status and a list stating whether the school had proper documentation for its special education students.
Schutte said each school received four visits throughout the school year – one prior to the opening, two “informal unannounced visits,” and an annual site visit in the spring. The visit prior to opening reviewed the schools’ buildings and there was no documentation for the informal visits.
Like public schools, both Midtown and ReImagine will also receive a grade of A-F based on factors such as student growth and, for schools with 12th grade, graduation rates. Until the board puts out its annual performance report in the fall, which will also include state test results, no one will have a full picture of how both schools fared.
Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, is one of the biggest proponents of charter schools and school choice in the legislature. This year, Bomgar advocated expanding school vouchers – or public money that can be used at private educational institutions – to families meeting a certain income threshold and for expanding the state’s charter school law.
Bomgar said earlier this month he hadn’t seen any data from either Midtown or ReImagine but has “heard only good things.”
He said if a school is having problems, it’s up to the parents to act.
“The beauty of the system is parents get to pick,” Bomgar said. “If something’s not working well, pick something else.”