Amanda Johnson is the leader of Clarksdale Collegiate charter school. Credit: Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School

Mississippi’s first charter school outside of the city of Jackson is set to open in Clarksdale after the Charter School Authorizer Board unanimously approved the applicant with no discussion Monday.

Clarksdale Collegiate Prep, headed by Amanda Johnson, former director of a KIPP charter school in Arkansas, will open in the 2018-19 school year with a projected 150 kindergarteners through second-graders. The school will be “unapologetically college prep,” beginning at kindergarten, and eventually expand to kindergarten through eighth grade by the 2028 school year.

Applications by two additional schools, SR1 and Shades of Elegance Corp., were denied by the Charter School Authorizer Board on Monday.

Krystal Cormack, the board’s chair, recused herself from voting on any of the schools due to a personal relationship with Johnson. Cormack said she and the board are seeking guidance on how to deal with that relationship as the board will continue to oversee the school when it opens.

Clarksdale Collegiate Prep made it through several rounds of the board’s application process, including an independent evaluation by a team chosen by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Johnson was present at the meeting and spoke of her excitement at the board’s decision.

“I’m feeling jubilant right now already,” she said. “Clarksdale and Coahoma County have reason to celebrate today.”

She also touched on some common misconceptions she has heard in her conversations with families and community members.

“There are a few consistent misunderstandings or concerns that came up and may come up in public comments today. … Charter schools in Mississippi are public schools, public entities with a public governing board that operates with clear bylaws and policies and holds open meetings,” she said. “Charter schools operate under open enrollment, meaning there are no enrollment requirements based on race, gender, ability or past behavior or past success. We will offer special ed services and we will take same state testing that all public schools do and receive accountability grades.”

The main difference, she said, is the school operates outside the public school system and operates “at a higher level of accountability,” meaning a charter school may be forced to close due to poor performance, she added.

Her positive comments were soon followed by comments by community members opposing the board’s decision to approve the school’s opening.

Clarksdale Superintendent Dennis Dupree, Coahoma County supervisor Johnny Newsom and two legislators all expressed their opposition to the board’s decision at the standing-room-only meeting in Jackson.

“How many of you have actually stepped foot into Clarksdale School District to know that teaching and learning are going on every day?” Dupree asked the board members.

Clarksdale School District Superintendent Dennis Dupree addresses the Charter School Authorizer Board on Monday. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

“When you put another school system in an already existing low-income tax base setting, you’re creating a storm, a situation that’s not going to be conducive to learning at all,” Dupree continued.

Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks, and Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale, expressed their concerns about the diversion of funding from the public schools to the new charter school.

“I’m against this charter school and will continue to work until it’s no longer there,” Jackson said.

Several who spoke expressed concern that the public comment period during the meeting came after the board voted, but Board Chair Krystal Cormack pointed out there has been a public hearing in each proposed community and a time window for the public to share input via letters and petitions.

Charter School Authorizer Board members Carey Wright and Tommie Cardin listen as members of the Clarksdale community give feedback regarding the approved charter. school.

“We’ve had a lot of engagement with the public in this process. We had probably 500 people participate total in the hearings we’ve had across the state for these three proposed schools,” she explained. “So to say we haven’t tried to engage the public is just a piece of misinformation that I couldn’t let sit without being addressed.”

The evaluation team analyzed each applicant’s proposed educational program design and capacity; the operations plan, such as the organizational makeup of the school, legal compliance and its governing board; and the financial plan. The evaluation also included in-person interviews.

“The applicant demonstrates strong capacity to execute all aspects of the proposal. The proposed executive director, Amanda Johnson, is exceptionally qualified with a strong track record and experience as a teacher, school founder, coach and school leader,” the evaluation of the school states. “The proposed governing board is already established and reflective of the capacity, expertise and local support needed to run a high-quality charter school.”

The school plans to operate with the help of RePublic Schools, the Tennessee-based charter school network with two current charter schools in Jackson. It has also secured a $100,000 commitment from the Charter School Growth Fund and $30,000 from its board of directors.

Charter School Authorizer Board member Karen Elam made the motions to reject applications from SR1 and Shades of Elegance Corp., stating the two groups failed to meet Mississippi Charter School Board criteria. Both were denied unanimously with no discussion.

The evaluation of Shades of Elegance Corp., which aimed to open a school in Drew, found gaps and deficiencies in the school’s plan, particularly in the financial section and its capacity to educate students with special needs. This is the second year Shades of Elegance submitted an application that was denied by the board.

The team found that significant revenue streams were unaccounted for and “assumptions left blank,” in addition to the fact that the individual who created the budget did not attend the in-person interview with the team.

“Plans for meeting the needs of all students are particularly concerning. The application reveals a lack of understanding of the processes for identification, referral, and testing of students with disabilities and 504 plans, which the applicant was unable to remedy during the interview,” the evaluation stated.

SR1 received an equally critical review of its plan for opening a school in Canton, particularly in the area of its educational plan and the applicants’ lack of experience in a school setting.

“While the school founders have extensive experience in educational programming, no
member of the applicant team has K-12 classroom or leadership experience,” the report stated.

“While the mission is clear and compelling, several components of the program — particularly, the curriculum and instructional design, performance standards, and school schedule — are insufficiently developed,” the evaluation states.

There are currently three charter schools operating in the Jackson Public School District: Midtown Public Charter School (5th – 8th grades), Reimagine Prep (5th – 7th grades) and Smilow Prep (5th – 6th grades).

Contributing: Kayleigh Skinner

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.