Seven groups are moving forward with applications to open a new charter school in the 2019-20 school year.

At a Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board meeting Monday, a handful of schools were granted permission to continue the stringent process of getting a charter school approved. Earlier this year, 16 groups from around the state submitted letters of intent to open a charter school, although only nine ultimately applied, said board member Karen Elam.

The seven groups the board approved to move forward are:

  • Ambition Preparatory Charter School:  K-8 in Jackson Public School District
  • Girls Club and Learning Center Inc.: pre-K-8 in Leflore County School District
  • KMartin Group: K-8 in Amite County School District
  • Mississippi Delta Academies: grades 6-8 in Leflore County School District
  • SR1 Academy: K-5 in Canton Public School District

The other two proposals the board approved come from existing charter operators or schools:

  • Mississippi Community Education Center, K-5 in Leflore County School District. The proposed charter school’s founder, Nancy New, is also the founder of New Summit School in Jackson.
  • RePublic Schools, Inc.: Two new schools, a K-8 and a 9-12 school in the Jackson Public School District.

As currently proposed, every school would operate just one or two grades in the first year and build out accordingly, but the Girls Club and Learning Center proposed opening all grades in its initial year.

Both Girls Club and SR1 were denied in various stages of the application process last year.

Two schools were rejected this year for incompleteness: Randy J Naylor Memorial Foundation for a K-12 in the Vicksburg Warren School District and Technology for Today’s Youth, which applied to open three schools in different school districts. They were rejected because their applications were not deemed complete by the authorizer board.

Now the approved groups enter the second phase of the application process. An independent evaluator, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, will review the proposals later this month and the board will review the findings at a July 9 meeting. The third phase involves interviews and public hearings. The final approvals and rejected schools will be announced Sept. 10.

The charter application process is fairly rigorous — since the charter school law was passed in 2013, just five schools have been approved by the authorizer board. ReImagine Prep, Midtown Public Charter School and Joel E. Smilow Prep each operate as middle schools in Jackson. In the fall Clarksdale Collegiate Prep will open in Clarksdale and Joel E. Smilow Collegiate will open as an elementary school in Jackson.

Charter schools are free public schools that follow the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools, but they allow teachers and administrators more freedom in student instruction. Charter schools cannot charge tuition.

In Mississippi and across the nation, charter schools are a controversial topic. Advocates say the schools offer parents another public school option and provide teachers with more flexibility in how they teach, while many traditional public school allies argue that charters drain funding, staff and students from local districts. In February, a Hinds County Court judge struck a blow to charter school opponents by ruling they are constitutional in Mississippi.

This year the authorizer board has the added support of a $15 million grant it received in October to help new charter schools with start up costs like hiring staff and finding facilities. Some of the funds will be devoted to technical assistance for applicants and recently approved charter schools.

At Monday’s meeting the board approved their first allocation of those funds, a $900,000 grant to Clarksdale Collegiate to use over a three-year period. Executive Director Marian Schutte told the board the school will use the money for needs associated with start up costs like purchasing technology and equipment and help with financial stability. This school is the only group eligible for the grant currently, since Midtown and Republic Schools are not new.

Board Chair Krystal Cormack said the program will help “even the playing field” for approved schools, since sometimes during the year before a charter opens the operator is juggling a full-time job while planning for the new school.

“This grant can be their full time job, which I think makes for better schools,” she said.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.