Fate of operator’s future charter schools depends on accountability results

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Students enjoy recess the first day of school at Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School Wednesday July, 25, 2018. Clarksdale Collegiate is the state's first rural charter school, opening this school year.

Mississippi’s sixth charter school was approved to open next school year, and the question of whether to open three others has been postponed until October.

On Monday the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board voted to revisit the applications of RePublic Schools, Inc. and Mississippi Delta Academies at the group’s next meeting in October so members have time to take a deeper look at what they submitted and how existing charters fared on this year’s accountability results.

Governor's office

Krystal Cormack, Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board chair

Each year the Authorizer Board goes through a months-long charter application process. Potential schools submitted applications in May, and the board announced four groups in June which met the qualifications to continue. These potential operators held public meetings in August and went through interviews and evaluations with the Authorizer Board and National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This group examined each of the applications on the merits of their educational program and proposed financial and operations program.

The board did approve the application of Ambition Preparatory Charter School, set to open as a K-8 school in Jackson next fall. This year four schools operate in Jackson and one in opened in Clarksdale this summer.

Ambition Prep founder DeArchie Scott said his school is committed to serving students in West Jackson, and projects 675 students at capacity when the school eventually serves all grades.

“We’re excited, we’re ready, we’re looking forward to August 2019 and bringing in 150 kindergarteners and first graders,” said Scott, a native Mississippian. “We believe that college begins in kindergarten.”

The board denied the application of SR1 Academy, a proposed K-5 school in Canton. It was denied because NACSA reviewers found “substantial gaps” in areas of their educational, operational and financial plans.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, the superintendent of Canton Public Schools and multiple principals in the district told the board about their academic achievements and concerns with opening SR1, telling members they were pleased the school was denied because public schools are currently meeting student needs.

RePublic applied to open two schools in Jackson next year — Revive Prep, a grade K-8 school and RePublic High, a grade 9-12 school. The operator, which also runs a network of schools in Tennessee, currently has three schools in Jackson: ReImagine Prep, Joel E. Smilow Prep and Joel E. Smilow Collegiate.

RePublic’s application met the requirements in its educational and financial plans, but board chair Krystal Cormack said the “philosophical question” facing the board is whether to allow the group to open two new schools with its current track record of academic performance. For the first two years, both ReImagine Prep and Joel E. Smilow Prep earned a D rating on accountability scores (Smilow Collegiate opened this year). Ratings for 2017-18 are set to be released next week.

“…While it is evident that RePublic has a track record with its educational model in Tennessee, RePublic’s model has not yet demonstrated a strong academic performance track record in Mississippi,” NACSA officials wrote in their summary of the operator’s application.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

State Superintendent Carey Wright

State Superintendent Carey Wright said it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of the students charters serve come to the schools below grade level and change is not instantaneous. Students that attend RePublic schools live in the Jackson Public School District, which earned an F for the past two years.

“I think people expected these schools to be A’s and I think that’s an unrealistic expectation off the bat,” Wright said. “When you’re trying to change trajectory for children that are this low, you’ve got to at least give schools a minimum of three to five years to really see ‘are we changing the trajectory?'”

The board also decided to delay making a decision on Mississippi Delta Academies’ application. The NACSA reviewers recommended the board deny it because their proposal only “partially meets” the standard for their financial plan and education program, but it did meet the standard for operations plan and capacity. This led Authorizer Board members to consider taking a deeper look at the proposed school, Leflore Legacy Academy, rather than deny it outright.

“It’s clear that Dr. (Tamala) Boyd Shaw has the capacity to serve as the head…” Cormack said. “So this is tough because they’re really close and I think this is an application that’s a lot stronger than previous applications we’ve denied, but still was rated as only partially meets rather than meets (the standards).”

Founder Tamala Boyd Shaw said she was appreciative of the board’s decision.

“The move that they made today says even further that they are very thoughtful about who they bring and so I’m excited to be a part of what they’re doing, just in this phase,” she told Mississippi Today. 

Boyd Shaw said she hopes she gets an opportunity to sit down with the board and discuss her proposed school, and in the meantime she’ll continue to engage residents of Leflore County.

“Often what we tell people is it’s not about a competition, it’s about collaboration,” Boyd Shaw said. “It’s all about raising academic achievement there. Inequities in education just have existed far too long for students in the Mississippi Delta.”

The Authorizer Board’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 15, and statewide accountability results are expected to be released next week by the State Board of Education.