Mississippi’s first charter high school approved to open in Jackson

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Two more charter schools were approved to open in the Jackson Public School District Monday, including the state’s first charter high school.

The Mississippi Charter School Authorizer board met Monday to decide on three potential charter schools. Members approved the application for two RePublic Schools, Inc. charters: K-8 school Revive Prep and grade 9-12 RePublic High School. The board denied the application to open a Mississippi Delta Academies school in the Leflore County School District.

Last month the board approved Mississippi’s sixth charter school, Ambition Preparatory School, to open in West Jackson next fall. Members delayed making a decision on Mississippi Delta Academies’ application or either of the proposed RePublic Schools, Inc. charters so they could have more time to examine their applications.

RePublic applied to open a K-8 and 9-12 school in Jackson in the 2020-21 school year, according to board documents. The operator also runs a network of schools in Tennessee and three other charter schools in Jackson: ReImagine Prep, Joel E. Smilow Prep and Joel E. Smilow Collegiate.

RePublic’s application met the educational and financial plan requirements, but members wanted to see how the operator’s existing schools would fare on 2017-18 accountability ratings. In their first two years of existence, ReImagine Prep and Smilow Prep each earned a D. This year, ReImagine Prep improved to a C and Smilow Prep remained a D but showed growth in student achievement.

Governor's office

Krystal Cormack

“I definitely have a lot of concerns about Smilow (Prep), but given that ReImagine (Prep) made so much progress I think it gave us the sense that they’re on the right track, they’ve figured out some method to make this work,” board chair Krystal Cormack said after the meeting. “We have enough confidence in them to give them this opportunity but its not without some concern.”

RePublic Schools chief executive officer Jon Rybka said his organization was “very honored that we get to be a part of the fabric here in Jackson, Mississippi” and acknowledged that while Smilow Prep students are improving, there is still work to do. Rybka echoed what State Superintendent Carey Wright said in last month’s meeting — improvements in student achievement take time.

“If a kid is coming to us three or four grade levels behind, and in that (school) year they grow by 1.5 years that is great, that’s tremendous growth,” Rybka said. “However, that’s not enough to move them above the proficiency bar. That takes multiple years. Like our schools in Nashville, we see many of our students need multiple years to rise above the proficiency bar.”

This year ReImagine Prep was one point away from earning a B rating.

“It’s all about the adult investment and adult input that will lead to learning opportunities for kids. As much as I say that, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Rybka said. “…We haven’t closed the equity gap just because we went from a D to a high C.”

The other operator in question — Mississippi Delta Academies — got a deeper look from the authorizer board as well. The operator’s founder, Tamala Boyd Shaw, intended to open a grade 6-8 school in the Leflore County School District. The board ultimately denied the application Monday because the education plan was not specific enough, Cormack said. Members did encourage Boyd Shaw to reapply next year and described her application as strong, but lacking specificity in how it would tackle the particular challenge of educating charter school students in a middle school setting.

After the decision, Boyd Shaw and a public school parent interested in the school expressed disappointment with the news. Boyd Shaw can still apply in next year’s cycle, but before the authorizer board can sign off on an application, operators must get approval from the local school board if they are trying to open a charter in an A, B or C-rated district. The Leflore County School District received a C rating last year and is in the process of merging with the Greenwood Public School District, which earned a D. When districts consolidate, they get to keep the higher of the two accountability ratings. Historically, public school districts and their supporters have opposed charters opening because of the funding they divert from the district as a whole.

“I’m very disappointed, more so because the children of Leflore County, in my opinion, will now not have what could have been a life changing educational journey for them.” Boyd Shaw said. “I’m determined to continue to look at what does it look like to disrupt the inequities in education, especially in the Mississippi Delta?”