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If prospective school founders are successful this year, the charter school movement in Mississippi could further establish a solid foothold outside the Jackson area, where four of the five existing schools operate today.
At a Charter School Authorizer Board meeting this week, members approved five potential schools to move forward in the application process.
• MS Delta Academies: Leflore Legacy Academy, grades 6-8 in the Greenwood Public School District
• Randy J. Naylor Memorial Foundation: Memorial Preparatory Academy, grades K-6 in the Vicksburg Warren School District
• SR1: SR1 College Preparatory and STEM Academy, grades K-5 in the Canton Public School District
• KC Schools, Inc.: Kingdom Charter School, grades K-12 in the South Pike School District
• Mississippi Community Education Center: Greenwood Charter School, grades K-5 in the Greenwood Public School District
All but KC Schools, Inc. applied in last year’s process, but were denied for various reasons.
Today there are five charter schools open in Jackson and Clarksdale serving a range of grades K-8, but a new high school is set to open in the 2020-21 school year and two K-8 schools will launch in Jackson this fall.
Each year the authorizer board goes through a months-long process to screen potential operators and grant them the authority to open a school in Mississippi.
Operators submit their applications in May, and the board typically announces in June which schools will be allowed to move forward in the process. These potential operators hold public meetings in August and go through interviews and evaluations with the Authorizer Board and an outside evaluator, who looks at the applications on the merits of their educational program and proposed financial and operations program. The board’s final decisions will be announced on Sept. 9.
The two Greenwood operators are applying just in time — the Greenwood Public and Leflore County school districts are scheduled to merge July 1, and their new accountability rating will make it difficult for charters to open there in the future.
Charter schools can apply directly to the authorizer board if they’re planning to open in a D or F district. If an operator wants to open in an A, B, or C district, they need to get approval from the local school board. Often this is unlikely, because many traditional public school supporters resent charter schools using the argument that charters drain funds, staff and students from local districts.
Greenwood received a D rating in the 2017-18 school year, while Leflore County was rated C. Under state law, when a school district merges, the new consolidated school district takes the higher accountability rating, meaning Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District will be rated a C. Accountability grades for the most recent 2018-19 school year will be issued later this year, and although the school districts will be merged by then, the Mississippi Department of Education will issue grades to each district separately. The consolidated school district will receive a combined grade starting in the 2019-20 school year, according to the department.
Since Mississippi Community Education Center and MS Delta Academies applied to open in Greenwood instead of Leflore County, they can work directly with the authorizer board instead of getting approval from a school board.
“(Eligibility is) determined by what the grade the district is at the time of application,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit advocacy organization for public schools that focuses on expanding charter school options and pre-kindergarten programs. “Once a charter is approved in a district, it can continue to operate there regardless of the grade of the district.”
Both potential Greenwood operators say they haven’t faced any pushback from the community. Neither district responded to Mississippi Today’s request for comment.
For Tamala Boyd Shaw, who intends to open Leflore Legacy Academy, said her goal is to “Make sure there is a mind shift in the students, families and the community of the benefits of a public charter school.”
“Historically, especially in the South and more specifically in the rural Delta, public charter schools have been stigmatized as the enemy,”Boyd Shaw said. “That is because of the lack of information about what charter schools really are.”
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.
If approved, Boyd Shaw said her middle school would focus on getting students on or above grade level, particularly in reading. In Greenwood this year, 49.6 percent of third-graders passed their third grade reading assessment on the first try, but they have two more attempts to pass before the next school year begins.
Although the school would not open until 2020 if approved, it would likely enroll students who are struggling with reading today, she said.
“When it comes to the school specifically, our hope is to give families an equitable education for their children,” Boyd Shaw said.
Cassandra Williams is the lead education liaison for the potential Greenwood Charter School, which the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center hopes to launch with a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) focus. The proposed school would be an extension of the work the nonprofit is doing already, she said.
The proposed charter school’s founder, Nancy New, is the executive director of the nonprofit and also the founder of New Summit Schools across the state.
“This gives us an opportunity to take expertise we have in education and expand that to all parents, who may not be able to afford private school tuition,” Williams said. “We have so much expertise and so much educational experience, and we want to make sure that we can extend that opportunity to all parents.”
The charter school authorizer board will announce which applicants are moving forward in the process in early July.