Smilow Prep Charter School Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Despite pleas from school officials and a parent for a full five-year contract renewal, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board extended Joel E. Smilow Prep Charter School’s contract for four years with conditions.

While the school performed well in the areas of academics and finances, it fell short in organizational performance, specifically in its stated mission of ensuring “the development of personal discipline and character” of its students.

Charter schools in Mississippi must meet certain goals to continue to operate and are considered for renewal every five years, according to state law.

The school, which opened in August of 2016, enrolls 600 5th through 8th graders. It raised its accountability rating from a “D” to a “C” in 2018-2019, when it achieved the second highest performing and growing school when compared to similar schools in Jackson Public Schools, according to its application for renewal.

It then kept the same grade in 2019-2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school’s vision is to ensure every child has access to high-quality schools “with a dual focus on solid academic preparation and the development of personal discipline and character,” according to the board’s renewal recommendation.

But an assessment done by board members and other experts points to a lack of evidence and data showing whether the school is meeting its goals.

“… there is no evidence presented to correlate outcomes in terms of demonstrated scholar success and the development of personal discipline, character and citizenship,” the recommendation states.

In addition, with only 62% of its teachers certified, it fails to meet the 75% required by state law.

“Although the school anticipates 88% of teachers will hold certification by May of 2021, no data or evidence is provided,” the recommendation stated. “This remains an area of concern.”

Public charter schools in Mississippi are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis according to the school’s average daily attendance, or the number of students who attend 63 percent or more of a school day. They also receive local dollars from ad valorem tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, money that would have gone to the public school district moves with the student to the charter school.

The Mississippi Legislature passed the charter school law in 2013. There are currently seven charter schools in operation with an eighth slated to open in the fall of 2022.

School officials and the parent of a Smilow Prep graduate spoke to the board on Monday about the growth of students who attend the school. Assistant principals and teachers discussed specific students who came to Smilow three and four years behind in reading who, over the course of three to four years at the school, were brought up to grade level.

“I taught her as a 5th grader, we’ll call her Alexis. She came into my science classroom on a 2nd grade reading level, got into a guided reading group and got small group intervention,” said Allison Parshall, now an assistant principal at the school. “By the beginning of the 6th grade, she was on the 4th grade level. It was partly who she was — she works incredibly hard. But it was also about those teachers who came every day ready to give her what she needed.”

She said Alexis’ story represents “the story of Smilow.”

Katie Poulos, the chief operation officer of Smilow Prep’s operating network RePublic Schools, also appeared at the meeting to advocate for the full five-year contract extension for the school.

“Where you really started to see the impact (in students) was our third year (of operation) when our grade got to the level of a C. We know in year 4 and year 5, that data would’ve been a B or higher, and we know that because we have the internal data to show it,” she told the board. “I’m asking you to take into account the circumstances and the performance, we know the school is meeting the standards … They’ve earned the 5-year renewal.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the 4-year extension and require the school to develop clear and measurable goals related to the mission and vision, particularly with regard to character and citizenship development. The school must also develop a teacher certification plan to ensure the required number of teachers are certified and develop clear and measurable goals related to the school’s “culture” system of positive and negative consequences, in addition to its college preparatory academics and coding.

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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.