Imagine Schools fail their students
Simply put, a charter is a contract to improve student achievement. The Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) commends the charter public schools in the state who are honoring this contract and operating in the best interest of the students they serve. MCPSA is, however, deeply concerned by the performance trends being displayed by the cluster of charter public schools in St. Louis managed by Imagine Schools Inc. These schools are clearly not meeting acceptable standards of academic performance.
The poor track record of these schools over the past several years is reinforced by the majority of their 2011 Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) scores, which are well below the average for the state of Missouri and St. Louis Public Schools. In multiple instances, the percentage of students reaching the top levels of proficient or advanced in mathematics and/or communication arts is in the single digits. In addition, points awarded for the MAP Index score, a weighted formula providing a school credit for its ability to move students out of the bottom performance levels, doesn't present any better picture of academic growth.
While standardized state testing should not be the only measure of a charter school's success, it is impossible to accept scores at these levels. For a charter public school with a small student population or a true alternative student population (dropout recovery, significant number of English Language Learners, etc.) it's reasonable to understand the need for alternative forms of authentic assessment to gauge their success. For a cluster of schools under one management company, serving thousands of students, these standardized test scores serve as a real indicator of significant performance issues.
MCPSA believes the Imagine Schools' performance trends reflect most poorly on the management company, Imagine Schools Inc. and is not a condemnation of the teachers and staff within the schools. Often a significant issue leading to such poor academic performance is a lack of resources and supports available to the teachers and staff by their employer. Another issue, often, is charter public school governing boards not being able to execute the oversight authority they are statutorily entitled as the management company has contractually assumed that authority.
It is important that the poor academic performance of these schools is not taken as a poor reflection of the Missouri charter school community as a whole, including other education management organizations. In St. Louis, six of 18 charter schools posted better reading scores this year than St. Louis Public Schools. Seven charters posted better scores than the district in math. Four charter public schools performed at or above the state average in communication arts while two charter public schools performed above the state average in mathematics. Positive gains by charter public schools using the state's MAP Index were also achieved.
It's evident that the majority of the charter public schools in St. Louis are heading in the right direction. Two important tenets of charter public school education are autonomy and accountability. The school has the autonomy to employ innovative educational best practice and is held accountable for the academic performance of their students. If a school continues to decline academically, the Missouri's charter public school sponsor has the obligation to uphold their statutory mandate and hold the school accountable through probation, nonrenewal, and/or closure.
MCPSA does not want schools to fail, and it is ready to assist schools at the first sign of academic decline. However, as an organization that advocates for quality charter public education, we remain steadfast that Imagine Schools Inc. and their chronically underperforming schools must be held accountable. We owe this to the other charter public schools in Missouri that are academically moving students in the right direction. We also owe this to the parents of Missouri's children who entrust their most precious possession to these schools. Most important, we owe this to the children in our charter public schools. They deserve nothing less than the very best educational opportunities.
Douglas Thaman is executive director of Missouri Charter Public School Association, St. Louis. To reach Voices authors, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.