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DESE approves first charter school outside of major city despite community outreach concerns

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)’s Board of Education approved the application for the first charter school to exist outside of the Kansas City or St. Louis school districts — but not without some pushback. 

The Leadership School will be a K-8 charter school operating within the boundaries of the Normandy School Collaborative in St. Louis County. The school plans to start instructing kindergarten through second grade in 2021, growing by an additional grade annually for the next five years.

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, presented the item before the board. Wahby noted the COVID-19 pandemic blocked the community interaction typically handled before the approval of a charter school but said the team met the required standards for the application.

“We are at a moment like no other in history,” she said. “A pandemic, an economic crisis, a fierce national debate over policing, racism, and equity. Our institutions are being challenged, and so is this charter school — but the founders of this school passed the tests with flying colors and have an unyielding belief that every child has a constitutional right to have dreams and the knowledge and wisdom to pursue them.”

The board ultimately voted to approve the application during a special meeting Thursday but not without comment.

Members noted it was their obligation to approve an application that met the state’s criteria rather than faith in the project, with several voicing concerns about the lack of interaction with the area and the animosity the local community felt toward the project.

“In the last few months, there have been a lot of stumbles in this whole process, both at the level of the district as well as the community,” said Vice President Victor Lenz. “I listened in to the recent board meeting at Normandy, and I would say even with a strong application, there’s a lot of hesitation and a lot of people who don’t want this school to begin in Normandy.”

Board member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, who has worked with the Normandy school district, voiced her concern about the community’s reception to the new school.

“No one is against charter schools. We are all for good public schools that improve educational outcomes while advancing the responsible use of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “You can’t morally advance options and choices for one group by taking away the choices of another. Unfortunately, our current context allows non-residents of a community to change the educational delivery system of that community without their direct consent through normal democratic channels. In a state whose approach to educational oversight is local control, how is this even possible?”

The license grants the school an initial five years of sponsorship, starting with the 2021 school year. 

The board also voted to alter the state’s use of standardized tests last week, in addition to various rule changes. 

The next regular Board of Education agenda meeting is scheduled for Jan. 12.