ST. LOUIS — Just before the end of the school year, Gordon Parks Elementary administrators went into a meeting with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education knowing something was wrong, though they never expected to hear they were not going to have their charter renewed.
A few months later and the majority of Gordon Parks’ students and teachers have made alternate plans for the coming year in case there nothing happens before then to right the wrong that many people affiliated with the school believe was committed.
The side in favor of Gordon Parks is growing each day as their fight with DESE and the State Board of Education — which has been taken to court — rolls on.
The court battle is pushing the main Gordon Parks point: that the process by which the school was closed was not compliant with state statutes regarding charter school procedures.
Between each individual charter school and DESE is a sponsor. For Gordon Parks, that sponsor is the University of Central Missouri. Every sponsor is supposed to have one “high risk” charter school in their portfolio, and for UCM, Gordon Parks is that school.
Doug Curry, Gordon Parks Elementary School Board President, said if the sponsor wants to renew the school then DESE is supposed to adhere to that suggestion. He said the sponsor, UCM, regularly visits the school and keeps tabs on progress and day-to-day operations while DESE has “never set foot” in Gordon Parks.
Prior to receiving indication in May that DESE was unhappy with the school’s 2012 — one year old — MAP scores, Curry said DESE told the school their application for renewal was compliant with the law as the school continued operating and planning for the coming year under the assumption their charter would be renewed.
“DESE always publishes their recommendations two weeks in advance of meeting with the school,” Curry said. “There were two other [charter] schools coming up for renewal and [DESE] published theirs two weeks before, but didn’t publish ours until five minutes before the meeting. We didn’t know until then that they weren’t going to renew us.”
Curry said the meeting was a negative experience, adding that one of the State Board of Education members, Deborah Demien, accused the school of “teaching bubble gum chewing.” Ultimately, the Board voted down the renewal of the school’s charter.
“We basically had a week to tell teachers and students the school was closing,” Curry said. “As you can imagine, it caused a huge amount of organizational anxiety.”
At the time, DESE said they would not be renewing the charter and wouldn’t be funding the school’s summer school program. As part of the litigation process that’s still in progress, the court ruled that DESE needed to continue funding through the end of July.
“The damage is still extensive though,” Curry said. “We’ve lost all but four or five teachers, a lot of students, our principal and a ton of business staff. This has had an incredibly toll on the organization.”
DESE Communications Coordinator Sarah Potter said in an email that the State Board voted unanimously not to renew the school’s five-year charter for several reasons:
- – Very low academic performance — in the bottom five percent of the state
- – High administrative turnover
- – Failure to comply with federal programs: Title 1, ELL, IDEA. “For example, eight complaints of non compliance with IDEA in February 2013”
Potter said those three reasons motivated DESE to urge UCM to close the school as the Department lacks that power.
No further questions could be answered by DESE because of the pending lawsuit.
On the opposing side, however, Curry said one of the reasons the Board brought to the school when renewal was struck down was poor test scores. The scores, he said, were from 2012. The scores Curry said have come in so far, like the STAR scores, show “a lot of progress.”
Doug Thaman, Missouri Charter Schools Association Executive Director, said the Association has stepped in to provide opinion because of their concern of an “inappropriate closure.”
“We have had some conversations and we understand the opinion of the State Board and the decision they made based on what they identified in a statute which has a clause that says if the sponsor doesn’t conduct rigorous evaluation he state can take action,” Thaman said. “Our concern is that this action overstepped authority. It’s the responsibility of the sponsor of the school to make a decision whether it’s renewed or closed. There was no indication to University of Central Missouri about the closing or information that they weren’t conducting evaluations correctly.”
Thaman said his main concern with this issue is the following of process and state statutes in dealing with charter schools to make sure the people who are supposed to be accountable are.
“We’ve worked with the State Board of Education in the past and the sponsors to tighten the accountability,” he said. “It’s important to make sure statutory rules will be followed, and it places charter schools in jeopardy when [those rules are ignored].”
For Curry, he said he thinks one of the bigger misconceptions in this situation is DESE framing the performance of Gordon Parks to that of the Kansas City School District.
“That’s not a good district and we all know that,” Curry said. “But you can’t really compare our population to a whole district.”
Curry said what makes Gordon Parks unique is the students who attend, 97 percent of which are on free or reduced lunch, meaning they live below the poverty line. He said that 16 percent of the students have special education needs, and many of the students live in foster homes, with alternate guardians and some live in cars. The things some of these students have seen at such a young age are beyond what most adults can imagine, he added.
“We’re serving a population of students who are living in a pretty traumatic environment,” Curry said. “And we do a good job of it too. I don’t think the way DESE is excusing us is fair.”
The court battle
Three days after the State Board vote, Curry said a motion was filed with a Cole County judge. Shortly after, Gordon Parks was granted a temporary injunction that made DESE continue funding for the school through July.
To pursue the legal case, Gordon Parks hired Stinson Morrison Hecker, LLP, and is being represented by Stinson lawyer Chuck Hatfield.
Gordon Parks also filed a petition requesting to essentially continue to operate as a charter school and reverse the decision of the State Board because of unlawful procedures.
An additional motion was made July 1 by Gordon Parks to seek the Deposition of the State Board members, and the motion was denied.
The most recent court document in the case is a motion to protect the depositions of three state board members, which came July 11, submitted by Attorney General Chris Koster.
A court hearing will be held July 25 in Jefferson City, according to a website set up by supporters of Gordon Parks, SaveGordonParks.com.
The next steps
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Boone County, is one of the legislators who has begun to voice concern or take interest in this situation.
Schaefer said on Thursday he and his staff put together a letter to send to DESE Director Chris Nicastro this week asking her to, essentially, reconsider the charter denial.
“I’ve heard from students and parents and one of my biggest concerns is looking at the way DESE has gone about this,” Schaefer said. “It appears to be that they’re being arbitrary and not promulgating rules. Honestly, I think they’re picking on Gordon Parks to try and make an example of charter schools.”
Schaefer said he thinks DESE has never liked charter schools, but that the Department still need to be compliant with the laws passed by the General Assembly which he said are there to help those schools succeed.
“My other concern as Chair of [the Senate] Appropriations [Committee] is clearly this is going to lead to appropriations expenses,” he said. “I get tired, whether it’s DESE or any other state agency, of when they do something that clearly is arbitrary or don’t have authority for, they don’t care because they don’t consider it their dime for the cost that’s ultimately rewarding the non-state party.”
Schaefer said that the General Assembly passed the laws that allow charter schools to operate so they can deliver their services to special populations the state cannot serve. By all accounts he said Gordon Parks has done that and they’ve continued to show progress. He said he plans on following this issue as it progresses and isn’t sure at this time whether it’s something that could or should be brought before the legislature. What happens with the court case will decide that.
Curry said even if the school wins in court, so to speak, before the school year begins, the school likely would only be able to open Kindergarten through second grade, as well as some third graders, due to the time constraint and lost staff.
“We took the same mindset with teachers that we did students,” he said. “We encouraged them to find a new home because there’s no guarantee what will happen in court or if DESE will renew our charter.”
Curry said Hogan Preparatory Academy’s new elementary school has been the next step for some teachers and students. A concern, he said, is that urban parents don’t tend to make plans in advance, so some of these students might not have the chance to really settle in to where every they go next.
Until the next court date, Gordon Parks is finishing out their final month of court-guaranteed funding from DESE. Aside from Schaefer, other legislators, like Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Jackson County, will be visiting to learn more about the school and the situation.
“We have the intent of winning this lawsuit,” Curry said.
Ashley Jost is no longer with The Missouri Times. She worked as the executive editor for several months, and a reporter before that.