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EARLY PROMISE IS LARGELY UNFULFILLED

SCHOOLS FACE POSSIBILITY OF BEING CLOSED DOWN

Photo by Karen Elshout: St. Louis Academies at 2017 Linton in north St. Louis had its first day of class Tuesday.

By Jake Wagman and Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

3/14/2004

In the parking lot of an abandoned Catholic school on a Sunday afternoon in August 2001 stood a retired Marine officer, two respected pastors and a state senator vowing to open tuition-free schools for 3,000 children. In a matter of weeks, the crowd of parents was promised, two schools would open with the best computers, the most energetic teachers and not a penny in tuition. And before the coming school year was through, at least four campuses would welcome up to 7 percent of the city's public school children.

Nothing of this scale had ever been attempted in urban education, much less on such a breakneck timeline. In fact, the whole project might have been dismissed as a hoax if so many reputable players -- not to mention a $20 million line of credit -- weren't behind it.

"The eyes of the nation will be on St. Louis for this next year, " said Tim Daniels, a retired Marine officer who was the front man for the project. "And we will be up to the task."

More than two-and-a-half years later, the promises of that August afternoon have not been fulfilled.

Two campuses of the St. Louis Academies did manage to open just weeks after the 2001 announcement. The schools now operate as charter schools serving about 600 children and drawing more than $4 million from the state each year.

But the dream of providing an academic oasis to thousands of students has been abandoned. Gone too are many of the players who stood proudly before parents to launch the ambitious project.

Falling short

Today, the schools face the possibility of being closed for mismanagement.

State regulators and the university responsible for overseeing the academies have concerns over most every aspect of their operations - from their financial management, to their academic performance and the qualifications of their teachers.

Furthermore, the schools have hired numerous employees who are relatives or church associates of a board member.

The pastors who founded the schools - along with the private company th at manages the project - have refused to comment in detail about the problems. The pastors say the schools are successful and have the backing of the parents who have chosen to keep their children enrolled. They dismiss critics as seeking to destroy their schools with misinformation.

"It's all for the community, and for the kids, " said Bishop Solomon L. Williams, pastor at the New Jerusalem Cathedral at 2047 East Grand Avenue. "And this kind of stuff just hurts. ... It seems like there is a witch hunt."

But critics say the schools' problems highlight inadequacies in the state's charter school law, which tolerates minimal oversight. At the very least, some say, the schools' failures illustrate the gap between what is often promised in urban education, and what's delivered.

"They lured us in - it's a bait-and-switch, " said Bernadette Vassalli, president of one the schools' parent-teacher organizations. "It just isn't fair. It's not fair at all."

Vassalli said parents want the schools to work, but she and others are losing hope.

"We can make this into a fantastic school, " she said. "We have so many fantastic parents this year. We have so many fantastic teachers. But the management is lousy."

A promising team

The St. Louis Academies were born of a collaboration that was so uncommon that the project became the darling of many national education reformers before the schools even opened.

National publications like the Christian Science Monitor took note, whi le a Wall Street Journal editorial dubbed the schools "the chance of a lifetime" for St. Louis children.

What boosters of the schools liked most was the unusual coalition that backed it.

At the heart of the project were several pastors from the Church of God in Christ - the fastest growing African-American church in the nation. Williams and Bishop Lawrence M. Wooten, pastor at the Williams Temple on Union Boulevard, took the lead, seeing the schools as lifeboats not only for children at their churches but from across the city.

The pastors teamed almost immediately with ABS School Services, a school management firm in Arizona. At the time, the company had contracts with several dozen charter schools, often supplying money to help the schools renovate classrooms and open their doors.

Others were drawn to the St. Louis project once it became apparent that it had legs.

Diana Bourisaw, a former superintendent from the Fox School District and a rising star within the region's education circles, signed on because she saw the freedom to test innovations in education. Also on board was Daniels, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who had worked with ABS to open a school in Arizona.

By the time the schools were announced, the project had gained the pol itical support of Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, who viewed the project as a shining example of what can happen when people challenge the public education establishment.

In the eyes of Kinder and others, it was a perfect collaboration, with each player seeming to help guarantee success.

The pastors had the connection with the community needed to easily recruit students. Bourisaw's education credentials persuaded teachers to apply. Daniels promised a military-style organization. Kinder lent the p olitical support, while ABS School Services supplied the money.

"Everyone bought into that package, " said Dave Camden, who has watched the project. Camden operates the Missouri Charter School Information Center in Clayton.

The fact that the schools opened at all was seen as a testament to the effectiveness of those who drove the project. Months earlier, many had written off the pastors' plan as a pipe dream.

From the start, Wooten and Williams wanted to open the schools as charter schools, but doing so was impossible without a sponsor.

Charter schools are public schools that receive state funding, but they operate independently. Supporters see such schools as a way to test innovations while offering tuition-free alternatives to traditional public schools.

In order to open charter schools, the pastors needed the approval of a sponsor, which under Missouri law can be certain public universities and school districts. The problem was, those sponsors were turning away applicants, arguing that they had no money to monitor the schools.

Then just when other charter school projects were being tossed on the scrap heap, the St. Louis Academies were born with an audacious and untested idea: Open as tuition-free private schools.

ABS backed the idea with $4 million on the hope that the project could cobble together enough federal grants to fashion a modest budget. If all went according to plan, the unusual funding scheme would get the schools up and running to prove themselves worthy of charter status.

The gamble paid off, and before the first school year was over, the University of Missouri at Rolla - 110 miles away - signed on as the schools' sponsor.

But behind the scenes, the collaboration that had launched the schools was already breaking down.

Today, Bourisaw wishes she had never been affiliated with the project.

"I had really high expectations, " she said. "But things changed."

Litany of problems

Those involved with the St. Louis Academies say pinpointing exactly when the schools began to falter is difficult.

"The first year was excellent - excellent all the way around, " said Vassalli, the PTO president.

But Bourisaw and others said disagreements over how to run the schools cropped up within months of opening. Those disagreements, she said, were accompanied by a turnover in leadership.

Bill French, who had masterminded the schools' finances, left ABS. Daniels, the charismatic Marine, also parted ways with the project. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

By the time the schools prepared for their second year in 2002, Bourisaw had left as well. She would not elaborate on what led her to make the choice, other than to say that her ideas for the schools no longer coincided with those of the pastors.

Bourisaw's departure was followed by tremendous turnover of the faculty. Since 2002, more than a third of the school's 85 staff members have left, according to school records.

Maurice Bembry, the school's first superintendent and a former board member, left the school in October. His only comment now is that it was "time to move on."

Math and science teacher Sean Droney's last day was Feb. 6. He recalls that when the school opened, many of the teachers were young and enthusiastic and embraced the outside-the-box approach fostered by charter schools. Then the school tried to replace traditional texts with computers - a model that just wasn't effective, Droney said. Supplies were few, and administrative meddling increased, he said.

"We didn't have a chalkboard to write on. We didn't have textbooks, " Droney recalled.

In that environment the schools have run afoul of several state laws that ultimately could shut them down.

High teacher turnover, for example, has put the schools in violation of a state law that requires 80 percent of a charter school's teachers to have teaching certificates.

At one point, 42 percent of the academies' teachers did not have permanent teaching certificates or had certificates that had expired, the state's most recent "school report card" shows. Compare that to St. Louis Public Schools, which had 12 percent of teachers without regular certificates, or the state average, which is 3 percent.

Of the staff members who remain, many are relatives of the schools' founding pastors or have connections to their churches. Sandra Goins, for instance, was the administrator in charge of the schools' South Campus. She is also, according to state records, a board member at Williams' church. Goins' two sons and a daughter-in-law also were hired by the school, as was Williams' son and his sister-in-law.

There have been enrollment problems, too. At one point last year, more than 14 percent of the students were not city residents, ineligible to attend because they lived in north St. Louis County and even Illinois. The schools had to give up more than half a million dollars in state aid for that violation of state law.

More recently, the state sought the return of $27,873 in federal grant money because the school could not document how the money was spent.

The bookkeeping problems run even deeper, according to Rolla Chancellor Gary Thomas. He said the records were in such disarray that auditors had told him that they had trouble doing a proper audit of how the academies spent their $4.7 million budget, primarily from state and federal funds. The audit is now three months overdue.

"Not being able to issue an audit is very serious, " Thomas said.

ABS - in a letter to Thomas - has essentially washed its hands of the apparent financial mismanagement, saying that problems occurred during a period when the company had cut ties with the school. ABS has recently signed a new contract, one that gives the firm only a small role in running the schools.

Meanwhile, student test scores are well below the state average, as well as below those in other St. Louis Public Schools.

Parent Kim Dattilo said conditions at the school gradually had been getting worse. "I think it's steadily gone downhill all year long, " said Dattilo, whose two sons attend the school. "I really don't think it's going to get better until a new administration takes over."

UM-Rolla is seriously contemplating shutting the project down. On Feb. 3, Thomas sent Wooten a letter, saying several issues were causing the university "to reconsider the advisability of continued sponsorship."

Charting the future

The questions surrounding St. Louis Academies arise as charter schools are becoming an increasingly important part of the urban school choice movement. St. Louis School Board member and former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. has proposed that the school district sponsor as many as 10 charter schools.

That raises the question of what can be done so charter schools avoid such problems. Some wonder whether the failing is with Missouri's charter school law. Camden, who helped write the law, says he can't think of a way to strengthen the policy. But he acknowledges that cracks exist in the system, with people and institutions not performing their oversight duties.

"I don't know how I can rewrite the law to force someone to do their job, " he said.

He faults Rolla for being an absentee sponsor. He said even a cursory review of the schools' budgets should have alerted the university to problems.

St. Louis Public Schools cited the same concerns with oversight when it sued the university to keep it from sponsoring the academies and another charter school. The lawsuit, which was dropped last year, said Rolla was too far from St. Louis to provide significant scrutiny.

That's a national problem, said David N. Plank, a professor at Michigan State University who studies charter schools. He points to a community college in Michigan's Upper Peninsula that has chartered more than a dozen schools around the state. If charter schools are to become a serious alternative to traditional public schools, sponsoring institutions must be discriminating about which schools they choose to endorse, be vigilant with oversight and not be afraid to shut a school down.

"Getting this right is complicated - it's a major change for public education, " Plank said.

There is also concern, Plank said, that the charter school boards, made up of community members and noneducators, are too dependent on the for-profit companies that actually run the schools. Indeed, ABS owns St. Louis Academies' North Campus and charges fees that are 17 percent of the school's budget, according to some records. The fee is well above what other charters pay for management. The firm, citing a confidentiality agreement with its client, refused to comment on its fees or any other part of its contract with the school.

Politics, too, plays a role, Plank said, with elected officials - who have control of higher education budgets - pressuring universities to sponsor charter schools.

Kinder, who was one of the biggest champions for St. Louis Academies, is disappointed at the results, but said part of the virtue of charter schools laws is that unsuccessful schools can be closed. "This started amid great expectations - it's a shame the model doesn't always work, " Kinder said recently. "But if a school isn't working, we should shut it down."

What the future holds for St. Louis Academies is unclear. The school, recognizing its limitations, already has scaled back to kindergarten through eighth grade. Formerly, it offered 11 grades and kindergarten. Meanwhile, Rolla has the right to cancel the charter. Thomas, while optimistic, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

"The only important thing here is providing a decent opportunity for the children of St. Louis to get a good education, " Thomas said. "If we can't do that, let's get out of the way."

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