Selected readings on US charter schools
ST. LOUIS • As an eighth-grader, William Howard starts the school day by clasping his hands and bowing his head in prayer. In two years, such an expression of faith at De La Salle Middle School may be prohibited.
The Catholic school on the eastern edge of the Ville neighborhood is moving toward becoming the first in the city to convert into a charter school — a move that would infuse it with state dollars. If successful, the people putting together the charter application would be the first to convert a private school in St. Louis into a public one.
But going this direction means the school would have to expunge religious expression from its classrooms. Teachers would have to remove crucifixes from walls and eliminate Catholicism from the curriculum, and students would no longer be required to attend Mass once a month down the street at St. Matthew’s.
“That would be weird,” said William, who attended a city elementary school before coming to De La Salle as a sixth-grader, and likes the Catholic rituals. “It’s another way to respect God, show you love him and that you care.”
For private schools, there are apparent advantages to converting into a charter school — a tuition-free public school that operates independently. The steady flow of state and federal funds makes charter schools less reliant on tuition and donations. As more and more faith-based schools find themselves on the brink of closing, the charter route offers a lifeline.
But conversions also present complexities. Just like district schools, charter schools must offer expensive special education services and cannot turn children away. They must abide by bureaucratic rules, such as state accountability and testing mandates. For religious schools such as De La Salle, they also must figure out how to remove expressions of faith from the classrooms.
For this reason, the decision to begin De La Salle’s conversion was not an easy one, said Chuck Kretschmer, chairman of De La Salle’s governing board. The 19 members began exploring the option in 2012 as they discussed their mission to expand the school under long-term financial uncertainties.
“There was a great deal of soul-searching,” Kretschmer said. “We are a Catholic school, so really what we had to reconcile with ourselves is: Is it more important that we serve twice as many children, or that we retain our faith-based foundation? Our answer was, go out and serve twice as many kids.”
Not everyone agrees with that approach. So far, no other Lutheran or Catholic school in the city has chosen this route. The St. Louis Archdiocese, though supportive of public education, does not support the conversion of Catholic schools to charters.
“It would be very much in competition with the very mission of what we’re trying to do with our schools,” said George Henry, the archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools. “It doesn’t seem like us running government schools is where our time and energy and resources should be going.”
Plus, Henry added, “The charter schools obviously are in competition with the Catholic schools for students. We are trying to fill as many empty seats in our schools as we can.”
De La Salle Middle School was founded in 2001 as part of a ongoing national effort by the Christian Brothers order to improve educational prospects for the poor. Unlike most neighborhood-based parish schools, it draws students from across the region. Class sizes are small, with no more than 13 students. The school day is almost eight hours long, and children attend school year-round.
The school is one of three in St. Louis based on the NativityMiguel model, a brand of private middle schools that take children from high-poverty backgrounds and prepare them for selective high schools.
Operating these schools is expensive. Families of the 67 fifth- through eighth-graders at De La Salle cover just 3 percent of the approximately $15,000 annual tuition, according to the school. To stay open, the school must raise between $1.5 million and $2 million a year.
Becoming a charter school would bring an infusion of close to $8,000 in state funds per student, according to the school. This would allow the school to double its size to 120 fourth- through eighth-graders by 2017. By state law, the school as a charter would not be allowed to pick and choose students. It also could no longer enroll children who are not St. Louis residents.
The school would still raise private donations — as many charter schools and district schools increasingly do — to cover funding gaps.
“The word ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal,’ ” said Corey Quinn, president of the school. “Our faith is in many ways calling us for the same things our country’s tenets call us to do. Making this school available to every kid regardless of income, religious background, is our duty.”
The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, argues that the result diverts public money to pay for private education.
“In those instances where private school conversions are allowed, there should be rigorous safeguards to ensure that the conversion to a charter school is done in more than name only,” the organization’s policy statement says.
Virginia Savage, whose two children attend De La Salle, said she supported the conversion. But she would feel even better it if faith could remain integrated throughout the school day.
“That’s the only thing I have trouble with,” she said. “The kids that are going to come in won’t have that. They might not have that at home.”
If successful, De La Salle organizers would operate as a charter school in the 2015-16 school year.
Working toward securing a charter and a larger building slowed over the summer.
A new state law requires charter applications to be approved by the state no later than Dec. 1 to open the following fall. But the State Board of Education did not hold a November meeting, which meant charter applications were due one month early. The board’s next meeting is Dec. 2.
This resulted in a yearlong delay for the operators of De La Salle, who had hoped to begin operating the school as a charter in 2014. It also delayed the potential opening of a charter school by alumni of the shuttered St. Elizabeth Academy. A potential charter high school for new immigrants, as well as a charter high school in the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District, are also delayed.
State officials say the new deadline is necessary to stop the last-minute charter school applications that would trickle into the department in April and May for schools to open the following school year.
“It does take time to put a school in order,” said Margie Vandeven, a deputy commissioner with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Vandeven added that the board meeting date was never changed and that it was never meant to put charter school organizers in a bind.
However, the situation highlights the growing tension between charter school supporters and the state. Earlier this fall, Missouri Board of Education members put the sponsor of Confluence Academies on the hot seat over academic performance at its four campuses, some of which are performing better than nearby district schools.
“What we are finding is that the sentiment being expressed by board members during their public meetings just continues to become more and more negative,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. “Those are just indications to us that these schools are really not being given due consideration. That perhaps the deck is stacked.”
Assuming De La Salle will receive the state board’s blessing, Quinn said staff and the board had already begun working through the complex details of a conversion. To keep at least some components of Catholicism, faith-based programs would be offered before and after school. They would be privately funded and voluntary.
Community partnerships are also being explored.
De La Salle is not typical of most Catholic schools. Because it is run by an order, it is not financially supported by a parish. The majority of students who attend De La Salle are not Catholic. The mission’s school is to educate regardless of background or ability, Quinn added, which would only broaden by converting to a charter school.
“All means all,” he said. “If it finds us struggling to serve kids we haven’t before, well, guess what? We’re called to that work. It’s hard. And we’re going to do it.”
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch – by Elisa Crouch