Charter closures affect more than 3,500 students

ST. LOUIS (AP) — More than 3,500 students will be displaced when a network of St. Louis charter schools run by Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc. closes in what may be the largest shutdown of its kind in the United States.

Officials are trying to find spots for students in St. Louis Public Schools and other charter schools in the city after the Missouri Board of Education decided Tuesday to close the six campuses.

Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/HNIG6S) that the shutdown was the largest as far as he knew.

"It's complicated enough when it's a single school of, let's say, 300 kids," Ziebarth said.

Missouri education officials cited problems with the schools, including scores on the state's standardized tests that were well below those of St. Louis Public Schools. Other issues included rent and administrative costs that took dollars from the classroom to the for-profit management company that runs them.

Imagine Schools has said it is considering its options. The management company educates about 40,000 students nationwide and said the St. Louis charter schools served about 3,500 students. The state said the schools started the year with 3,800 students, but that the enrollment had dropped since then.

"We are doing everything we can to assist the families and teachers," said Lori Waters, a spokeswoman for Imagine Schools. "We hope that officials will listen to the parents and their desire to keep schools open and operating in some way in order to have their choice of education for their child."

Tasks that must be addressed include preserving student records and transferring them. Plus, the buildings have to be scoured for equipment and materials paid for with federal funds.

"We don't have a blueprint in place, but we're building one," Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said. "Our success will be measured by the outcome of every child being placed successfully in a school in August."

The governing boards of the Imagine schools haven't entirely given up. They've talked with St. Louis school officials about the district potentially sponsoring a different version of the schools — one that would not include Imagine Schools Inc. as an operator. But for this to be a possibility, the school boards would need to submit a new charter application quickly, and not everyone was excited about the possibility.

"The track records of charter schools that are opened within less than 12 months, let along six months, are not good," said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

State and city education officials continue working under the assumption the schools will close June 30. Enrollment fairs are scheduled for April 28 and May 12. Staff fairs are planned for May.

St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams has several district staff members working on the transition and said finding space for students in city schools isn't a problem.

"The challenge here is placing them where they want to go," said Adams, who helped oversee the dramatic displacement of tens of thousands of students in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

There already is a waiting list of students seeking to transfer to country schools this fall through a voluntary transfer program that was the result of a school desegregation case. But applying now will prioritize a student's application for 2013-14.

Also, scholarships are still available for the upcoming school year through an organization that provides need-based tuition assistance to private and parochial schools in the city, said Sharon Gerken, executive director of the Today and Tomorrow Education Foundation.

Gwen Westbrooks, the state's transition coordinator, met Wednesday with about 100 anxious teachers, parents and students in the gymnasium of Imagine College Prep Academy.

"We don't know what the end will be," she said. "The bottom line is, right now you're going to have to plan for the closing of these schools."

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