Fifth grade graduation at Gordon Parks Elementary school this week was an especially emotional event.
The 13-year old charter school was founded to serve some of the most disadvantaged kids in the Kansas City area, but the school has some of the lowest scores of any public or charter school in Kansas City, Mo.
Although officials at the University of Central Missouri, the school’s sponsor, believed Gordon Parks was making progress towards meeting state standards, the state Board of Education voted unanimously not to renew the school’s charter for next year.
Supporters of the school have filed a lawsuit, and a judge stayed the order to close it until a public hearing in Jefferson City on July 26.
School founder Dorothy Curry, who now volunteers in the classroom, says Gordon Parks staff have succeeded in creating a safe environment for its students.
“The children found adults whom they felt safe with, whom they had a personal relationship with,” Curry says, “all children would benefit from that, but ours must have it. And I understand that the state board has not figured out how to measure that.”
Charters are public schools that receive state funding, but are not part of a district. In Missouri, they’re allowed only within the St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. districts, neither of which are fully accredited. These schools accountable directly to the state, and their university sponsors, when their charters come up for renewal.
Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, says this is the first time a charter school in this state is being closed against the recommendation of its sponsor.
“Legally, the determination to close the school is the authority of the sponsor,” Thaman says. “So when a charter school is not meeting its performance objectives … then it is the responsibility of the sponsor to determine whether the school should be renewed or if there are significant performance concerns, the sponsor has the authority to close the school."
According to Thaman, he has supported the recent closing of other charter schools, which were not meeting the terms of their contracts. But he says that the University of Central Missouri believed Gordon Parks was successfully implementing a new school improvement plan, and beginning to see early results in its assessments of student progress.
“We recognize that’s many years after many years, however we felt that this is a school that is serving a very disadvantaged student population, and there is a critical need for good schools to provide this kind of academic opportunity for families. And as a charter school, if families were not satisfied with the school, then they would choose to place the children elsewhere,” Thaman says.
Thaman says this decision will be watched with concern by the sponsors of other charter schools. And he makes an argument that has been made by urban school districts for years:
“I think it creates a larger concern … around how are we as a state viewing alternative student populations. And are we really measuring the performance of students who are in significantly impoverished conditions equitably and in a fair manner,” Thaman says. “Whether that’s a charter school, a traditional district school, whatever the type of school, that’s something that as a state, really needs to address.”
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education did not return calls for comment.