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Columbus charter school group: 'We're going to make it happen'


Pastor Darren Leach, the executive officer for Inspire STEM and Arts Scholars Academy, speaks with the Dispatch editorial board last month.

Pastor Darren Leach, the executive officer for Inspire STEM and Arts Scholars Academy, speaks with the Dispatch editorial board last month.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff



William Browning



The state has denied a Columbus group's charter school proposal but local organizers say they will continue their push to open another public education option for city children. 


During a meeting in Jackson on Monday, the seven-member Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board unanimously voted against the proposal from the Columbus Coalition for Educational Options. The group had proposed opening the Inspire STEM & Arts Scholars Academy in Columbus. 


Charter schools are publicly funded and do not charge tuition. They are run by private groups that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for less regulation. The Columbus school would have served children living within the city limits. 


The proposed school, which according to the application planned on beginning operations at Genesis Church on a full-time basis in 2015, would have eventually served kindergarten through sixth grade and ninth through 12th grade. 


Despite the board's vote Monday, that's still the plan, according to Darren Leach, a local pastor who is the executive officer for Inspire STEM & Arts Scholars Academy. 


"We don't plan to stop," Leach, who attended the board meeting in Jackson, said. "We see the rejection as the first step in the process. We're going to make it happen." 


The proposed school was one of three finalists that emerged in April from 12 applicants from the around the state. Others withdrew or were rejected for having incomplete applications or being ineligible. The other two finalists were in Natchez and Jackson.  


The proposed Natchez school was also denied unanimously. The proposed Jackson school, meanwhile, had its application accepted unanimously. That school -- known as Reimagine Prep -- will serve fifth grade through eighth grade students. 


Leach said that while the Columbus group is disappointed, they now have a clearer understanding of what is expected and will move forward in better position. He did not offer specifics but said the group plans on re-applying and addressing any issues. 


"Columbus still needs another education option," he said. 


In the group's application they noted that the Columbus Municipal School District has been rated a "D" by the state Department of Education. 


Committee outlines concerns 


A review team who reported to the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board said the curriculum for the proposed Columbus charter school was not detailed enough and did not acknowledge differences between elementary school and high school. Evaluators also warned that Leach, as pastor of the church that would house the school, could have a conflict of interest as the school's executive director. 


According to the application, the school would pay Genesis Church $1,750 a month in rent the first year and $3,500 a month the second year. 


Leach told The Dispatch last month that if the location of the school became a problem, the church body would move. 


Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board member Krystal Cormack, a Clarksdale resident who oversaw the Columbus application, said the school was also handicapped by not proposing a principal in its application. The application said a principal would be selected by May. 


Erika Berry, executive director of the Mississippi Charter Schools Association, said the board "struggled" with the fact that the group had not presented a principal. A charter school leader has a plethora of responsibilities, she said, including not only being a principal, but running what is essentially a non-profit organization, recruiting students and teachers, developing curriculum and overseeing staff. 


"They weren't comfortable with giving that much power to a group without a clear leader in place," Berry said of the board after the vote. 


Another issue, Berry said, was that while the programs the school proposed implementing were "excellent and research-based," they did not appear to be fully supported by the proposed budget. 


She said most charter schools need at least 500 students to be sustainable. The Columbus school's proposed initial enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year was 240, according to the application. 


Commitment, professionalism not an issue 


Tommie Cardin, the chairman of the authorizer board, said the board focused on quality in applications. 


"We started out with the intention of having very high standards and I think we have delivered on those intentions," he said. 


Cardin added that the board was impressed by the Columbus group's "diligence." 


"They displayed a real commitment to the process and worked in a professional manner," he said. "They have an attitude of, 'Let's see what we can do to make this happen.' We encourage them to continue down the path." 


Berry agreed, saying that the Columbus group already seems to have one of the key ingredients needed to get a charter school in place: the support of a large group of citizens. 


"They obviously have a lot of support in the community," she said. 


Mississippi lawmakers expanded authority for charter schools in 2013. The board is allowed, per state law, to approve up to 15 charter schools each year.  


The application process will open again in July. The deadline is Aug. 15. The board will vote on those applications in December. 


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.



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