August 14, 2017 10:01:35 AM
JACKSON -- Decision time is drawing near for Mississippi's Charter School Advisory Board. While a proposed school in Clarksdale has an impressive list of supporters, those who want to open schools in Canton and Drew may face questions.
The board decides once a year on new applications to open the alternative form of public schools, which are run by private nonprofits. Board members have been purposefully picky, approving only four schools from 23 applications so far. None were approved last year.
All four schools that have been authorized are in Jackson, raising questions about how much promise charters have for a state as rural as Mississippi. This time, though, all three finalists want to serve areas outside Jackson.
Of those, Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School has attracted the strongest outside support. That's in part because the school's proposed leader, Amanda Johnson, was the founding principal of a charter school in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, that leaders have hoped will be a model for the Mississippi Delta region.
Current Mississippi charter school operator RePublic Schools, says it would provide back-office support and the Charter School Growth Fund has granted $250,000 to pay for startup expenses.
Supporters include Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and state Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, both Republicans, as well as University of Mississippi Education Dean David Rock.
After-school enrichment group SR1, which proposes to open SR1 College Preparatory and STEM Academy in Canton, has a long track record, collecting $2.5 million in grants in the last five years. Tamu Green, the group's president and CEO, says the group aims to improve college access and success in Mississippi, and that community members in Canton asked SR1 for a K-12 school.
SR1's advantages include federally financed AmeriCorps volunteers that it plans to use as teaching assistants and after-school tutors. Financial projections for the school, which plans call to reach 975 students by 2029, appear aggressive, though. SR1 projects it will collect $15 million in the first five years of operation, but only spend about $6 million, leaving $9 million in reserve.
Green said he felt other charter schools' experiences showed the need for strong reserves, and said SR1 tried to make plans that were "as bare-boned as possible." It's unclear, though, whether the organization can operate on less than half as much as what the local public school spends.
Similar questions surround plans for the Truth Academy STEAM Charter School in Drew, which projects it will spend less than half as much per student as the Sunflower County school district in its first year. Truth Academy plans to grow to 360 students in grades K-8 by 2023 and could capture almost all public school students in Drew -- only 375 students attended regular K-8 public schools there last year. The state consolidated the Drew district into Sunflower County in 2012.
"Families and other community members of Drew are very much interested in restoring the sense of pride in their schools that existed prior to the consolidation," Truth Academy's application states.
The school's sponsoring organization, Shades of Elegance, appears to have largely focused on girls and mothers, sponsoring a scholarship pageant and female empowerment programs. T.J. Graham, the school's proposed executive director, couldn't be reached for comment.
The three finalists had interviews with outside experts hired by the authorizer board on Aug. 3, and will get those results later this week. The board votes Sept. 11
Krystal Cormack, board chairwoman, says members look for strength in academic, operational and financial plans. She says it's important not to underestimate money.
"The majority of charter schools that have been closed around the country have had problems with finances," she said.
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