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Proposed Spokane charter schools raise red flags

A national organization is recommending Spokane Public Schools’ board reject two of the three charter school applicants up for approval tonight.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers and school district administrators found several red flags while vetting the applicants, they said, including poor academics, budgets with unexplained surpluses or deficits and missing information.

The national association, which provides guidance free of charge to districts setting up new charters, recommended that Spokane Public Schools deny the applications of two California-based charters, the Academy of Arts and Sciences and iLead. A locally based charter led by former Garry Middle School Principal Brenda McDonald, called Pride Prep, was recommended for approval.

The reports aren’t meant to decide whether the district will approve or reject the schools, said William Haft, a spokesman for the national association, who emphasized the decision is up to the school board. “What they do is identify questions for the evaluation team to ask. The reports identify what information is out there.”

Steven Gering, Spokane Public Schools chief academic officer, said he’s glad the district didn’t try to review the applications on its own.

The national group made the process “way more stringent,” he said. “We would have missed stuff. We would have learned the hard way.”

Spokane Public Schools’ board is expected to vote during its meeting tonight on approving or denying the three charters. Spokane’s first charter school is expected to open in fall 2015.

The decision comes one week after the district held a public forum in which each charter applicant had the opportunity to give a 10-minute presentation and people attending the meeting could offer comments.

Only Pride Prep and iLead made presentations at the Spokane forum. The Academy of Arts and Sciences missed it, as well as the public forum in Western Washington where it was expected on Jan. 13.

“The fact that they didn’t show up gives us real pause,” said Marta Reyes-Newberry, interim executive director of the Washington Charter School Association. It will be up to Spokane to decide how that affects the board’s decision, she added.

The Academy of Arts and Sciences is a California-based school that blends classroom and online learning for kindergarten through 12th-grade students and has a heavy parent participation component.

But the national association and district evaluators found the Academy of Arts and Sciences failed to meet the standard in all categories, including educational program design, organizational plan and financial plan.

The school’s directors could not clearly explain how its charter system worked, the report said, and though they admitted their expected profit margin was listed incorrectly, “the founding team … gave only an estimate for typical profit margins.”

The report also noted the charter “does not have a successful academic track record or a clear demonstration of organizational capacity, and, as such, there are numerous deficiencies regarding the overall experience and expertise of the team.”

Additionally, Academy of Arts and Sciences directors failed to disclose having made an additional application for a charter school in Washington, as well as pending applications in California, Michigan and Ohio.

At the interview, directors acknowledged the oversight, said Jeannette Vaughn, Spokane Public Schools’ director of innovative programs/charter schools, who helped evaluate each applicant.

The charter applicant did not return calls requesting comment.

iLead, also based in California, would use a project-based format. The kindergarten through eighth-grade program includes a focus on international learning, leadership, entrepreneurial development, arts and design thinking.

The iLead application also failed to meet the standards outlined by the national association.

“There was no clear division between the charter management entity, iLead School Development, and the proposed board of iLead Spokane Charter School,” the report stated.

Appropriate separation between the board and the school director is critical to operate free of conflict of interest and is in the best interest of the charter, a national official said.

“iLead School Development, while committed to their mission and approach, did not articulate an understanding of their role, their growth plans, or their model, and did not demonstrate the organizational expertise to open, operate, and govern a successful charter school,” according to the report.

The school’s test scores were also noted as being below state standards.

Amber Raskin, an executive director and co-founder of iLead, said, “The point of being an edupreneur is to offer more to our kids than test scores. We don’t teach our kids to memorize. We teach them to think and think broadly.”

As a K-8 school, iLead describes itself as academically rigorous with a focus on a child’s social and emotional well-being.

Dawn Evenson, another director and co-founder of the program, added: “We’ve been doing Common Core since we opened. That’s not what we’re being tested on. We’re being measured on a testing system that’s been deemed ineffective.”

Evenson and Raskin said they were “heartbroken” about the national association’s recommendation to deny their application.

“We are very careful who we move forward with. We did our research and felt Spokane had a progressive and open-minded board and superintendent,” Evenson said. “We are a good fit for Spokane.”

Vaughn, of the school district, said iLead “has really good intentions. They are just trying to grow too fast, too soon.”

Pride Prep, the homegrown alternative, would be a college preparatory school for sixth through 12th grades and would include several years of a foreign language, extra math and science, nine-hour school days and an extended school year.

Pride Prep met standards in all categories. The budgets line up, the school’s board of local community members offers breadth and depth, and the concept fits well for the needs of Spokane, the report found.

“Pride Prep presented a cohesive and thoughtful educational approach that was well researched, thoroughly developed, and connected to the needs of the proposed target population,” the report states.

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