WSAZ Investigates | Charter school concerns

Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 8:55 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The West Virginia Professional Charter School Board could approve the state’s first charter schools during a meeting Wednesday morning.

The Board is currently considering seven applications from companies looking to open new virtual and in-person education choices.

Three of the proposals have been submitted by for-profit company ACCEL Schools, which said it currently operates more than 50 schools across the country with more than 23,000 students, according to the company’s website.

However, our WSAZ Investigation found many of the company’s schools receive failing grades and spend a lot less each year per student than their public school counterparts, according to the Ohio School Report Card.

ACCEL wants to open the only in-person charter school in our region, in addition to a statewide virtual option and an in-person school in the Eastern Panhandle.

The Nitro Prep Academy, which would be located in the former Nitro High School building, hopes to attract up to 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from Kanawha and Putnam counties, according to its application. That would including pulling students from Nitro Elementary School, which will share a parking lot with the new charter school, and Rock Branch Elementary School, which is one of West Virginia’s three National Blue Ribbon Schools and is located less than a 10-minute drive from the proposed charter school.

Despite the location of those highly regarded schools, Nitro Prep said in its application to the state, “there is a need in this area for a high-quality charter school because neither county is excelling academically.” The application goes on to state it hopes to create an individualized learning environment as “an alternative to traditional public schools that have been ineffective in meeting certain family and student learning needs, or cost-prohibitive private schools.”

Each student who leaves a public school for a charter school costs their former public school system state funding, which is distributed based on enrollment. Kanawha County Schools (KCS) Superintendent Tom Williams said charter schools could have a devastating affect on schools by forcing the loss of teachers, support staff and other important programs.

“My main concern would be our students,” Williams said. “We have a really good product here in Kanawha County Schools. We send our kids to colleges and universities, and CTE programs, and the military. They are very, very successful. You’re not going to come to school one day and our doors are going to be closed. Our doors will always be open. Students will know that their school is safe and we will be open, and we will be here, and we will be educating students like we always have. We have the extracurricular activities -- the bands, the show choir, the robotics program, things of that nature. All of our students are equipped with iPads, so are our teachers. I think it would be a great loss for folks to go to a different setting.”

Williams said the loss of funding could force KCS to cut things like music and robotics at a time when they are trying to catch students up after losing classroom time during the pandemic.

Nitro Prep Academy is looking to have up to 200 students in its first year. Nitro Elementary School second grade teacher Sherry Murphy said that could result in the public school losing multiple teachers due to a decline in enrollment. There are currently 38 second grade students at Nitro Elementary, and Nitro Prep plans on having up to 25 second graders next year if it is approved.

“The benefit of a public school is we have a lot of resources that are available to us that I don’t think charter schools will have,” Murphy said. “We are a Title I school, so we get federal funds. We have a huge amount of community supports that fill in resources for us. Our PTO provides a lot of money for our school to buy supplies that we just don’t normally get through our normal school funding.”

Murphy said she is concerned her students could miss out on additional supports that are offered by Nitro Elementary if they go to the charter school. Those include free tutoring for math and reading, as well as records and data that is used to track a student’s progress as early as pre-kindergarten.

West Virginia lawmakers sped up the charter school opening process during the past legislative session to allow schools to open for the 2022-23 school year. The goal was to create more options and new opportunities to give students a better education through quality charter school providers.

WSAZ found most of ACCEL’s schools in the neighboring state of Ohio have been given a failing grade by the Ohio Department of Education.

The latest available Ohio School Report Card data shows ACCEL Schools did not have a single school received an A or a B on the performance index measurement, which combines achievement, graduation rate and progress. Three schools were given a C, while 12 were given a D and 18 schools received a F.

The average performance index of all 33 ACCEL charter schools in Ohio was a 51.82%, according to Report Card data. During that same time period, the average performance index score of all Ohio charter schools was 54.37%, and Ohio public schools had an average score of 74.46%.

The Ohio Department of Education did not publish performance index letter grades for schools in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nitro Prep Academy will be modeled off the Cornerstone Academy, an ACCEL Schools school in the Columbus area, according to the school’s application.

The Cornerstone Academy is one of ACCEL’s best performing schools, but the Ohio School Report Card only gave the school a C in its most recent data. The school also spends a lot less per student per year compared to similar Ohio public schools, and has less than half of its students considered advanced or accelerated.

While reviewing the curriculum that ACCEL plans to offer at Nitro Prep, WSAZ found it teaches the same material as programs currently offered by Kanawha County Schools.

In addition to lower academic performance, Williams said, these charter schools will not be able to provide the same feeding programs and other out of classroom supports that Kanawha and Putnam County Schools currently offers. These school communities go as far as giving students meals for their entire family to have on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In its application, Nitro Prep said it hopes to provide free school meals to all students starting in its second year. It would not guarantee that all students will be given bus transportation to get them to and from school.

“We have nationally board certified teachers, we have excellent service personnel. Last year during the pandemic, our bus drivers and cooks made over a million meals and were transported to our students,” Williams said. “Kanawha County Schools has been here, we will continue to be here, and we support and care for our kids very much.”

Murphy already offers an individualized approach to education that allows each of her student to continue to learn every day. She said some families might want to move their children to a charter school because they are lacking proper communication to understand what resources they need. As a result, Murphy has an open door policy and is willing to talk with any parents about the skills their students are focusing on in the classroom.

“They are going to grow up and be adults some day, and I want them to be able to pick any job they want to do,” Murphy said. “And in order to have choices, they have to have skills. We talk about that. I tell them, ‘you may not know what you want to do today, but when you grow up I want you to have choices so you don’t have to do this kind of job because those are the only skills you have. I want you to be able to choose do you want to go to college, do you want to go to a Vo Tech school. But you are going to have to read and do math to do those things.’”

ACCEL Schools declined an interview when WSAZ contacted the company for this story.

WSAZ reached out to every member on the local school board that will oversee ACCEL School’s operation of Nitro Prep. We were only able to reach one member who said School Board President Christopher “Kit” Anderson was the only person who could speak on behalf of the school. Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.

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