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Charter school company defends its poor record in other states

Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 7:11 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia’s first charter schools are set to open next school year, and at least two of the schools will be run by for-profit company ACCEL Schools.

ACCEL will operate the only brick-and-mortar charter school in our region, the Nitro Preparatory Academy, that will be opened as a K-8 school in the former Nitro High school building. It will share a parking lot with Nitro Elementary School and be within a 10-minute drive of National Blue Ribbon School Rock Branch Elementary School.

A WSAZ Investigation into the company’s operations in Ohio found more than half of the 33 ACCEL run schools in the state received a failing grade from the Ohio Department of Education School Report Card, according to the most recent data from 2018-19. Grades were not published in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In a one-on-one interview with WSAZ, ACCEL Schools CEO Ron Packard said the company is much better than those grades show because they often take over schools that were already greatly struggling. He said things like school location and demographics are also a major contributing factor to a low rating. Instead of focusing on the overall grade, the company looks at how it compared to other schools in the same district.

“If you get a D in Cleveland on the absolute performance, you were doing well,” Packard said. “You are much better than most of the alternatives, so you have to look at it in a relative basis.”

Packard said 41 of 43 the ACCEL-operated schools in Ohio have a value added figure better than their nearby public schools.

The Nitro Prep Academy will likely have demographics more similar to the Cornerstone Academy in the Columbus area, which is one of three ACCEL schools that Ohio gives a C grade, Packard said. That school was performing well before the company got there, and they were able to retain many of the school’s teachers.

Nitro Prep Academy leaders have previously said the goal is to have the new school at least meet that C rating in its first year, but Packard wants to go even beyond that depending on what students they are able to recruit.

“Our goal is to have 100 percent of the students proficient,” Packard said. “Depending on where they come to us from, that is not always possible. If students come to us two or three years behind grade level, that’s very difficult.”

Generally, Packard said ACCEL hires teachers who are board certified in their state but do not have a lot of experience. To compensate for this, ACCEL has teaching trainers in each school and tests students on material every two weeks to ensure they were able to learn material presented to them.

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The Ohio School Report Card shows ACCEL schools spend a lot less per student per year than their public school comparisons. Packard said this is because the company gets less funding from the state than public schools, but West Virginia will give ACCEL a greater share of the school funding which can lead to better results.

“We don’t have schools with bloated bureaucracies,” Packard said about their Ohio schools. “We want all of our money to go to the students. We generally can manage the real estate better. So it’s a whole series of things, but it really is a miracle that were able to do that.”

Because of the favorable charter school laws in West Virginia, Packard said ACCEL hopes to open two schools per year in a different section of the state for the foreseeable future. He said every student that goes to a charter school wanted to leave their current school for the new option, so the families are very committed to individual education plans that are developed for each student.

Nitro Prep Academy is currently working on plans for school meals and transportation. Packard said every student who is eligible for a free lunch will get one, and the school is aiming to have buses available for any student who wants to attend the charter school.

ACCEL will begin the recruitment process in the coming months, Packard said. It will include a number of open houses, community meetings and even sending the principal and other school employees door-to-door in surrounding neighborhoods to talk with families.

“They can all choose to do what they’re doing now and we don’t have a school,” Packard said. “It’s never been the case, but at the end of the day, we are forced to do a good job academically and also with regard to parent and student relationships because they have to want to come to us. If they don’t wanna come to us, we don’t have a school.”

The school is currently under contract to buy the old high school building, Packard said. The building, that has not been a public school since 1991, will need a lot of work and asbestos abatement before it can be opened. The current timeline will allow all projects to be completed before classes begin in mid-August 2022.

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