JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys for Gordon Parks Elementary School on Friday accused Missouri officials of withholding information that they say could have turned the State Board of Education’s decision earlier this year to effectively close the charter school.
By JASON HANCOCK
The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent
The allegations emerged on the second day of testimony in a lawsuit brought by the school against the state board and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The school says the state board violated the law when it voted unanimously to deny Gordon Parks a new charter.
Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green said he expects to rule on the case early next week.
Curt Fuchs, coordinator of education support services for the state education department, testified Friday that the board made the decision not to renew Gordon Parks’ charter based on a history of poor results on state achievement tests.
A presentation that Fuchs gave to the State Board of Education before it voted in May showed Gordon Parks underperforming for years when compared with Kansas City Public Schools and the rest of the state.
“Gordon Parks was performing below one of only three school districts in the entire state that is unaccredited,” Fuchs said.
He added that state officials had hoped Gordon Parks’ sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, would have reconsidered its application for a five-year renewal of the school’s charter based on test scores.
But documents presented in court Friday show Fuchs had created a separate chart comparing Gordon Parks not just to the Kansas City district as a whole, but to each elementary school individually. That chart showed several schools with lower performances than Gordon Parks.
“This information doesn’t support the department’s recommendation (not to renew the charter),” said Charles Hatfield, attorney for Gordon Parks. “That’s why you didn’t present it, right?”
Fuchs said he didn’t create that chart until after the board had voted. Besides, he said, the figures still show a dip in performance at the school from 2011 to 2012.
Hatfield also questioned why Fuchs focused his presentation on comparing the school’s performance to the entire Kansas City district from 2007 to 2012. Over those five years, the gap in achievement between the school and district grew significantly.
But between 2009 and 2012, the gap actually decreased, Hatfield pointed out.
In its defense, the state maintained a focus on low test scores at Gordon Parks. Last year, for example, less than 13 percent of Gordon Parks students were proficient in English language arts, and less than 17 percent were proficient in math.
Additionally, the school was supposed to close its academic achievement gap with the Kansas City district. It failed to do that, said Missouri Solicitor General James Layton.
“The board of education was not required to approve a five-year renewal of what is one of the poorest performing schools in the state of Missouri,” Layton said.
In addition, Fuchs testified that Gordon Parks was not in compliance with four of six federal criteria for students who speak English as a second language.
Problems with the school were discussed by the sponsor in 2009, Fuchs said, when the university decided to extend its charter for two years in hopes of improving performance.
“They were given additional years to bring their scores up. That did not happen,” he said. “We were concerned about giving them another five years.”
Gordon Parks supporters point out that the school serves a high-need, high-risk population. Most of the students live in poverty and typically start one or two grade levels behind their peers. In addition, it’s a transient population, they contend, making it impossible to properly gauge student growth with annual standardized tests.
“These tests are just a snapshot in time,” Hatfield said. “If you test a group of students at third grade and again at fifth grade, it may not be the same kids.”
Many charter schools serve high-risk populations, Fuchs countered, and those schools regularly perform better than Gordon Parks.
Another question to emerge Friday involved a meeting held the day before the State Board of Education vote. The board met with members of the education department staff — including Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro — to discuss the Gordon Parks charter renewal.
The meeting was not open to the public, and no prior notice was given. Two board members testified in depositions read in the courtroom Friday that the meeting was “informal” and took place in a break room one day before the unanimous vote against renewing Gordon Parks’ charter.
The university staff argued that they should have been allowed to be present.