July 29, 2013

Judge rules Gordon Parks Elementary should get new charter

A circuit court judge on Monday ruled that the Missouri Board of Education violated state law earlier this year when it denied Gordon Parks Elementary School a new charter. The ruling means the school will remain open this fall.

Gordon Parks Elementary School will be open this fall after all, although it probably will serve only half as many students.

Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled Monday that the Missouri Board of Education violated state law earlier this year when it denied the Kansas City school a new charter. The decision means that the charter school at 3715 Wyoming St. won’t be forced to close its doors at the end of summer.

“In a victory for our children, Gordon Parks Elementary School has been saved,” said Doug Curry, the Gordon Parks’ board president.

But because of the uncertainty that surrounded the school’s future, many of its staff members have already found jobs elsewhere. School officials tentatively plan to reopen Gordon Parks on Aug. 21 at half its former size of about 200, and serve students in kindergarten, first and second grade.

The school will try to hire four or five more teachers before then, Curry said. He urged parents to enroll their children immediately.

The next step will be to build back up to offering classes in third, fourth and fifth grade as soon as possible, he said, with hopes to open the school at full capacity in fall 2014.

“A lot of damage has been done,” Curry said. “A tremendous amount of time and resources that could have been used for our children were spent fighting just to remain open. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Between legal fees and paying out teacher contracts, he said, the fight to keep Gordon Parks open cost the school close to a half-million dollars.

Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, said the department is reviewing the possibility of appealing the decision.

The state’s constitution vests supervision of public schools in the state Board of Education, Potter said, and that includes charter schools such as Gordon Parks.

“The department (of education) believes charter schools have a viable place in public education. However, they all need to be high-quality schools,” she said. “Irrespective of what other services they provide, their most important functions are teaching and learning and the success of the children they serve. We hold all schools in Missouri accountable to the same high standards.”

Curry said he has already written a letter asking that the state not appeal because that “would prolong damaging uncertainty for our children, who already live ... in worlds of chaos.”

Gladys Groves, a kindergarten teacher at Gordon Parks since 1999, said that when she heard the news Monday, “I was so happy, I cried big ol’ alligator tears. This was about the children and these kids are so very special.”

Gordon Parks serves children who “in public school would get lost in the shuffle,” Groves said. “But not here.”

Officials with the University of Central Missouri, which sponsors the charter school, said they were pleased with the judge’s decision and ready to move forward. “We are committed to working with Gordon Parks Elementary School and its leadership to provide a quality education for students who face many challenges in their lives,” university spokesman Jeff Murphy said.

The battle over the school began in May when the state Board of Education, on the recommendation of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, voted unanimously to deny the school a new charter. Officials cited poor results on state achievement tests over the school’s history.

In 2012, in English language arts, 12.9 percent of Gordon Parks students scored proficient or advanced, compared with 58.1 percent statewide and 34.7 percent in Kansas City Public Schools, state records show.

In math, 16.7 percent of Gordon Parks students scored proficient or advanced, compared with 59.3 percent statewide and 35 percent for the Kansas City district.

But supporters of the school say the test results aren’t an accurate indicator of the school’s success. Gordon Parks serves children from the highest levels of poverty who in many cases begin school one to two grade levels behind their peers. Additionally, the supporters said, the transient nature of the school’s population makes it impossible to properly gauge student growth with annual standardized tests.

State records show that nearly all of the school’s students — 94 percent — qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And 16 percent are special education students. Both of those percentages are higher than numbers for Kansas City Public Schools.

The school sued the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Board of Education, arguing that the school was unfairly denied a new charter.

Judge Green agreed, ruling Monday that the state’s decision was “unlawful, unreasonable, arbitrary and involved an abuse of discretion.”

The department of education made the decision to oppose the charter application before it was even submitted, Green wrote, and withheld information from the state Board of Education that could have changed its vote. The state further erred by refusing to allow the University of Central Missouri an opportunity to formally present the school’s case to the board.

“(The department of education) essentially disregarded any information that did not support its premature decision to deny the application prior to its submission,” Green wrote, later adding: “The Board heard a one-sided presentation from (the department) that used wrong, misleading and incomplete data.”

The decision also hinted that the Board of Education may have violated the state’s open meetings law when it met in private to discuss Gordon Parks the day before the unanimous vote against renewing the school’s charter.

The meeting — which included board members and several education department staffers — was not open to the public, Green wrote, but there is no indication it was formally closed as required by state law.

Two Board of Education members testified in depositions read in the courtroom Friday that the meeting was “informal” and took place in a break room.

At a news conference Monday afternoon at Gordon Parks, James B. Nutter Sr., chairman of James B. Nutter & Co., called on the Kansas City business community to step up with more financial support for the school.

In addition to the $14,000 in per-pupil money that Gordon Parks receives from the state, the school raises nearly $7,000 per child to maintain a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

Sister Berta Sailor, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, thanked Curry and others who rallied to save the school.

“We live in a society that saves tin cans and throws away its children,” she said. “But we are not going to let that happen.”

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