Who missed the early red flag?
In 2010, Hope Academy reported an attendance rate of 46.3 percent, according to state figures. That’s understandable, given that the charter school concentrates on serving students who have dropped out elsewhere, or are at risk of quitting school. Yet by the following year, attendance had leaped to 88.9 percent. Then it jumped to 96 percent. And by 2013, the school was claiming the nearly unheard-of 99.5 percent rate.
The state pounced last month, through a surprise visit by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, citing the suspicious 2013 statistic as the reason. Officials later accused the charter school of reporting tweaked attendance figures and enrolling children from outside district boundaries. That’s important, because head count equals money: taxpayers’ money. The money needs to be accounted for eventually.
Because it appears that someone might have been emboldened when the first lies weren’t caught back in 2011. With charter schools, accountability for problems is spread wider, and can seem more confusing, than it is within a public school district.
Each charter school — and there are more than 20 in Kansas City — essentially operates like its own separate school district. There are governing boards (not elected by voters), and then there is the sponsoring organization. Hope Academy’s sponsor is the UMKC Charter School Center. The University of Missouri-Kansas City placed Hope Academy on probation in October because of consistently poor performance reports. The charter’s renewal is in jeopardy, and UMKC continues to investigate.
As does the full Hope Academy board, said Alvin Brooks, its president. Brooks said a board must conduct oversight, but not stoop to micromanaging. “We will get to the bottom of it,” he said.
There was also the involvement of Daniel Jones & Associates, an audit firm. The firm didn’t find any problems, according to UMKC.
For media, covering school board meetings has long been a mainstay. But no reporter attends the board meetings of each and every charter school.
Still, it is important to note that people don’t volunteer to serve on a charter board out of anything but empathy for the students. It will be a loss if Hope Academy fails not just because of low student performance, but also because watchdog entities failed to spot problems in time.