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Ditching The Project School

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Students from The Project School hold protest signs at a news conference the day after the mayor's office announced its intention to revoke the school's charter.
  • Rebecca Townsend
  • Students from The Project School hold protest signs at a news conference the day after the mayor's office announced its intention to revoke the school's charter.

Update: After this article went to print, school officials called the news desk to say the judge hearing the injunction request granted a hearing for 9 a.m. next Monday as well as a temporary restraining order against the city. In the judge's words: "Pending a hearing and determination of Plaintiff's request for preliminary injunction, Defendants are temporarily restrained and enjoined from any an all activities, instructions, communications or public statements that would have the effect of prohibiting TPS from beginning classes on Aug. 6."

When Mayor Greg Ballard's office announced on July 17 its intention to revoke The Project School's charter, school officials say they did not receive advance notice.

The release said the school had 15 days to respond in writing to the decision — the 15th day falling the day after school was due to start in August. After receiving the response, the mayor's office announced Tuesday afternoon its decision to revoke the charter was final. Meanwhile, city officials assigned trustees to help the students find new schools.

The decision had the immediate effect of rendering about 40 staff members unemployed and about 350 students without a school. School leaders on Monday filed for an injunction.

As its justification, the city alleged a multi-year pattern of financial mismanagement atop governance concerns and failure to demonstrate improvement on standardized tests or to eliminate the performance gaps experienced by black students or those who qualify for free-or-reduced-cost lunches.

School officials dispute much of data used to support the allegations, particularly that TPS experienced unmanageable problems with negative cash flow. The city used accrual-based accounting that charged more than $2 million of building depreciation as a cash expense when it said TPS ended the year with a deficit of $90,000. In fact, school officials countered, TPS had more than $100,000 on hand at the end of June, paid its line of credit in full each month and never missed a payroll or a building payment.

In response to the city's concern about a staff member who called the city to voice her frustration over a last-minute change in pay periods, which the city said was done during a period when the school's general fund balance could not cover the expense, school officials said that they offered to issue checks in line with the original schedule for any staff member for whom the move would create hardship — an option that some teachers reported was utilized without issue.

The revocation process allowed TPS to detail its concerns in a written response, but the city offered no opportunity for dialogue about the concerns and no hope that any response would change its resolve to close the school.

At a news conference held the day after the city's announcement, parents decried the "murdering of our community."

In the midst of their four-year charter review, school officials reached out to the mayor's office the week before its announcement hoping to work on a plan of action for 2012-13. Beth Bray, the city's director of charter schools, responded by email that such a meeting would be "premature," noting that she was waiting for financial and academic growth figures. She added, "As we do with every school after the conclusion of the 4th year process, we'll want to sit down with the board and school administration to discuss the findings. É"

When the city was able to review the year-over-year academic growth and the most recent profit-loss statement, said Jason Kloth, deputy mayor of education, in a July 18 interview, "we felt the sense of urgency that we were going to make this decision in the short or long term and it would not be fair to students and families to delay it inevitably."

From Kloth's perspective, the school clearly missed three of the primary academic goals outlined in its charter agreement. First, each student was to read, write and compute at or above grade level within the first three years of being at the school. According to 2011-2012 ISTEP+ figures, only 36 percent of students in the school three or more years met this goal. Regarding the second goal, that each student achieve at least one year of academic growth per year as measured by ISTEP, only 46 percent demonstrated such progress in the 2010-2011 school year. [Officials did not offer a figure from 2011-2012.] Finally, officials pointed to "significant achievement gaps," noting that TPS "increased considerably" the percentage of proficiency among white (72.7 percent in the past school year) and non-free-and-reduced-cost lunch students (72.4 percent), while proficiency percentages among black and free-and-reduced-cost lunch students dropped to 16.3 percent from 19.3 the year prior and 13.5 percent from 20.2 percent, respectively.

"In each of the last three years, members of our staff have met with TPS board members, administrators and teachers to outline our concerns regarding the school's pervasive and consistent failure to meet the Mayor's standards," Bray wrote in a letter dated July 17 and sent to the school along with the notice of revocation.

"During each of these annual meetings, representatives of the school have shared corrective action plans and detailed ideas for improving academic and financial performance. Ultimately, the plans each year have not resulted in any tangible improvement at the school."

Daniel Baron, TPS board president, said the test scores do not capture the significant challenges of many students' academic backgrounds.

"I'd characterize our test performance as reflective of children in the community who have been failed by their previous public school experiences and many of whom have been to four, five six, seven schools over the period of their academic lives and many of whom have been kicked out of those schools," Baron said.

Several people within The Project School community acknowledged the need to address the concerns outlined by the mayor's office, but expressed dismay that, instead of mediation or instituting changes within TPS administration, city officials would opt for total annihilation when the school had one of the highest retention rates and degree of parental satisfaction among the mayor-sponsored charter schools.

"As many of the parents have expressed, we are so pleased with how our children have become friends and citizens in the community, how they opened up and blossomed, how they are excited about school — they miss school — how they are friends with everyone at the school from all different races and backgrounds," Kristin Kohn, the parent of two children at TPS, said at the news conference.

"The decision ... it's been a huge disservice to every child at this school. ... I feel all the parental voice you are hearing today is not being heard and I believe it counts for something."

China Etchison, another parent of two TPS students, called the decision an "injustice."

"It's not perfect, no school is perfect, but I say this is the best experience I've had, this is the best choice for my family — this school is our family," she said.

To David Dean, the father of a student with Downs Syndrome, whom he said found a true sense of belonging at TPS, "it's not just 'send her to another school' — this next year's going to be a waste because it takes that much to get her going."

Parent Brandon Cosby, who noted that his third grade African-American son tests above grade level in math and language arts, highlighted the school's record of unconditional service, having expelled only one child in its four years of operation.

"The message being sent from the mayor's office is 'We do not value the kind of places that have a consistent and clear message that we will raise all children — not the good ones, not the bad — but all kids,'" Cosby said. "If this is a place that says 'We will open our doors to all kids,' then how in the name of reason or God could you even consider closing a school like that?"

"We simply represent different roads towards that goal (of wanting what's best for the children of the city)," Patricia Wildhack, a TPS art teacher [and the wife of NUVO managing editor Jim Poyser], said in an emailed statement.

"I am sorry that one of the most amazing collections of teachers and students, drawn by a strong sense of mission and vision, is being disbanded because of these differences. I wish we could have acknowledged our shared goal, respected our differences in the road taken, and worked from there. We might need a mediator, but we do not need to be censored and shuttered."

For Deputy Mayor Kloth, the performance gaps overshadow everything else.

"We just want students to have choices when they graduate high school," he said. "If you are not performing at grade level and you are consistently doing worse over time, children aren't going to have options and that is simply an unacceptable standard for us to set over time for children in our community."

Editor's Note:

Printed as "Thumbs down: When the news gets personal," July 25 - Aug.1.

As a one-person news desk, it is not always an option to recruit another writer when news is breaking and it involves a personal twist, as it did last week when the city announced its intention to revoke The Project School's charter. Rebecca Townsend, NUVO news editor, realized that one of the story's central figures — Daniel Baron, the president of the school's board — was a life-long friend. Not only was Baron her math teacher in elementary and middle school, he and his family also opened their home to her as teenager when violence forced her from her mother's home. In addition, the school had received a NUVO Cultural Vision Award to honor its efforts at holistic education. So it must be said Townsend acknowledges a conflict of interest and that she tried to be fair in spite of it.

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