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Q&A about charter schools and the Normandy district


The Leadership School’s charter application


The 24:1 Municipal Partnership’s Not Without Us initiative




The Leadership School Board President Lennel Hunter


The 24:1 Municipal Partnership


The Missouri Charter Public School Commission


The Missouri State Board of Education has approved the Leadership School’s application to become the first charter school located outside St. Louis City or Kansas City.

The historic vote came during a Dec. 17 online conference call. More than 60 people attended, including 24:1 residents and elected officials, representatives of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (known as DESE), and the team that’s working to start the charter school.

Under Missouri law, the board had to approve the application once it had cleared the final hurdle: an incomplete section related to special education. The Leadership School did not have confirmation that the Special School District would offer special education to its students. On Dec. 8, the SSD said it would provide those services.

But even after the application was complete, board members voiced concerns about the Leadership School and its sponsor, the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

“My heart is troubled this morning by this particular application—by the “how,” not the “what,” said Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, the board’s member from the St. Louis region. “You can’t advance rights for one group while taking opportunities away from another.”

She was referring to the way state per-pupil spending works: The payments follow students, so some money that now goes to the financially troubled Normandy Schools Collaborative will go instead to the Leadership School when it opens in the fall of 2021.

An additional problem, Westbrooks-Hodge said, is that the 24:1 Community didn’t have any input into the decision to locate a charter school in Normandy. Many residents, local elected leaders, teachers, and members of the Joint Executive Governing Board of the Normandy Schools Collaborative are angry that they did not know about the Leadership School until recently, long after it had started the application process and held public hearings.

“The voices of the local Normandy community have been categorically dismissed,” said Westbrooks-Hodge, a resident of the 24:1 Community, a 1987 Normandy High School graduate, and the immediate past president of the Joint Executive Governing Board. “How is this even possible or morally just?”

Other board members voiced similar concerns—not about the application itself, but about the approval process, the lack of communication with the community, and the increasingly negative tone of the discussion.

“I am more than a little frustrated,” said Board President Charles Shields of St. Joseph. He said he has received complaints about the slow pace of the approval process—despite the board’s generosity in waiting for the school to fix the incomplete special education section. “Frankly, the school and the sponsor should have resolved this before filing the application,” he said. “Any perception that it was slow is not accurate.”

Shields also cautioned the school’s founder, Kimberly Townsend, and the sponsor, the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, saying, “This charter has significant opposition, but by state law, the board can only say whether it meets the requirements. After this vote, we will have fulfilled our oversight role, and this sponsor and applicant can move forward. But as has been expressed, they have some work to do within the community.”

Board Member Donald Claycomb from Linn echoed both the reluctance to approve the application and the work to be done to mend fences. “Even with the strong application, I would hate to walk into the unwelcoming mood of the community and try to start a school,” he said. “This is something you’re going to have to be very aware of and deal with. There is a lot of anger and hesitation and not wanting this school in Normandy.”

The lack of communication doesn’t sit well with Board Member Carol Hallquist of Kansas City either. “I know the applicants are frustrated because they feel like they’ve done all they need to. But there is a group of people who still feels it’s not been heard,” she said. “There is a difference between ‘holding a hearing’ and ‘being heard.’ I urge that, in the future, all comments are actually listened to.”

In taking a long-term view, Board Member Peter Herschend of Branson said he was not impressed with the sponsor’s upbeat presentation. “You painted a very good picture of the mission statement and vision. Anyone who’s been on this board for any length of time has heard those words before. They’re not new,” he said. “The early signs point to a difficult survival for this school.”

He then called out the charter school commission for not doing its job to make sure the founder is prepared for the challenges ahead. “While the words were very, very well done, I don’t know who is out there to make them happen day in and day out for those kids. If that leadership isn’t especially good and especially seasoned, I have deep concerns,” he warned.

“It will get approved because we have no choice,” Herschend continued, “but only because we have no choice. I am deeply, deeply concerned for the education of those kids and the impact the charter will have in this community.”

Board Member Kimberly Bailey of Raymore, a mental health professional and trauma specialist, also felt that state law required her to vote yes, but she disapproved of how the Leadership School and its sponsor have approached Normandy community. “In moving forward, your ‘how’ has to take into consideration the emotional impact on the youth,” she said. “When adults can’t get along, the kids are the ones who bear the brunt of the stress.

“If you forego their current mental health issues for the sake of your later goal, I think you’ve lost sight of the process,” she said. “We want good options for these youth, but we have to reevaluate the impact of our ‘how.’”

After the discussion, the board approved the application by a roll call vote, with one member voting present and Westbrooks-Hodge voting no.

Continue to visit for notices about upcoming meetings about the charter school, education in the Normandy district, and the “Not Without Us” initiative from the 24:1 Municipal Partnership.