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Despite flaws, two Connecticut charter schools get renewals

March 6, 2019

HARTFORD — Two state charter schools with less than stellar track records were awarded two year renewals on Wednesday with the chairman of the state board of education patting the body on the back for starting to hold the independent schools more accountable was clearly working.

“It’s clearly working,” Board Chairman Allan Taylor said, speaking specifically to officials at Stamford Academy Charter School as it and Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport had renewal applications reviewed by the board.

Stamford Academy, which opened in 2004, is coming off a one-year probation because of low student performance, chronic student absenteeism and high student suspensions. The school enrolls 159 high school students who enter the program under-credited and with below grade level achievement.

They are students who were at risk of dropping out, Richard D’Avino, chairman of the Stamford Academy Board of Directors, said.

Great Oaks opened five years ago and serves 400 students in grades 6 through 9. Its student achievement in 2018 was below Bridgeport public school’s proficiency in both math and reading. Its student suspension rate of 26 percent is three times the state average of 6.8 percent and its turnover rate last year was about 25 percent.

Charter schools are state-funded schools that run independent of local control. There are two dozen of them in Connecticut, including six in Bridgeport and three in Stamford. In recent years, the state Department of Education has paid closer attention to the performance and management of them.

Last year, Stamford Academy was put on probation and was forced to implement a 16-point corrective action plan

Principal Andrea Weller called it “the kick in the butt we needed.”

She and others described a school that has worked to decrease suspensions through the use of restorative justice practices, increase student attendance rates and focus on raising SAT scores — the test used by the state to judge student performance in high school.

Bernadette Teele, a parent, said the school met her daughter, an eleventh grader, where she was and is allowing her to become a leader.

“She was lost in the district school,” Teele said.

Dean Perkins, who works at Stamford Academy as a youth development specialist, said his motto is to be the person he needed when he was a teenage. Much of his work is one on one.

“Our school needs to stay open,” Perkins said.

In his report, Robert E. Kelly, the state’s charter school program manager, said there are some signs of improvement, particularly in the area of suspensions.

Taylor, acknowledging that charter schools remain controversial, said he was pleased with the effort being made.

There were harsher words for Great Oaks, which is going through the renewal process for the first time.

Robert Trefry, an ex-officio member of the state board, asked Susan Briggs, chair of the Great Oaks Board if she thought the school was getting its money’s worth from the Great Oaks Foundation, a charter school management organization that also works with charter schools in New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

“Obviously the school is struggling,” Trefry said. “Where is the support?”

Briggs said the foundation does support the school. Trefry responded that if the foundation came in and wanted to open another school in the state it would be a tough sale.

State Board Member Joseph Vrabely Jr. said the school has a tough road ahead of it and that two years — the length of the renewal —is not a long time.

“Your SBAC numbers are terrible,” Vrabley said of the schools’ standardized test scores.

John Scalice is the school’s third principal. He called the state’s criticism fair.

Last year, 16.6 percent of Great Oaks students met the goal set for them in language arts, compared to 26.6 percent of Bridgeport Public School students and 55.1 percent of the state. In math, 18.6 percent of Great Oaks students met the goal compared to 12.4 percent in Bridgeport and 43.7 percent statewide.

“Great Oaks Charter School must focus on providing increased explicit instruction in development of foundational skills in reading and math,” the renewal report says.

Scalice said the suspension rate this year is down 61 percent and the number of teachers properly certified is past 50 percent with others in the process of becoming fully certified. It had been 41 percent.

Nasshan Thompson, who sends her daughter to Great Oaks said she would have moved out of Bridgeport had she not gotten the letter saying her daughter had gotten into the school.

“It did a great deal for my daughter,” said said.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck