MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -State of Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey announced Thursday the Montgomery Education Foundation’s Conversion Charter School plan for Sidney Lanier feeder schools has been approved.
The plan targets Sidney Lanier High School and the schools that feed into it: E.D. Nixon Elementary, Davis Elementary and Bellingrath Middle School. The original plan also included Floyd Elementary School, but the school was closed this school year to help Montgomery Public Schools cut back on expenses.
Typically, under the state’s public charter school law, a conversion plan would have to be approved by the local board of education. However, under the state’s intervention law, the state superintendent is able to make decisions like this one on the board’s behalf.
Clare Weil, the president of the school board, said the board did not vote on the decision, but that Dr. Mackey discussed the application and how it would work with the board and Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore prior to Thursday’s announcement.
“Charter schools are now part of the mixture,” said Weil. “I feel like we may have a chance here to provide good options that have not been here before for the parents and the students. I look forward to learning more. I think we’re going to be learning together.”
The MEF originally submitted its plan in March. It heard back in June from former Interim State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson in a letter that stated the application would need to be adjusted in certain areas before it could be fully approved. At that time, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a third-party group that gives recommendations on charter school plans, did not give its recommendation for the state to accept the application.
Mackey said the state sought recommendations from two different groups before he gave his approval.
“We decided to use a different evaluator," said Mackey. “We used the Center for Evaluation at Auburn University this time. We also used some readers from inside the department. Those folks have been trained on what to look for in a charter school application. We didn’t just pick people off the street. We feel really good about the review.”
It is important to note that the plan is for public conversion charter schools, which is different than a start-up charter school.
The names of the schools will not change, according to Sikes. Also, according to state law, the students who are zoned to attend the schools will continue to be zoned to the schools. There are no applications. Also, the facility is still owned by MPS. MPS also still employs the staff. Mackey and MEF Executive Director Ann Sikes said MEF’s role will be in “instructional delivery.”
Mackey said these are things like school calendars, hours and lunchroom operations.
“This gives us autonomy which allows the ability of flexibility and execution of the curriculum,” said Sikes. “We can increase the number of school days. We’re going to have a much more rigorous and supportive teacher environment with extra professional development. It also has much heavier accountability. This is five years to actually reach the goals that will be outlined in the contract. That five years will be watched every year with very heavy reporting, very public reporting. Those things are important, and that’s our role to make sure that happens.”
All public charter schools in Alabama must meet the standards set under Alabama’s Accountability System, just like all the traditional public schools. In addition to those standards, it must also meet all the requirements laid out in its specific charter contract, or it would be forced to close at the end of its contract.
Sikes said she wants the community to know that MEF will not receive any money directly to run the schools. All of the schools that are part of the plan are Title I, meaning they receive federal funds to serve low-income students. Sikes said the federal, state and local money MPS currently receives per student for the schools in the plan will continue to be given directly to the system and be distributed by the board. This is how funds for schools are handled now.
All parties also expressed that the process, moving forward, will be done openly. Sikes said MEF will be working to engage with the school communities impacted. Leaders also mentioned there will be community meetings in the future to the public in the loop.
The plan lays out a four-year timeline to convert the four schools, starting with an elementary school in fall 2019. The plan indicates another elementary school would be converted in 2020, Bellingrath would be converted in 2020 or 2021 and Lanier would convert in 2021. However, Mackey said the timeline will not be concrete until a contract between MEF and the school board is negotiated and signed. Both he and Moore said, depending on the needs and negotiation conversation, the process could potentially be pushed back to fall 2020.
“Delay would not mean it a whole new process, it just means that we could agree all together to delay,” said Mackey. “I don’t know if it will happen or not, but it is certainly something we will have to consider because the timeline is much shorter than it would have been.”
Mackey said MEF was hoping to have its application approved in April. He said the exact timeline as well as specific responsibilities for each party will be laid out specifically in the contract.
Under state law, the school board and MEF have 60 days to negotiate and sign a contract.