STEM school paused amid concerns

Charter school plan on hold as legal, community issues come to light

If a charter school in Alaska wants to set strict socioeconomic requirements for enrollment, it should pick another state.

 

At what was supposed to be the final stage before the Juneau School Board approved a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) elementary school proposition was to be sent to the Department of Education and Early Development, several legal and community concerns created reason for pause.

City and Borough of Juneau attorney Amy Mead reviewed the proposed contract between the district and Summit STEM Charter School, and said it wasn’t a reality. The school hoped to target students from low income families.

“The purpose of a charter (school) is to provide a different school for a certain age group, or methodology or curriculum,” Mead said. “To maintain diversity is a separate issue from the reason the school is being created.”

Mead explained for the school administrators to outwardly say they wanted to attract poorer students is allowed, but the way they intended on making it happen was a problem. As it stands now, the STEM school would actively recruit families to apply to be part of the school, which would have an 80-student enrollment goal. However, if there are more applicants than there are spots — a likely scenario since the school would be the first of its kind in Alaska — then preference could not be given to poorer students. It would need to be open to all students based on a random lottery.

The charter school administrators initially planned on using a weighted lottery, which would give preference to low-income families. However, in accordance with a federal change to charter schools using weighted lotteries, it is only permissible for a charter schools to do so if the state law allows it — and Alaska doesn’t.

After speaking with people at the state level, Mead said there wouldn’t be opposition but the federal grantors of funds don’t care about verbal OKs. Changes at the legislative level would have to take place to make the school a reality, one which board member Andi Story said she would like to see happen, whether for this charter school’s needs or a future one.

Other options that wouldn’t require legislative changes do exist, such as switching the recruitment method to target Title I schools, or implementing a similar STEM program into an existing school that has a high number of students from low-income families and turning it into a magnet school. None of these things, however, are what the hopeful charter school’s founders had in mind.

Nancy Norman, an education consultant working with Summit free of charge, said the turnaround for changes to the school’s application could be done in one day to meet state standards. She said the school’s founders are still adamant that the school shut down if it can’t reach a goal of having 50 to 80 percent of its students coming from financially-strapped families.

Other issues such as changing the preference policies to meet federal guidelines were addressed. It was also presented by Superintended Mark Miller that new figures, not shown at the meeting, show the school would actually be net neutral and the district would not operate at a loss.

School board president Phyllis Carlson, one of three board members attending their last meeting before new board members are elected in October, wanted to see the matter resolved by the current board. However, board member Brian Holst said via phone that he did not feel that was reason enough to rush to a vote.

Josh Keaton, a school board candidate, spoke during public comment and said he and other candidates were more than prepared to consider the issue and the current board could trust new members would handle the matter well.

Also, for the first time during the school board’s discussion of a STEM charter school, opposition was heard from the community. Most notably, Auke Bay Elementary School principal Lori Hoover.

Hoover, making note that a lot of the teachers who would transfer to this charter school are Auke Bay teachers and personal friends of hers, said she could not support the charter school’s creation and urged the school board to consider a broader approach to incorporate STEM learning into existing schools.

“We need to see that and not pull apart schools or go to other schools, but work the best we can for all the kids in the system,” Hoover said.

Board member Barbara Thurston told the board to either definitively vote no on the matter or hold off on making a decision, which is what eventually happened, allowing the city’s attorney to more clearly define what revisions are needed by the charter and allowing the board to consider the public’s opinion that this STEM push should be district-wide.

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