Mississippi’s inaugural year of charter schools could serve as a lesson about which charter schools are more successful and which have greater challenges. Midtown Public Charter School, Jackson, was plagued by staff turnover, poor planning and lack of oversight during its first year. ReImagine Prep’s counterpart in the city seemed to roll out more smoothly partly due to the greater support network it received from its parent, RePublic Schools. Midtown saw up to 10 teachers and staff members resign, including the principal and chief operations officer. A number of the 13 employees aren’t planning to return next school year. Only one of three teachers will be returning. Over the last few years, Mississippi legislators have pushed for charter schools to be created. These are public-funded independent schools that are funded by larger charter organizations or community groups. These schools are authorized to operate by a charter or contract with an authorizing agency like the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board. Many, including the Republican leadership of the state, believe charter schools will offer better options for students in Mississippi, which is a state that consistently ranks among the lowest in education. Critics claim charter schools will drain already struggling public schools districts and siphon off their students and per-pupil funding. The Legislature amended the state’s charter school law 2013 to allow students from C, D, and F-rated schools to cross school districts lines to attend charter schools in other areas. ReImagine Prep was able to draw on the Nashville-based institution, but Midtown had to start from scratch and it did so under pressure. The charter authorizer board was submitted by Midtown Partners, Inc., a non-profit organization that works to revitalize the Midtown area. The application was approved by the board in December 2014. Last fall, the school opened its doors to 104 students in 5th and 6th grades. ReImagine took a year to plan before it opened its doors to 5th-graders. Ravi Gupta, CEO of RePublic Schools, acknowledged the importance of ReImagine having the support of RePublic officials involved in opening its four schools in Nashville. Gupta stated that it was similar to the first year of starting Nasvhille Prep, which was not connected with a network. Gupta stated that comparing our experience to that was wildly different, smoother, and more predictable for family members and children. He cited how the Nashville-based network assisted with everything, from budgeting to hiring to building security. They also stepped up to assist with unexpected problems. The school year ended with the principal being carjacked and robbed at gunpoint. RePublic sent someone to take over the reins until she was back. Midtown’s challenges Right away, Midtown was having problems. Midtown had more than 100 5th-6th graders who started the year at Jackson State University’s recreation centre. The Adelle Street building opened a few weeks later. Midtown was already six months into the year when Adam Mangana, the principal, had resigned. He was replaced by Jemar Tisby, interim principal. Mangana quit in October, and was replaced by Jemar Tisby (the former chairman of the school’s board). Mangana declined permission to discuss his experiences at Midtown. Babak Mostaghimi was the school board’s chair while he completed his doctorate at Harvard. He said that turnover is a common occurrence for startups. Mostaghimi stated that they kept their focus on the best interests of the children. Mostaghimi also said that around 95 percent of students will be returning next year, which is a testimony to the school’s success. Tisby continued to be the director of Reformed Theological Seminary’s program. For fear of retribution, former and current employees spoke out to say that Tisby was often away from the school. According to Tisby’s January email, which was shared with Mississippi Today, one former employee claimed that Tisby told staff that there were things he needed to do before Midtown, while staff was expected to “give our blood, sweat, and tears every single day.” Tisby stated that he withdrew in the Fall from the doctoral course he was taking and was voluntarily able to take classes in Spring. He also said that he almost fully delegated his other professional responsibilities for nearly one year. “I would do this all over again, and it’s always a privilege serving kids,” Rachel Usry was appointed Director of Operations in June. However, her role would change when the school’s Chief Operating Officer resigned. Usry, who moved out of Midtown in February 2017, believes that the absence of a planning calendar was a mistake. Usry stated that while we wanted to create a better school in Midtown for our students, we should have waited and planned ahead to ensure we could deliver on what we promised families. Now, she works as a Rocketship Education charter school administrator in Nashville. Marian Schutte, Charter School Authorizer Board Director, said that Midtown’s application was accepted in the second cycle in 2014 while ReImagine was approved in 2014. Since then, the board has changed its approval process. Schutte stated that the Authorizer Board moved to an annual request for proposals cycle. The Authorizer Board approves and denies applicants who want to open schools the following year at its regular September meeting. All charter schools will be required to plan for at least 11 months. Many of Midtown’s plans for the school were based on Brooke Charter Schools’ Boston practices. According to employees, many of Brooke Charter School’s key features that Midtown claimed it would duplicate didn’t happen. Brooke has two teachers in each classroom. One is a teacher of math and science, and one is a language arts and social studies teacher. Teachers can also provide feedback to students individually. Midtown began in this way but eventually moved to departmentalizing all 5th graders. This was due to behavioral problems, according to one employee. One 6th grade class had only one teacher, although it was still self-contained. Brooke has weekly teacher training days which Midtown also set out to offer. Employees say that the training is rarely done due to complications with the after-school program. The same goes for the individual sessions that students have each day. Schutte stated that the board was aware of the changes in the school’s classroom layout and that the school submitted a proposal for amending its contract with them. Schutte stated that Midtown will continue to support Brooke charter schools in their second year of operation. “They recently sent two employees to Brooke Charter Schools for further training.” Midtown School officials say that the year was a success. Midtown Charter Schools face many of the same challenges as startup schools. According to Tisby, the school’s focus is on science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM), and students have taken approximately 12,000 hours of programming this year. They also visited three colleges and took other field trips. Many parents also praise Midtown for its positive impact on their children. Shante Crockett’s 6-year-old son Joshua will attend Midtown next year. He was previously at Power APAC, an arts school, and had a greater aptitude for science and math than he did math. Midtown has been a perfect place for her son, who is a straight A student. Crockett described Crockett as a “fabulous” coding teacher. Crockett always spoke highly of her. He cited the school’s youth hackathon, where Midtown students worked with ReImagine Prep students to create computer programs, as one of his highlights from his first year. Ketina Moore was Ketina’s 6th grader at Midtown this year. Moore stated that the small community and field trips were a good fit. Moore said that the year was very rewarding. Moore stated that she came out with the best classroom average and her reading and math scores. Tisby answered Moore’s question about data on how students did on assessments over the year. She said that there had been “positive growth” in math and reading for all classes. However, she didn’t specify if they reached grade level. According to Tisby’s earlier statements, two-thirds of Midtown students arrived at school reading below grade level. Employees said that students who need special services were left without their teacher or director for at least two weeks after Tisby resigned in spring. A school or district is required to provide all services listed in a student’s Individualized Education Program. This can include individualized instruction in the classroom, and time with the teacher, among other services. “The special education specialist resigned abruptly. Tisby stated that there was an inordinate amount of time when we conducted the search. Tisby explained that we informed parents and made every effort to fill that need as quickly as possible. Tisby stated that the school had “fulfilled all legal requirements” in relation to special services. Some disagree. An ex-employee in the public school system stated that Midtown would not be able to meet oversight requirements for special services for public schools. The charter school law currently states that the authorizer board has the responsibility for overseeing charter schools and evaluating them. This includes monitoring their performance. The board collects data from schools throughout the year, and makes formal and informal visits. According to the performance framework, formal visits may include an audit of the school’s policies and procedures, classroom visits and reviews of the facility, as well as interviews with school leaders. Mississippi Today asked for documentation from the schools’ annual site visits. However, each school provided only a three-page document that included a review of their facility, a list listing teachers’ certification status, and a list detailing whether special education students were properly documented. Schutte stated that each school had received four visits during the school year: one before the opening, two informal unannounced visits, and an annual site inspection in the spring. The school buildings were inspected during the visit before opening. There was no documentation. ReImagine and Midtown will both receive an A-F grade. This grade is based on factors like student growth and, in the case of schools with 12th graders, graduation rates. The board will not release its annual performance report until the fall. This will include the results of state tests. Joel Bomgar (Republican from Madison) is one of the most vocal supporters of charter schools and school choice. Bomgar supported expanding school vouchers, which is public money that can go to private educational institutions. He also advocated for the expansion of the state’s charter school law. Bomgar stated earlier this month that he had not seen data from ReImagine or Midtown, but that he has heard only positive things. He also said that parents should take responsibility for schools with problems. Bomgar stated that the beauty of the system was that parents have the ability to choose. To continue the important work of this story, you can make a regular donation to support this work. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. Republish this Story You can freely republish our articles online or in print under a Creative Commons licence. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.