The Alabama Public Charter School Commission will decide the fate of three charter applicants by the end of September, and if approved, one proposal would launch a new academy for at-risk students in Mobile.
In April, the Mobile Area Education Foundation confirmed its plan to launch one of Alabama’s first charter schools. New to the state, charter schools are publicly funded but operated by an independent organization bound by a contract setting specific academic goals or emphasis on a specific student population.If approved, MAEF’s charter would create a school inspired by its Evening Education Options Program — a former partnership with the Mobile County Public School System that focused on high school students in danger of dropping out or who had already left school.
Last week, MAEF provided some of the first details of what the program might look like during a public meeting at the University of South Alabama hosted by the charter school commission.
“This organization has worked hard for 25 years to promote and improve public education, and I do not feel like this is a different mission for MAEF, it is just another step in the journey,” CEO Carolyn Akers said. “In the last seven years, we’ve been able to graduate over 600 students that were certainly in danger of not graduating otherwise.”
According to Akers, launching the Accel Day and Evening Academy will allow MAEF to offer the same specialized services available to even more students in Mobile and its surrounding cities and counties.
The charter commission will vote on MAEF’s proposal as well as two others from the Huntsville area on Sept. 20, and if it’s accepted, Accel is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017. While the EEOP program was housed at Pillans Middle School, MAEF has yet to identify a facility for the Accel academy.
According to Chief Operations Officer Jeremiah Newell, the building and operational costs for Accel are projected at around $2.3 million, but the amount of money allocated to each public charter is dependent on the district in which it is established and its enrollment.
Like the EEOP program, which was recently defunded by MCPSS, Accel will operate like a standard school from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week, but will also offer evening options from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
In the five school districts in Baldwin, Mobile and Washington counties, around 8,800 students entered the 9th grade this year, and while there’s been recent progress in state and local graduation rates, Newell said statistics show that only 76 percent of those are likely to finish high school with a diploma.
With the average high school dropout earning an average of just $19,000 a year and eight out of 10 prisoners in Alabama lacking a high school diploma, Newell said that annual number is still 2,000 too many.“Addressing the dropout rate is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic development and workforce development imperative, and for us, that links the work we have done and the work we propose to do though this charter school,” Newell said. “Our mission is to connect each student’s gifts and passions by engaging in personalized learning pathways that build students’ academic skills with professional mindsets and through social and emotional wellbeing.”
In other words, Newell said, the students likely to enter a program like EEOP or a school like Accel are often struggling with more than just school work. That’s the reason Accel will have a heightened focus on student support systems that will include “advocate counselors” who focus on the individual needs of each student.
Ciara Hardy, a former EEOP student, said that type of individualized attention helped her when she entered the program as a 19-year-old junior with math skills that were barely at a 9th-grade level.
“I was good at all my other subjects, but math was just a failure to me,” Hardy said. “So, I had kind of given up on it.”
To prevent becoming another dropout, Hardy worked at her own pace to get back on grade level and to develop job skills through a dual enrollment partnership with Mobile Infirmary. In the mornings, Hardy worked in the surgical intensive care unit, attended classes in the evening and eventually graduated with a high school diploma.
Now employed with AltaPointe Health Systems, Hardy said Thursday she’d like to see the program reach farther into the community. She wasn’t alone, though. Several involved with economic development in the region also spoke up in support of MAEF’s proposal, including Green Suttles, who oversees the Industrial Market Division of Mobile Gas.
“Anybody working in economic development will tell you, attracting industry is all about that human capital — having a capable workforce that can step in and take those jobs,” Suttles said. “The program is already proven. I can tell you, as far as charter schools that this state is going to have to evaluate, this is one of the easy ones.”
Some speakers didn’t shy away from the elephant in the room, which was the division that charter schools have caused in public education circles since the the law authorizing them first passed in March 2015.
At the time, many public school systems including MCPSS weren’t in favor of a proposal that could cause a “loss of funding” for traditional public schools. MCPSS and Baldwin County Public Schools have also declined to become authorizers for charters proposed in their respective districts.
Still, several MCPSS officials including Superintendent Martha Peek attended the meeting last Thursday, and while there’s been no formal endorsement of MAEF’s charter, Peek has said publicly that MCPSS would support “quality charter programs” in the region now that they’re permitted by state law.
Identifying at-risk students will be a crucial part of Accel, and though the Helping Families Department of the Mobile District Attorney’s Office has already offered its support, Newell said partnering with regional school districts would be imperative for Accel going forward.