Longview ISD has been on a steep learning curve the past year as it converted about half its campuses to charter schools, its board president said Monday. Now, the district wants to apply what it learned to the possibility of taking the program districtwide.
About two dozen people turned out Monday evening for the first of four community meetings called for the district to share information and receive input before applying to convert all campuses to charter schools run by a private entity.
“Senate Bill 1882 came to our attention, and we decided that if the state of Texas was going to give money to public schools and allow the districts to remain in control, then we were going to go for it,” said board President Ginia Northcutt.
Such conversions were made possible by Senate Bill 1882, which was passed in 2017 to lay a path for a nonprofit charter school group to operate public school campuses. Longview ISD officials have hailed it as a way to fund innovative educational programs and receive a significant infusion of state money.
In May, Longview got approval to turn six of its 13 schools into a district-within-a-district of charter campuses. Those campuses, operated by the nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies, are East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy, J.L. Everhart Elementary School and Forest Park Magnet School.
East Texas Advanced Academies is the outside entity that runs the charter district, Northcutt said, taking the meeting as an opportunity to clarify more on the nonprofit and how an expansion might work.
“I’ve gotten many questions on the board of ETAA, and why that board is not elected by the public, like the school board is,” she said. “The reason is that Senate Bill 1882 was created so that an outside entity, specifically a nonprofit, would oversee a mutually agreed upon performance contract.”
When choosing to formulate Advanced Academies as the nonprofit for the first six charter campuses, Northcutt said the elected board chose an internal call for the board. That means it did not go to the public.
“This next time through, we are choosing to do an external call,” she said, which was met with several “thank you” responses from those in attendance. “These meetings are part of the call.”
Northcutt said the board is following the rules of the legislation. The contract can be terminated by the elected school board if ETAA does not meet performance standards.
Paul Pastorek, executive adviser for the Texas Education Agency, was at the meeting to give a presentation on System of Great Schools.
According to TEA’s website, System of Great Schools districts get funding to manage school performance, expand options and improve access to those options.
“It’s really designed to drive more innovations into the kinds of programs that kids are offered,” Pastorek said on System of Great Schools.
One woman in attendance said she is concerned the district is trying to do too much instead of scaling back and focusing on doing one program well. She also said it feels like the district is simply “chasing money.”
Northcutt said the district is wanting to make the change under an innovation replication path, which is one of three general types of partnerships allowed under SB 1882. The other two are turnaround for struggling campuses, and new school for new campuses.
She explained how innovation replication has worked in Longview.
“So Dr. (Cynthia) Wise was the principal at Ned E. Williams, and our (education) Commissioner (Mike) Morath at TEA, went to his staff and said, last year, and said I want you to tell me what is the highest-performing low-socio-economic school in the state of Texas, elementary. It was Ned E. Williams,” Northcutt said. “So, Dr. Wise is taking her approach of the (culture conscious campus) model, and that’s the replication model.”
When Wise was chosen as the CEO of East Texas Advanced Academies, that became the model for all its campuses.
Some of the innovation programs at other SB 1882 campuses are Montessori, STEAM, International Baccalaureate or magnet programs, which could be put on other campuses, Chief Innovation Officer Craig Coleman previously told the News-Journal.
Some in attendance Monday expressed concern that out-of-district students would not be able to attend Longview ISD schools that are charters.
Superintendent James Wilcox said the district is not turning any students away.
Others, such as Councilwoman Kristen Ishihara, attended to see if their childrens’ campus would change. Ishihara said her two children attend Hudson PEP Elementary School and she is happy with the campus as is.
“I am very happy with their current education, and my plan for the rest of their education, so I came tonight,” Ishihara said. “My plan was to make sure it wouldn’t change.”
Shanna Spence has a sophomore at Longview High School in the IB program. She said she attended the meeting to make sure her son could stay on his current path.
“I just didn’t want that to change for him. I didn’t want to be forced into a program,” she said. “My son does not like changes, I wanted to make sure that we were on the right path for the rest of his school years.”
Wilcox said the programs are designed to work together, and that Montessori students transition well to IB or STEAM campuses.
“We know we haven’t done everything right,” Wilcox said at the end of the meeting. “That’s why we’re trying to do better.”
Pastorek said the process of becoming districtwide charter schools means the community can come forward to try to get some programs added, or to end those that are not working.
Taking the discussion public is a departure from the district’s approach on converting its first six campuses. Northcutt said Monday she wants the process to be open.
“If there has been an appearance of a lack of transparency, as the president of the board I offer an apology,” she said. “There has been no effort, on any of our part, to be opaque.”
Northcutt said she was pleased with the meeting’s outcome.
“I think that there were some great questions, and I am hoping we were able to offer a lot of clarity,” Northcutt said. “I hope that that clarity then spurs on more questions.”
Three more meetings are scheduled, in October and early November.