Dismay, confusion over St. Paul Park charter school's impending closure

Its authorizer has not renewed its contract, citing academic and leadership concerns.
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Natural Science Academy has about 75 students enrolled this year.

Natural Science Academy has about 75 students enrolled this year. 

A St. Paul Park-based charter school is facing closure after losing its authorizer.

The Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center, which recently changed its name from the Audubon Center of the North Woods, has chosen not to renew its contract with Natural Science Academy, citing poor academic performance and governance concerns. The Natural Science Academy had previously signed two probationary three-year contracts with them.

Osprey authorizes about 35 schools, according to its website. NSA is the only school out of the 10 up for renewal this year to not receive another contract, Erin Anderson, director of charter school authorizing, told BMTN.

The 14-year-old elementary school’s website lists 11 staff members. Around 75 students are enrolled this year.

NSA staff and parents have pushed back against the decision in letters to the Minnesota Department of Education, state legislators and a widely circulated petition

They argue that the closure is unfairly based on state test scores, but the Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center’s correspondence to the school emphasizes poor performance according to other measures, including curriculum-based measures chosen by the school and nationally normed growth assessments. In addition, the authorizer cited concerns over the school’s teacher-run leadership structure and governance.

“It must be frustrating to have just been informed of this, and we are disappointed to learn that the school board did not adequately advise its community of the risk of closure, in view of the numerous communications from ACNW to the school,” Anderson wrote to parents, citing notices sent to the school in May 2018 and February 2019 concerning low academic performance.

In order to be eligible for renewal, the school had to score at least 50 out of 100 points on an assessment based largely on state test scores, measures chosen by the school and nationally normed growth assessments. The school scored 60.7, making it eligible, but it didn’t meet the standard for five out of eight academic categories, a March 13 notice from Osprey to NSA says.

Those five areas are reading growth, math growth, reading proficiency, math proficiency and science proficiency, based on three years worth of various measurements of academic performance.

A report from January details that Osprey received complaints against the school’s lead teacher from two former employees in November 2017 and December 2019. 

The complaints alleged “a very stressful and negative workplace” and “a toxic environment of practices,” according to the report.

“The school has functioned under basically the same instructional leadership structure for at least the last six years (two contract periods) which has resulted in persistently low academic achievement and a lack of accountability for student outcomes,” Osprey wrote in its March notice of non-renewal to the school.

At an informal hearing with Osprey in April, the school provided "ample evidence" of an improved workplace culture, Anderson said in an email. The non-renewal was ultimately based on poor academic performance and "NSA's failure to properly conduct its corporate governance," she said.

Teachers, school leaders dismayed by decision

Advocates for the school have expressed confusion over the non-renewal process and surprise that the school is being closed during the pandemic.

Kate Maki, whose fourth-grade student has attended the school since kindergarten, began working at the school as a special projects coordinator two years ago.

“I really like the school, I completely believe in it. And I’m watching it grow and change and become this great thing,” Maki said.

The school had a “bad year” when it was renewed in 2017, Maki said, and implemented an expeditionary learning-based curriculum the next fall.

“Our last year’s science scores were phenomenal … We were like, why are we not getting an A+ on this?” she said.

She said she and other staff members had the understanding that three-year contracts were the norm.

“They said, you’ve been on probation for six years total. And we’re like, well, that’s always been the case … So why would we even bat an eye?”

Harry Adler, who joined the school’s board of directors in March, and has held multiple roles in education including principal, executive director of a charter school and current work helping an authorizer assess schools, expressed similar confusion.

“What I find strange about it is, many of their schools are basically on ‘probation’ because they’re on three-year contracts. So they call these three-year contracts probationary, and it has not been that long since the state has offered five-year contracts,” he said.

In a complaint letter to the Minnesota Department of Education, Adler emphasized that comparing the school’s scores to other students across the state and neighboring District 833 doesn’t show an adequate representation of students’ academic success because of the school’s small class sizes. 

Thirty-nine students took the MCA tests in 2019, documents show. 

Osprey’s 2019 annual report shows that 15 percent of its schools had scored lower than 50 percent of their points on its academic performance evaluation, he added.

“NSA is being used as a sacrificial lamb to give the perception that ACNW (Audubon Center of the North Woods) is providing strong oversight. I believe the closure decision cannot be justified analytically based on the data and is ethically wrong given the pandemic,” Adler said in the letter. 

MDE has said it will look into the complaint, Adler said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the timing of the employee complaints. In separate instances, two former employees sent a complaint to Osprey after they had stopped working there. 

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