A for-profit education company is seeking to open a charter school in the shadow of one of West Virginia’s three 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools and draw students from a county that had the state’s second-highest math and English standardized test scores last school year.
Nonprofit groups, or groups seeking nonprofit status, are the only organizations allowed by West Virginia’s charter law to apply to open charters. Those nonprofits are allowed to hire for-profit companies to run the schools day to day.
In the case of Nitro Preparatory Academy, the for-profit ACCEL Schools, part of private international company Pansophic Learning, hired a consultant to recruit board members to oversee the school.
Three of the five board members live in Huntington, including the daughter-in-law of Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. None of the board members lives in Nitro or bordering Putnam County. One lives in Charleston and the last lives in South Charleston.
“Some are located in the Nitro/Charleston area while others are not,” said the consultant, Houston Tucker. “In my experience over the past 20 years, this combination improves the results of the Board by allowing for inside and outside perspectives.”
The charter’s application says “ACCEL Schools has no input on the governing board members.”
Cassie Miller, who is married to car dealer Chris Miller, son of Rep. Miller, said she taught in Huntington public and private schools for about a decade. She said she thinks a friend of a board member recommended her to join the board, but she also said an ACCEL official reached out to her about interviewing.
“It will really benefit the community and, you know, there’s a lot of pressure on this to really excel, the school to really perform and outperform others, because this is really important for West Virginia to have competition,” Cassie Miller said.
ACCEL didn’t provide an interview Wednesday.
“To be clear, each public charter school is non-profit and governed by an independent board of directors,” an ACCEL spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Each school board retains independent legal counsel. If they choose to do so, the board may hire ACCEL Schools as the school management organization. At this time, no management agreements have been signed with ACCEL Schools.”
The proposed K-8 charter would open in the old Nitro High School building, seven minutes from Rock Branch Elementary. That school received recognition last week as a National Blue Ribbon School for being among the state’s highest-performing schools on standardized tests.
The charter seeks to attract students from Kanawha and Putnam counties, including those who can already attend Rock Branch Elementary and Nitro Elementary schools, both of which have declining enrollment. Nitro Elementary is right next to where the charter would open, connected by a parking lot.
When asked whether and how far the charter will provide student transportation, an ACCEL Schools spokeswoman wrote in an email that “a transportation plan is in development.”
State school aid funding is largely based on enrollment, so, when students transfer to the charter, the Kanawha and Putnam county systems lose funding and the charter gains it.
There is already a “school choice” provision that offers a chance for Kanawha families to send their children to Rock Branch, which is across the Putnam border, rather than Nitro Elementary. The Putnam Board of Education has to agree to accept transfer students; a Putnam spokeswoman said there are 10 nonresidential students there.
Nitro doesn’t have a middle school, so the K-8 charter would fill that hole for grades six to eight. But the charter would be located within 15 minutes of four public middle schools: Andrew Jackson, Hayes and McKinley in Kanawha County and Poca in Putnam.
Although Putnam schools overall ranked No. 2 out of the 55 counties in test scores last school year, Kanawha ranked lower.
Putnam ranked No. 2 despite only 40% of students there testing at least “proficient,” as the state calls it, in math, and 51% in English. “Proficient” doesn’t include students in the “partially meets standard” or “does not meet standard” categories.
Education leaders have blamed the coronavirus pandemic for test score drops. In the last results before the pandemic, Putnam had a 53% proficiency rate in math and 56% in English.
Rock Branch, before the pandemic, got an 82% proficiency rate in math and 63% in English.
The elected boards of the two county school systems don’t get to decide whether the charter opens, because it applied instead for approval from the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board, which Republican lawmakers created this year.
Just like the proposed charter’s own board members, the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board is unelected.
But that approval board is seeking public input, and allowing the proposed charter to provide information, at a 7 p.m. forum Thursday at BridgeValley Community and Technical College’s Advanced Technology Center, 1201 Science Park Drive, South Charleston.
The approval board has until late November to decide on the seven charters trying to open in West Virginia. They would be the state’s first charters.
Tucker said that, unlike for the Nitro school, the board members of ACCEL’s proposed Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy “found me.” Regardless, the applications to create the Nitro and Eastern Panhandle schools contain mostly identical language.
The five-member board for Nitro Preparatory Academy does include people like Deron Runyon, the city of Huntington’s former finance director and current chief financial officer for a local branch of Goodwill Industries; and Chris Walker, who became the first Black brigadier general in the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Locating in or near counties with some of West Virginia’s highest test scores is somewhat of a trend among this year’s charter applications.
While there are three proposed statewide online charters, including another to be run by ACCEL, the four brick-and-mortar proposals are seeking to draw students from the few West Virginia areas with growing populations and relatively high test scores.
One is proposed for Cheat Lake, a suburb of Morgantown, a growing city and home to the state’s flagship university. Monongalia County, where Morgantown is, had the state’s highest test scores last school year.
There’s a 7 p.m. public forum for that one Friday, at West Virginia University’s Erickson Alumni Center.
The two other charters, including the proposed ACCEL-run Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy, are proposed for Jefferson County. That’s a suburb of the greater Washington, D.C., area in the growing Eastern Panhandle.
Four of the Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy’s board members live in Jefferson County. But one has an address in Hershey, Pennsylvania.