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The former King’s Way Christian Church building is the planned location of a proposed charter school in Nitro. The building previously housed Nitro High School.

The state Professional Charter School Board’s chairman says none of the applications to start West Virginia’s first charter schools “have any identified deficiencies.”

“The minimum standard is competence in all elements, as defined by reasonably objective criteria, and construing the law liberally,” Chairman Adam Kissel wrote to all six groups that applied.

The board could start voting to approve charters as soon as its 8 a.m. online meeting Wednesday. 

The board can approve up to five schools — it can’t approve all three proposed statewide online charters because state law limits those specifically to two.

Kissel said if the board were to reject an applicant aside from one of the three online schools, it should identify deficiencies first. He noted the four-member board could still overrule his finding there weren’t any deficiencies, and also argued that board members can base votes on criteria not listed in the law.

The law orders the board to “complete a thorough review process” of applications, “provide a detailed analysis of the application to the applicant” and give the applicant “a reasonable time to provide additional materials and amendments to its application to address any identified deficiencies.”

State lawmakers didn’t fund the board when they created it earlier this year. It has no staff, and Kissel acts as the executive director.

The state Department of Education eventually provided the board $200,000 in start-up money. But the board only had about four months from its inception Aug. 1 to start meeting, begin analyzing applications and finish picking which charters to approve.

State law says all charters the board doesn’t decide on by the end of the month are automatically approved.

Kissel’s “detailed analysis” required by law is 8-10 pages for each of the proposed schools. All but one of the applications runs hundreds of pages long, including appendices.

According to the dates on these “detailed analyses,” two were sent to applicants in the last week of October. The other four were sent this past weekend or on Monday.

Yet there doesn’t need to be “a reasonable time” provided to these applicants to fix deficiencies because Kissel didn’t identify any.

Kissel said he or other board members had given applicants some feedback before he provided these “detailed analyses.” He said those conversations happened through things like phone calls and in-person interviews, which weren’t open to the public. He provided the Gazette-Mail some information the applicants sent after they turned in their applications.

Accel Schools would run daily operations for three of the six charters.

Last week and before that, the Gazette-Mail sent lists of questions to Accel about the applications for the three schools it would run. But a company spokeswoman said “our team feels like it’s premature to answer these questions because we haven’t yet received application feedback from the charter board.”

The “detailed analyses” on the Accel schools didn’t come until over the weekend.

Among the issues the Gazette-Mail asked about: The proposed Accel-run Nitro and Eastern Panhandle Preparatory academies set a goal of maintaining “a grade of C or higher on the West Virginia School Report Card,” despite the state Board of Education deciding in 2017 to no longer provide that whole-school grading system.

The law says groups trying to start charters must provide certain information to earn approval to open. This whole “detailed analysis” process centers on whether they sufficiently provided that.

If those groups want to use a company, like Accel, to run their school day-to-day, they legally must provide even more info. This is one of the dozen extra criteria they must provide about the company they want to hire:

“Evidence of success in serving student populations similar to the targeted population, including demonstrated academic achievement as well as successful management of nonacademic school functions, if applicable.”

Of the six proposed charters, five are planning to use these companies, called “education service providers.”

Kissel found no deficiencies with their provided “evidence of success,” including the evidence in the applications for the Nitro Preparatory Academy and the Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy. Accel would run those brick-and-mortar schools.

The evidence in those applications came from 2015-16 school year, despite more recent evidence being available. Accel was only founded in 2014.

The application for the proposed Accel-run statewide online charter, the Virtual Preparatory Academy, provided information from 2018-19 for both online and in-person Accel schools. That was the last school year before the pandemic. Ohio hasn’t graded operators or schools since.

The Ohio Department of Education rated Accel a “D” operator that year.

In Ohio, where most of Accel’s brick-and-mortar charters are located, 17 of 30 individual Accel schools received D grades in 2018-19, and five others received F’s. Six more were C’s, and there were only two B’s and no A’s.

Nine of those letter grades were improvements from 2017-18, and nine were drops. Accel, a rapidly expanding company, might not have yet taken over every one of those schools in 2017-18.

The Ohio letter grades are composed of multiple measures, including students’ overall achievement on state tests and their rate of improvement.

Kissel’s takeaway of Accel’s performance in his analyses of the Nitro and Eastern Panhandle Preparatory academies was, on the other hand, laudatory.

He said he cited a spreadsheet of ratings Accel provided and the outcome data in the applications themselves, which meant he used the 2015-16 data.

The Accel schools’ grades were better back then.

“I hope people spend significant attention, considering the low results of our public schools in many cases, before holding new schools to different standards,” Kissel said.

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