Shearwater High School Geared Toward Dropouts Is Closing After Three Years

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Students in Shearwater's first graduating class. - VIA
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  • Students in Shearwater's first graduating class.

Shearwater High School, a public charter school geared toward dropouts and at-risk youth in St. Louis, is closing its doors after three years in operation, shedding light on the obstacles facing the most vulnerable students and the educators trying to help them graduate.

"Young people are continuing to hemorrhage out of our public-school system at an alarming rate," Stephanie Krauss, president and CEO of Shearwater Education Foundation, tells Daily RFT. "We have to figure this out."

Krauss, whose efforts RFT chronicled in a 2009 cover story on the dropout crisis in St. Louis, says that the model was just not working, and it is time to reevaluate.

Krauss says she is committed now to overseeing a smooth closure and transition for the seventeen students currently enrolled. From there, she will direct her energy to studying what went wrong and what her foundation can do moving forward to develop a program that will better accomplish the mission of reengaging disconnected youth back into school -- and leading them to graduation.

"I'm really grieved that we are still, in this community, in a place where students that want to be in school who aren't in school have such a dearth of options," she says. "I am more committed than ever to the mission and the vision."

Stephaine Krauss. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG

Krauss continues, "I believe we'll have to pull out in order to push in."

The school opened in 2010 and held its first graduation in 2012.

Now, one year later, Shearwater High is voluntarily terminating its charter contract with Saint Louis University, its state-authorized sponsor, because the school was not able to establish the necessary conditions to get a majority of students on track to graduate and prepared for the workforce.

Shearwater High opened on the campus of Ranken Technical College in 2010 and took in city students ages 17 through 21 who were considered "at risk" of dropping out.

Saint Louis University placed the school on "probation" earlier this year, and Shearwater had launched a so-called "turnaround" initiative designed to address some of its challenges. That involved a shift from an alternative high school model to an "adult learning" focus, which came with new disciplinary and academic expectations, Krauss explains.

But it was not enough.

The school graduated a total of ten students, she says, pointing out that an overwhelming majority of students were well below grade level. At one point 90 percent of students were performing at elementary and middle school levels.

"We have this group of kids that want to be in school...and some of them were making pretty significant gains," she says.

"The charter model may not be the best model," for her aims, Krauss says, noting that she hopes to continue partnering with SLU moving forward even if the formal contract will end.

In a statement, SLU, which sponsors two other public charter schools, says, "While Shearwater's closure after three years is disappointing, it fulfills the intent of charter schools to attempt significant innovation in K-12 education and to be held directly accountable for their performance."

Continue for more from Stephanie Krauss and for the full statements about the closure.

Shearwater High did not meet the expectations established in its charter, SLU continues in its statement.

Krauss says since she announced the closure last week, she's gotten more than a hundred e-mails of support. "The community believes in this work," she says. "It also was a humbling demonstration that they recognize this is a tricky issue."

Here's Krauss' full statement followed by the full statement from Saint Louis University.

Shearwater High School to Cease Operations at the End of the Current School Year

ST. LOUIS, May 17, 2013 -- After nearly three years of operating as a Missouri Public Charter School, Shearwater High School will cease operations at the conclusion of the current school year, it was announced today.

"Our decision was anchored in Shearwater's commitment to what works and focus on the mission," said Stephanie Krauss, president and CEO of Shearwater Education Foundation. "Our experience has taught us that to successfully reengage and educate young people who have left school, particularly within the current public K-12 education framework, we need more time to fully address the institutional and individual barriers that keep our students from returning to, staying in, and graduating from school."

Krauss went on to say that, "We maintain strong, positive relationships with our host Ranken Technical College and our sponsor, Saint Louis University. We are voluntarily terminating our charter contract with Saint Louis University, because as a charter school we were unable to establish the necessary conditions for getting the majority of our students on-track to graduate. This resulted in the unrealized aim of preparing our students for college and the workforce."

Shearwater High School, opened as a small public charter school on the campus of Ranken Technical College in 2010, accepted students that were residents of the City of St. Louis, between the ages of 17-21, and "at-risk" of dropping out of school, Krauss said. "We helped many of our City's most disconnected youth reengage with school and move forward academically and socially. Some of our students succeeded in multiple ways in our program, and we are proud of their accomplishments." she said."

During the transition period, Shearwater will continue to partner with Ranken and SLU and look to its vibrant network of community partners and supporters to reassess the educational model and consider other ways to more successfully reengage, educate, and graduate disconnected youth.

"Our vision remains strong and the need is real and demanding," Board Chair Jody Stauffer said. "Between now and the end of June, we are focused on providing great classroom instruction and smooth transitions for our current students and ensuring a an effective school closure."

The Shearwater Board is committed to working closely with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its sponsor to ensure full compliance with state regulations and guidance, ensuring the equitable distribution of resources within the local educational community. Stauffer said, "We will close the school year with a positive fund reserve and no long-term liabilities. After closure, we will work to fully analyze our experience and determine next steps. We have a much more precise understanding of the needs and barriers that our disconnected youth face when returning to school, as well as the institutional barriers that prevent us from fully implementing our model."

Currently enrolled students will continue their classroom work at Shearwater through the end of the school year in late June, said Stauffer. The Shearwater staff will support students in finding and transitioning into the educational option that best meets students' needs and goals. Stauffer added that the decision was approved by the Foundation's board of directors, and that staff, students, families, and community supporters have been notified.

SLU's statement:

Saint Louis University Statement on the Closure of Shearwater High School

ST. LOUIS -- As the state-authorized sponsor of Shearwater High School, Saint Louis University fully supports the recent decision of Shearwater Education Foundation's Board of Directors to close the school at the end of the current school year and terminate its charter contract with the University. While Shearwater's closure after three years is disappointing, it fulfills the intent of charter schools to attempt significant innovation in K-12 education and to be held directly accountable for their performance.

Shearwater High School opened as a small public charter school on the campus of Ranken Technical College in the fall of 2010, serving students between the ages of 17-21 who are at risk of not earning their high school diplomas or passing the GED exam. Shearwater's goal was to graduate its students well prepared for entry into college, advanced training programs, or students' chosen fields of work. This commitment to serving at-risk youth and serving the community aligns well with SLU's Catholic, Jesuit mission.

As Shearwater's sponsor, SLU has closely monitored the school's progress toward its academic goals since its inception. In January 2013, Shearwater's Board authorized a series of "school turnaround" initiatives. In the midst of those efforts, Shearwater's performance required SLU to place Shearwater on probation, and to offer additional assistance to support the Board. Ultimately, Shearwater was unable to meet the shared expectations for educational excellence established in the charter, prompting Shearwater Education Foundation's board to vote to close the school.

SLU will continue to monitor Shearwater High School's operations to ensure that all current students continue to receive high quality academic instruction through the end of June. Additionally, Shearwater staff will work to transition the remaining students into appropriate educational placements that best meet their individual goals and needs.

As part of the University's oversight of closure procedures, SLU's Office of Charter School Sponsorship has been working with leaders in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to ensure SLU's commitment to the faithful stewardship of public funds and ensure full compliance with state regulations.

Accordingly, SLU and Shearwater will distribute remaining Shearwater High School assets, equipment and materials to other public schools within the City of St. Louis. The University and Shearwater are also committed to working with St. Louis Public School District staff to ensure that all Shearwater student records are transferred to SLPS in an effective and timely manner.

Both Shearwater's Board and SLU remain committed to the school's mission to reengage, educate and graduate disconnected youth. SLU will continue to partner with the Foundation board leaders to evaluate and learn from this experience. In keeping with the purpose and promise of charter schools in Missouri, the University will share Shearwater's experiences with colleagues at DESE, SLPS, and other Missouri school districts and charter schools in the hope that the lessons learned can inform future educational success stories throughout the city and state.

Saint Louis University sponsors two other public charter schools. City Garden Montessori Charter School serves kindergarten through eighth grade students and is committed to providing a Montessori education while serving as an anchor for neighborhood stabilization and sustainability. Grand Center Arts Academy is currently serving sixth through ninth grade students and will expand through grade twelve. It is dedicated to providing a rigorous academic experience augmented by world-class training in the fine and performing arts.

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