MONTCALM TOWNSHIP — After years of decision making, setting goals and working to establish a bright future for Threshold Academy, preparing for the end may now be the final sobering task that members of the Threshold Academy Board of Directors must make together.
At Thursday morning’s Threshold Academy Board meeting, members of the board discussed their options after it was notified on March 31 that the Central Michigan University’s Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools will no longer authorize the school to operate after June 30 citing low Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores and declining enrollment.
“I’ve never been on a losing team; I don’t know how to take this,” Board Treasurer Mary Foy said.
It was a sentiment shared across the board, which made no decisions Thursday but discussed their options in great detail.
Board members received a presentation from Neil Beckwith of the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), who laid out options for the board for the approach to moving through a “dissolution process” to close the school.
But board members said they are not yet ready to establish a resolution for the charter school to officially begin the dissolution process.
Holding out hope for a solution to keep the school open, board members are seeking every option available before it is too late.
According to Beckwith, the first step the board must take is to adopt a resolution to dissolve and create a plan of distribution of assets.
The board must then appoint a group or person to be responsible for the “wind-up” activities to follow.
Beckwith said the person is usually a court-ordered receiver.
“I want to recognize that this is normally and typically a difficult time for a school,” he said. “For this purpose, I need to assume that this entity is going to make a decision to dissolve.”
According to Beckwith, the dissolution process would create a plan with timetables to set aside funds required to complete inventory, for appraisal and sale of assets, and completion of a final audit.
Building, property, equipment and all assets must be secured against theft, misappropriation and deterioration.
As opposed to a court-ordered receiver to handle those responsibilities, board members asked if EightCAP Inc., the overseer and manager of the school, could handle the task.
While that is an option, EightCap President Dan Petersen said, at this point, he doesn’t believe the organization would be able to fill that role.
“I think we have to take this information back and look at what our capabilities are, but my gut reaction right now is to go with the court ordered receiver,” he said.
Petersen said he is leaning in that direction because of the close relationship between the academy and EightCap and because the organization has never been through a dissolution process before.
“We are committed to putting together an unbiased assessment of what the abilities of the school would be to pay for something like that, Petersen said.
Board members did not make a resolution to enter into the dissolution process, stating that they would like to first pursue other options.
Board President Michael Blanding said they would make a decision in May, at the latest.
Seeking a new authorizer
Peterson said he has been diligently searching for a new authorizer for the school, but, so far, has had no luck in finding an organization willing to take on the role.
“We are looking at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU),” he said. “It’s simply an application from us at this point. They haven’t made any sort of commitment or said that they are interested.”
Peterson said he has reached out to Montcalm Community College, local intermediate school districts, and even local public school districts, but each organization has declined.
“It’s a Hail Mary, it’s a long shot … to find a new authorizer, but this is largely being driven by a request of the parents (of the students),” he said.
Blanding said he appreciates the effort to seek reauthorization, but believes the effort may be futile, calling it “false hope.”
Blanding said he fears a drop in enrollment would ensue if the school were to stay open for the 2014-2015 school year.
With rumors circulating that the school will close, Blanding said he would be surprised to see enrollment match numbers from this year as parents already begin to search for new schools for their children.
“We can’t get in a position where we are not financially viable,” he said. “I’m worried that if another authorizer is found, there won’t be enough students.”
As of February of this year, the school’s enrollment was at 156 students. According to Central Michigan University (CMU), that’s a drop from 184 students in the 2011-2012 school year.
However, Principal Victoria Simon said she believes if the the community learned that the school was to stay open, parents would stay committed to the school and re-enroll their students.
“Quite frankly, if a miracle came through and we got another authorizer, they would come back,” she said. “I really think the bulk of my staff would still be available to stay, as well.”
Simon said she believes enrollment has continued to drop because the academy was working with one-year contract deals in four of the past five years.
Simon said she believes a new contract of five years would instill faith in parents, who would then have no fears of the school closing.
“In June of 2012, we had 205 students,” she said. “If we had a five-year contract, maybe we would still be at 180 to 190 students.”
Simon said she will not give up on the school, her students or staff.
“I’m not holding out on a whole lot of hope either, but I’m certainly going to try, I’m going to do everything I can,” she said.
Victoria said she has told parents is to seek other schools for their children this fall, and has told teachers and staff to find another available job.
As a whole, though board members want the school to stay open, they are preparing to act as though no new authorizer will be found, despite a strong desire to see it happen.
“I tend to be somebody who holds on to hope, but I don’t have a whole lot of hope for this SVSU thing,” Board Vice Presient Erin Roberts said.
“When I think about enrollment, and holding out hope for another authorizer, and the families and teachers that we have to keep in consideration, I feel a little anxious waiting for May to make a decision.”
Disputing the facts
To start Thursday’s meeting, Simon delivered a passionate presentation outlining the academy’s MEAP scores, which she believes have been taken out of context as opposed to looking at every variable involved with scores at the academy.
“It’s not (the students) fault that we did not get re-authorized,” she said. “I know that, and you know that, but as far as the data is concerned, it’s their fault.”
Simon said in her years of trying to raise the academy’s scores, the school that CMU gave her as a model to follow, to use as a “model of improvement,” was New Branches Charter Academy in Grand Rapids.
“They physically brought me to the school, introduced me to the principal, and told me this is who we should aspire to be like,” she said. “We are beating New Branches in most areas, and it’s still not good enough; I’m not sure why.”
According to the MEAP report, 2013-2014, presented by the Central Michigan University’s Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools, of the eight MEAP categories in grades 3 to 5 that Threshold students tested in, Threshold tested higher than New Branches in four of the eight.
However, Threshold tested below the state average in each category, and below the average for CMU charter schools in six of the categories.
“We are in the middle of the rankings,” she said. “We were asked to improve. I never disagreed or argued with it, but I asked for time. All we needed was time.”
Since the 2007-2008 school year, Threshold has trended upward in proficiency in every MEAP category other than fifth grade science.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, of the 57 charter schools authorized by CMU, Threshold ranks eighth from last.
In testing students with the Measures of Academic Progress tests, the school did not reach the set target achievements in either math or reading in the past three years.
According to Simon, the low test scores are not a result of poor teachings or a lack of resources at the school, but rather the result of teaching “at risk” kids.
Of the nearly 160 students enrolled at the school, 92 percent qualify for free lunches while 5 percent qualify for reduced-price lunches.
“When you sort by test score and by poverty, it’s an absolute inverse,” she said. “This myth that it’s because teachers don’t care for at risk kids, it’s obviously a myth. What we need to be asking is, why do low-income kids score below average? How do we improve education for at-risk students?”
Despite the upward trends in the MEAP testing, the results were not enough for CMU to outweigh the overall below-average proficiency scores.
In the letter received by board members on March 31, CMU stated: “The academy has been unable to significantly improve its performance, consistently deliver a quality educational program, and meet the student academic goals contained in the Contract.”
CMU stated that although the 2013 MEAP results indicated an improvement in both math and reading, the results were not consistent throughout grades 3 to 5 and remain low.
According to CMU, there were three core questions that had to be answered to satisfaction to renew a contract with Threshold.
Is the academy’s academic program successful?
Is the academy organizationally and financially viable?
Is there a demonstration of good faith in following the terms of the charter contract and applicable law?
According to CMU: “An honest assessment of these questions finds that the academy is not fulfilling the terms and conditions of its contract and is failing to consistently deliver a quality educational program for its students.”
The letter went on to read: “Given the Academy’s poor academic results and its inability to prepare students for academic success, coupled with a lack of significant, sustainable improvements, the center has concluded that it would be in the best interest of the students and the public if the
University Board does not enter into a new contract with the academy to operate a public school academy.
The board will continue to meet, possibly during special meetings, to discuss the fate of the school.