While working in a suburban school district outside of Chicago in the mid-‘90s, Julie Frugo felt like she could do more.
“I looked around at my students, and I knew they’d be fine without me,” says Frugo.
So she decided to take a leap of faith. She moved to St. Louis, and after a year at a public school district, she embarked on a new journey to become part of something bigger than she even imagined.
In 1998, Missouri passed a law allowing the creation of charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City. This legislation paved the way for charter schools to provide an option to boost the existing public school systems, some of which were failing.
“At the time, we were all in uncharted territory,” Frugo says. “I started as a teacher, the University of Missouri–St. Louis was our sponsor and we were opening one of the first charter schools in St. Louis. Our goal was to offer families an alternative to the educational choices they currently had.”
St. Louis Charter School opened its doors in 2000. Now, 15 years and one name change later, the school today known as Premier Charter School is the oldest and one of the most successful charter schools in St. Louis. Frugo, who earned a master’s in educational leadership, a graduate certificate in education and is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at UMSL, now serves as head of schools.
“During early years, there were many challenges, but I really credit our success to the people who knew that educational reform in the area was needed and believed in what we were doing,” she says. “UMSL supported us, and we were able to put the right people in the right places to assure our success, both financially and academically.”
Over the last few years, UMSL’s position as a charter school beacon has emerged. The university realigned the coordination of charter schools under the College of Education and hired Bill Mendelsohn to oversee UMSL’s charters as the executive director.
Although UMSL’s journey with charter schools wasn’t always smooth in the early years of sponsorship – the university had to close a school, revoke a school’s sponsorship and faced litigation from the St. Louis Public Schools – Frugo now credits the institution for having a vision and being the first in the area to support charter schools.
With some risk comes reward. UMSL currently sponsors a total of seven charters with two more coming soon. In addition to Premier, UMSL sponsors St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, which consist of The French School, The Spanish School, The Chinese School and The International School; South City Preparatory Academy; Lafayette Preparatory Academy; North Side Community School; Preclarus Mastery Academy and The Biome. Tessera Hall Academy and Vernare School will open in the fall of 2016.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides funding for charter schools, and the schools are accountable to DESE, their sponsor and their families. Charter schools are free to families living in the city boundaries.
“We want our schools to see us as partners; we want to empower them and to provide any and all resources that we can,” says Mendelsohn.
Those resources come in many forms, but mostly through the help of the college’s faculty and students.
Collaborating with charter school administrators and teachers, UMSL education faculty work on curriculum, training, research and other areas to ensure that charter school educators are prepared.
“The College of Education at UMSL is built on the belief that practitioners, scholars and innovators must come together for improvement and growth of our educational systems,” says Carole Basile, dean of the college. “Working directly with our charter schools gives us the ability to simultaneously learn from one another, enhancing the college’s programs, teaching and research about what works for children and youth, and providing the charter schools with the support, resources and knowledge needed to expand their innovative practice.”
Critics of charter schools have expressed concerns about schools “cherry picking” the best and the brightest of students and being exclusive about the student body.
Mendelsohn disagrees and cites the fact that all of UMSL’s schools must take any and all students who apply. If there are more applicants than openings, the schools select students through a random lottery.
“Our schools strive to provide students in St. Louis with greater opportunities for a strong education,” he says. “UMSL supports their quest to reach this vision.”
UMSL Charter School Enrollment
Lafayette Preparatory Academy [K-3] 120
North Side Community School [K-5] 286
Preclarus Mastery Academy [5-8] 175
Premier Charter School [K-8] 900
South City Preparatory Academy [5-8] 190
St. Louis Language Immersion Schools [K-6] 903
The Biome [K-1] 80
This story was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of UMSL Magazine.