CHATOM, Ala. (WALA) – On paper, Woodland Preparatory School soon will open in a brand-new building just north of here and serve 260 students.
But with a little more than two months to go before the start of the 2019-20 school year, the site is nothing but a pile of dirt. An outside reviewer found fault with the proposal. And critics question a contract with a Texas company worth as much as $360,000 – money that would be paid with tax dollars that otherwise would go to the local school system.
All this has many Washington County residents wondering why the state approved Woodland Prep at all.
Washington County school board president DeWayne Byrd argues that a charter school is no needed and noted that the state awarded the public school system a “B” grade in its most recent report card.
What’s more, Byrd said, Woodland Prep – as a publicly funded charger school operating outside of the control of the local school board – would siphon students and tax money.
“Therefore, if you don’t have as many kids, you don’t get as much money,” he said. “And, therefore, you lose teaching units in the process when you do lose teachers. So, it’s not just a money thing. It’s losing quality teachers, also. And we can’t afford to lose more teachers.”
But parents involved in Washington County Students First, the group that applied to start Woodland Prep, point to other metrics – namely the results of the ACT Aspire standardized test that Alabama students took prior to the 2017-18 school year.
Board Chairman Thad Becton says those scores show the high schools lagging behind both the state and national averages. A manager of a pair of local lumber mills, Becton said he sees the need for better education both as an employer and as the father of three children.
“The performance of the high schools was something that we wanted to improve,” he said. “And also, being in business, the need for work-ready kids is something that we also needed.”
‘There’s only one learning style’
Sara Foster, a Chatom resident who moved to Washington County in 2014, said she does not believe her children have the same educational opportunities they had when the family lived in New Jersey. She said she is impressed by Woodland Prep’s focus on technology and hands-on learning.
“It is needed,” she said. “I feel like we need to be offered a choice. And right now, we’re not being offered a choice. There’s one learning style.”
Alabama came late to the charter school movement, only legalizing the alternative schools in 2015. The state currently has two charters – including Acceleration Day and Evening Academy in Mobile – with three others set to join Woodland Prep next school year and another slated for the following year.
The Alabama Public School Charter Commission approved Woodland Prep’s application despite a conclusion by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that it did “not meet the standard for approval.”
The NACSA, as the review group is known by its acronym, recommended that the application be denied. It pointed to deficiencies in the plan’s educational program design, its operations capacity and its financing. Of particular concern to the panel was the school’s contract with a private firm, Unity School Services, to operate the school.
“The application includes limited information about USS, its performance track record, or its capacity to support Woodland Prep,” the organization wrote in its report.
But Mac Buttram, chairman of the Charter School Commission, said he and his colleagues carefully reviewed the authorizing association’s report on Woodland Prep and determined that the charter school applicants satisfied its concerns.
“There’s nothing that requires the commission to be – for the NACSA report to determine what our decision is,” he said. “If that were the case, then we wouldn’t need a commission. We would just need a NACSA report that says they’re approved or not approved.”
Contract with for-profit company questioned
Critics also complain that the Unity School Services and would enrich CEO Soner Tarim to the tune of $360,000 a year if the school hits its enrollment projections.
Tarim did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Becton said Washington County Students First selected him and his firm because of their track record operating charter schools in Texas. The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools named Harmony Public Schools – a charter school chain co-founded by Tarim – as one of the nation’s best in 2017.
And Becton said the money will not go into Tarim’s pocket; it will pay for the education program and central office functions.
A few dozen opponents of the charter school traveled to Montgomery this year to make their case to state school board members and the local legislative delegation.
But there is little opponents can do to stop the school now that it’s been approved. Only the school can stop itself by failing to meet certain benchmarks. One of those deadlines looms on June 16, when Woodland Prep must have commitments from at least 200 students.
Becton acknowledged that the school is short of that now, and he said he is less confident that he was several weeks ago. If Woodland Prep does not meet that target, it would delay its opening by at least a year.
If Woodland Prep succeeds, its first-year projected enrollment of 260 students kindergarten through eighth grade could grow to 664 through high school by year six.
Sean Atchison, the student government president at Washington County High School in Chatom, said he fears his school might not even exist if that happens.
“A charter school would destroy everything,” he said. “Taking this amount of students from our county, it would be disastrous. It would be catastrophic.”