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Low test scores bring new scrutiny for Montgomery charter school

Test scores show LEAD Academy well below state averages in all areas, and failing to keep pace with Montgomery County schools.

(STOCK)

The Alabama Charter School Commission is again monitoring a struggling Montgomery charter school, LEAD Academy, after students at the school scored well below state averages on Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program standardized tests. 

State officials released the results of the ACAP tests last month, and while results varied due to the COVID-19 pandemic that impacted learning all over the country, LEAD’s scores were particularly worrisome. 

More than 97 percent of LEAD’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders tested below proficient in mathematics. Nearly 87 percent of the school’s fourth-graders weren’t proficient in science. 

For comparison, the statewide averages for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in math were 30 percent, 23.86 percent and 24.39 percent. In science, fourth-graders statewide averaged 34.17 percent proficiency. 

Making matters even worse, though, is that despite positioning itself as a better option to Montgomery County’s public schools — which often struggle due to high poverty rates, underfunding and a large magnet program — LEAD’s scores were mostly lower than the low scores posted for public schools in Montgomery. In math, Montgomery managed 10.79 percent, 7.79 percent and 8.05 percent proficiency in the same grade levels. In science, Montgomery scored 17.94 percent. 

“I’ve already talked to the chairman of the Commission about that charter school,” Commission member Dick Brewbaker said recently on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. “The good thing about charters is that they have a five-year contract, and in their original contract there are academic targets that they have to hit, and if they don’t hit them the school is closed.” 

Rep. Charlotte Meadows, the founder and board president at LEAD, responded to APR’s questions about the test scores and future plans by saying it was unfair to compare LEAD to Montgomery County as a whole. She also said that LEAD’s ACAP scores were higher at the elementary level than Montgomery County’s. A follow-up email asking her to clarify if she was questioning the accuracy of the reported scores, which came from the Alabama State Department of Education, did not receive a response. 

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A source familiar with the Commission’s review process relative to LEAD said the Commission isn’t required to wait until the end of the five-year contract. If a school is seriously underperforming, there are measures that can be taken. 

“There are meetings that will be held with the (administrators from LEAD) in the coming weeks and months, and there will be some tough questions asked,” the source said. “The Commission has been very troubled by both the scores and some of the things we’ve heard from employees at LEAD.”

Charter Commission chairman David Marsh acknowledged that the Commission does have the authority to “intervene if a school is seriously underperforming,” however he also said that no one from the Commission has yet had a conversation with LEAD officials. 

“… our preference is to serve in the role of offering support once a school is in operation,” Marsh said. “… every school will have to come before the Commission at the conclusion of their charter contract and face a renewal process. That in and of itself is a level of accountability which far exceeds that for traditional public schools.”

Marsh also reiterated the struggles that many schools faced during the COVID pandemic. 

However, this is not LEAD’s first problem. 

The school almost didn’t get off the ground after the national authorizers said LEAD failed to meet basic benchmarks in all three areas it scored. In less than a year, the school’s first principal quit and filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that funds had been seriously mismanaged and that school leadership was trying to block special needs students from attending. 

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LEAD officials, including founder and board president Charlotte Meadows, refuted those claims and put most of the blame for issues at the time on the former principal. But the hits kept coming. 

Numerous teachers quit during LEAD’s first year, and others complained publicly that the school had stiffed them on promised pay and benefits. And then the outside management company hired by LEAD to serve as a sort-of central office also filed a lawsuit against LEAD, alleging it had not been paid. 

LEAD must have its annual report, which should address the low ACAP scores and lay out corrective action plans, by the end of November. 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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