When the parents of the founding scholars chose to send their 5th graders to ReImagine Prep nearly four years ago, they were putting a lot of faith in a system that wasn’t even quite complete yet.

“Thank you for trusting us with your kids when we were knocking on doors, asking you to send your kids to this school, when we didn’t even have a building yet, or an expected start date,” said Christina McDonald, the founding principal at ReImagine Prep Charter School. “Reimagine Kids are my kids, too.”

She was addressing her graduating 8th graders at ReImagine Prep’s High School Fair.

And now, with no charter high school currently open, the graduating 8th graders and their parents are faced with the grim discovery that their time of publicly-funding options has run out.

“I feel like they’re just throwing us back out there,” said the parent of one student (who wished to remain anonymous). “I feel like we’re just being tossed back out.”

“After experiencing school choice, it’s ludicrous to ask families to go back to a system in which they lose that freedom and responsibility, particularly if they are not satisfied with what they are offered, said Elyse Marcellino with Empower Mississippi. 

The charter for ReImagine Prep High School has been approved, but the school isn’t set to open until the founding scholars have already finished their 9th-grade year. At that point, the students can apply for a spot at the high school.

“But I don’t know that I’d want her to go back and forth,” said the parent.

At this point, the choice of a charter ends for these students.

“These 8th graders have no charter option to consider going into high school, which means they must go to their assigned school or apply to special district programs or private schools. Without some sort of financial assistance, many parents must strike private schools from the list entirely,” said Marcellino.

ReImagine Prep held a High School Fair for students last week, to showcase to students and parents the options available to them if they chose to avoid the traditional public school system. The fair was sponsored by Empower Mississippi.

The fact that these students don’t have a smooth transition into high school ahead is evidence that there’s more work to be done, but school choice in Mississippi has improved.

“In Mississippi, over 2,300 students are benefitting from choice programs. That’s 72 times the number of participating students just 5 years ago. While there’s much more work to do, it’s an appropriate time to look back on all that has been accomplished too,” said Marcellino.

The following schools were there:

Park Place Christian Academy

St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

Michelle Obama Early College High School Program at Tougaloo College

Hartfield Academy

Madison Ridgeland Academy

The Piney Woods School

New Summit School

JPS Special Programs

Mississippi School of the Arts

Jackson Prep

While many options were outlined for the parents, there were a few issues that come from these situations.

 

Logistics

Right now, the 8th graders are attending ReImagine Prep Charter School off McDowell Road in Jackson. In order to attend any of the several schools at the fair, families would be forced to reckon with a possible commute of up to 25 or 30 minutes away from their current school.

This doesn’t account for where students actually live, just the distance from the school they currently attend and not factoring in traffic. While these schools are great choices from an academic standpoint, a family with working parents and multiple children may not have traveling to these schools as an option.

Expenses

Of the schools that attended the fair, only two programs: JPS Special Programs and the Mississippi School for the Arts; are publicly funded. Many of the private schools do offer tuition assistance and scholarships, but this may not cover all of the expenses of the school.

Also, scholarships are limited. The tuition could be cut in half if tuition assistance is needed, but full-ride scholarships are fewer and farther between.

There are also assistance options available if parents chose to move all of their children into the same private school.

 

Back and Forth

There are two types of back-and-forth to contend with when assessing the situation of students at ReImagine Prep. For some, the parents may choose a different school or back to public school until the high school opens. This means one school for one year, and then moving schools again.

Studies have shown that new students entering a classroom require more individual time of the teacher, taking away from the rest of the class. This means the grades of the new students and the grades of those who were already in the class can be impacted due to the change. The new students are dealing with a new environment, and the current students have less time with the teacher.

The other back-and-forth factor: many of the parents who have chosen ReImagine Prep are also forced with the very real possibility that they’ll have to send their child back to the traditional school that was so underserving them in the first place. Many parents choose charter schools to receive vital therapies for their child’s needs, whether they are disability-related, learning-style related, or challenge related. If these needs were not met before, it is possible that the needs won’t be met moving forward, and it could actually cause a backsliding in the academic achievement the student may have made while at ReImagine Prep.

 

Limited Seating

While it is true that private schools may only accept a limited number of students, the same goes for many charter schools. With four lower and upper elementary charter schools in the state and one pending high school charter school, not all of these students are guaranteed a seat at the high school when it opens. It is unknown if the school will be able to handle that influx of that many students upon opening.

 

The problem isn’t widespread–on the surface 

Many will see that this isn’t a widespread or “huge” problem in Mississippi because the majority of students in the state are unaffected by what is happening with the graduating 8th graders at ReImagine Prep.

That’s because there’s only four charter schools in the state, and most of them are in Jackson.

While the 8th graders at ReImagine Prep are forced to look at other options, the majority of Mississippi parents do not enjoy options in their failing or underserving districts as charter schools have not been proposed or approved in their area. Advocates such as Empower Mississippi and the operators of the charters fight for school choice legislation annually–whether that means assistance for students with special needs, or options for students who need more than the traditional public school setting.

“Today, Mississippi students with special needs can apply to one of three scholarship programs which give parents the ability to direct a portion of the tax dollars associated with their child’s education to a private school or services. However, these programs have strict eligibility requirements and, in the case of the most popular – the Education Scholarship Account program – seats are limited. Expanding these programs would open doors for many,” said Marcellino.

“I hope lawmakers see that families are eager to explore options and that there are multiple partners – inside and outside of education, public and private – who are willing to come together to focus on students and their success over anything else.”

Y’all Politics will continue to bring coverage of school choice legislation–and the impacts of school choice– as preparation begins for the legislative session.