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Charter school faces state probation

A Worcester charter school faces possible state probation less than three years after it opened because of issues that include weak academic results, declining enrollment, and unstable finances.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will decide whether to place the Spirit of Knowledge Charter School on probation at the board’s monthly meeting next Tuesday. The move could eventually lead to the school’s closure if it fails to fix its problems by December 2014.

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In a memo to the board, ­Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said he was recommending probation out of concern that the school’s board of trustees had failed to effectively oversee the school, which has 176 middle and high school students.

“This action signals clear concern about the school with the hope that [Spirit of Knowledge] can fulfill the probationary conditions and offer a successful educational program to the students it serves,” Chester wrote in the May 10 memo, provided to the Globe Wednesday. “Based on the success — or lack thereof — of [Spirit of Knowledge] in meeting the conditions imposed in connection with probation and in alleviating the causes of probation, I will recommend further action as appropriate.”

Paula Bailey, the school’s executive director, said Spirit of Knowledge is already taking steps to address the concerns and expressed optimism that the school will prevail.

“We deeply believe that things at [Spirit of Knowledge] are headed in the right direction,” Bailey wrote in a letter to parents posted on the school’s website.

It was the second time this year that Chester has recommended placing a charter school on probation, a rare move by state officials. In February, the state board approved Chester’s recommendation of probation for the Boston Renaissance Charter School because of declining scores on state standardized tests.

Created under the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, 66 charter schools operate independent of local school districts and are designed to provide innovative educational programs because they ­operate with fewer restrictions from the state. Nearly all employ nonunion teachers.

Many have among the highest scores on state standardized tests, and advocates are pushing to abolish a state-imposed limit on the number of charter schools that can operate in school districts with the lowest state standardized test scores, such as Worcester.

But charter schools are not a guaranteed recipe for success, and the state has closed some of them.

Merely opening in 2010 was a major victory for Spirit of Knowledge. The school had to go through the state approval process twice, after its initial proposal failed to gain the commissioner’s endorsement.

Spirit of Knowledge, one of three charter schools in Worcester, focuses heavily on math and science, promising on its website that students will “graduate ‘green’ and biotech careers ready.”

But students are struggling on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in those subject areas. Just 33 percent of students scored proficient or higher in math last year, and 24 percent scored proficient or higher in science.

“Academic results have not been promising,” Chester wrote in his memo.

Performance on the English test, however, was stronger, with 69 percent of students scoring proficient or higher.

Leadership at the school has been turbulent. It has had four different executive directors and high turnover on its board of trustees.

The school also has failed to lure students from the Worcester public schools at high volumes.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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