Missouri’s Board of Education has decided to close six charter school campuses run by the Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc., the country’s largest for-profit charter network, saying that it “would be a disservice” to children to keep them open because of academic and fiscal issues.

Imagine, based in Arlington, operates more than 75 schools in more than a dozen states — including Maryland — and the District of Columbia. Its six school campuses in the St. Louis area have been the subject of stories in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that detailed complicated real estate deals through which the schools, which operated with public funds, generated millions of dollars for Imagine and a Kansas City-based real estate investment company.

The decision to close the schools at the end of the school year will mean that about 4,000 students will have to find a new school for next fall. A transition office is being set up to help families find new school placements, a statement from the Missouri Department of Education said.

Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro was quoted as saying in the statement that the Imagine schools had been “underperforming” academically for years.

“It would be a disservice to the children — and run counter to the mission of the State Board of Education to ensure a quality public education experience for every child — to allow the underperforming and poorly managed Imagine Schools to continue to operate,” Nicastro said in the statement.

“This decision was not made lightly or hastily. The Imagine Schools in St. Louis City have been underperforming for years. They are among the lowest achieving schools in the state, scoring well below the St. Louis Public Schools and Missouri state averages,” he said. “ The State Board of Education had to take this action as part of its mandate to ensure public schools — including charter schools — are held accountable for student performance and fiscal management.”

The Associated Press quoted Imagine’s executive vice president, Jason Bryant, as calling the decision made Tuesday by the Missouri Board of Education as “disappointing.”

State education officials had reported that the St. Louis Imagine schools had spent more money on administration and less on instruction than the average public school in Missouri. They also said that the Imagine schools may be in the position of having to repay some federal education money, the AP report said.

Missouri is not the only place where Imagine has run into some trouble. Its real estate dealings have drawn scrutiny in states beyond Missouri, including Florida. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that one Imagine charter school near downtown St. Petersburg spent $649,312 l in rent in 2011 and another Imagine School in Land O'Lakes signed a lease for a new school with annual base rent of $757,989 — and the landlord in both cases is a company owned by Imagine Schools.

Incidentally, Imagine recently entered into a partnership with Teach for America, the organization that takes new college graduates, gives them five weeks of training in a summer institute and sends them into some of America’s neediest schools to teach troubled kids in a quest to help close the achievement gap.

The partnership, according to the news release, “will connect TFA alumni with teacher and school leader opportunities in Imagine charter schools across the nation.”

The schools closing at the end of the school year in Missouri are Imagine Academy of Academic Success and Academy of Cultural Arts (grades K-8, approximately 955 students), Imagine Academy of Careers Elementary, Middle and Prep High (grades K-12, approximately 1,620 students), and Imagine Academy of Environmental Science and Math (grades K-8, approximately 1,290 students), effective June 30, 2012, according to the state education department. It was previously announced that the Imagine Academy of Academic Success would also close at the end of this school year.


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