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Charter schools: Voyageurs, Schoolcraft not worried despite hype over authorization approval

Three weeks ago, the Minnesota Department of Education approved six charter school authorizers under a new law passed by the Legislature in the 2009 session.

Among those denied in the first round by the MDE was the Audubon Center of the North Woods, the current authorizer of Voyageurs Expeditionary School, and Concordia College in Moorhead, which Schoolcraft Learning Community hoped to have as its next authorizer.

Volunteers of America - Minnesota, the current authorizer of TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, was one of the organizations approved by the MDE.

The new criteria set by legislators for charter school authorizers include stricter financial and academic controls and adherence to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.

By law, charter school authorizers have to be approved by the department by June 30, 2011.

Julie Johnson-Willborg, director of Voyageurs, did not express worries over the initial rejection of Audubon by the MDE because she said it was not a final rejection.

"Audubon is responding to the concerns raised by the MDE this week and feels very confident that they will be approved as an authorizer," Johnson-Willborg said.

According to Johnson-Willborg, the reason Audubon needed to be reauthorized was because it is attempting to sponsor a new charter in Brainerd.

"Audubon doesn't have to be authorized until 2011. It decided to apply early versus waiting until later," Johnson-Willborg said. "We are still going to be authorized by Audubon through next school year (should it be reauthorized)."

Audubon is expected to hear from the MDE on its final reauthorization status Monday, June 14.

While Johnson-Willborg said she feels confident Audubon's reauthorization will work out, she admitted if the organization's application is not approved, it will have some effect on the school.

"If for some reason, Audubon were not approved, then there are 24 charter schools in the state that will be looking for a new authorizer for the school year 2011-12," Johnson-Willborg said.

Schoolcraft Learning Community is currently authorized by the MDE. Scott Anderson, director of Schoolcraft said he was made aware earlier this year that the MDE would not be authorizing charter schools in the future.

In searching for a new authorizer, Schoolcraft sought the sponsorship from Concordia College, owner of Concordia Language Villages, which leases its French Village to Schoolcraft during the school year.

Concordia applied in the first round last month, but was denied by the MDE. According to Anderson, Concordia decided not to re-apply to be a charter school authorizer.

"At this point, for several reasons, they are not pursuing it," Anderson said. "It doesn't mean they might not at a future date."

According to a letter written by MDE authorizer liaison Stephanie Olsen to Anderson on June 7, the MDE has decided to renew its contract with Schoolcraft for one year until June 30, 2011, with the understanding that, by this date, Schoolcraft will have transferred to another authorizer. The contract with MDE must be board approved and signed no later than June 30, 2010.

The letter stated that MDE will not extend the contract beyond the June 30, 2011, deadline if Schoolcraft fails to find a new authorizer.

"It's been a little bit of a crazy time in regards to the authorizer process," Anderson said. "We've just taken baby steps in looking at some of the current authorizers recently approved by the (MDE)."

The list of approved sponsors by the MDE includes Anoka Technical College, Friends of Education, Minneapolis Public Schools, Novation Education Opportunities, Student Achievement Minnesota and Volunteers of America. - Minnesota.

Anderson said he hopes Schoolcraft's next authorizer will support the school's beliefs.

"Everything from curriculum, staff development and financing to who we are as a school, we feel we need that kind of support from an authorizer," Anderson said. "The MDE has been very supportive in giving us training and information, monitoring us and giving us autonomy in the work we've been doing."

Anderson said sharing the same authorizer as TrekNorth, Volunteers of America - Minnesota, is a possibility.

"We've been corresponding with a few other authorizers," he said. "We're playing the research game. It's going to be a busy year and it's exciting to see who we can establish a relationship with."

When Schoolcraft finds a new authorizer, Anderson said, changes will involve new contacts and paperwork, not methodologies.

"The new authorizer will take site visits and see our methodologies and belief system," Anderson said. "We still love expeditionary learning. We want them to love expeditionary learning, too."