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Calling Off The Dogs At Charter School

Stan Simpson

January 10, 2009

Like any good kindergarten teacher, Jumoke Academy's Chandra Karhu was concerned about her students' readiness to learn.

Many came to the Hartford charter school class not able to read, or not knowing shapes and colors. "It was a major concern," she said. "So I thought it was important that we create a preschool program, so they can start here and know what skills they need before they come to kindergarten."

Two years ago, Jumoke chief executive Michael Sharpe, at Karhu's urging, started a preschool.

With this year's kindergartners, the difference was striking.

"This class is the best class academically I've had since I've been here," said Karhu, who is in her seventh year at Jumoke. "Most of them are reading. They came in knowing their letters and sounds, basic phonic sounds ..."

Most years, at least half the 20 kindergartners would need remedial help.

This year, one kid needed intervention. And that child, Karhu said, did not participate in the pre-K program.

If you think the new pre-K contributed to the improved readiness of the Jumoke kindergartners, well, you're not alone.

Now, just imagine the school a week before Christmas receiving a note from the state Department of Public Health demanding that it immediately cease and desist from operating the preschool. The reason: The department didn't deem Jumoke to be a public school.

Hence, according to the health department, the school's pre-K is considered a "day care" and would have to be licensed. This would mean a lengthy and time-consuming process that would certainly undermine the school's momentum.

Understand this: Jumoke is without question a public school. Although run independently, the $3.8 million budget is funded through taxpayer dollars. And, even if it was considered a "private" school, which it assuredly is not, both public and private schools are exempt from having their preschools licensed.

The health department was apparently the only one having this interpretation problem in figuring out whether the school is really a school.

Thankfully, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told Health Commissioner J. Robert Galvin this week to call off the dogs. I even detected a little annoyance in Blumenthal's terse letter to the commish.

This layman's translation: Don't you folks have more important things to do?

"I advise you clearly and emphatically that this Demand is lacking in statutory support, and is inconsistent, with my office's prior advice," Blumenthal's letter said. " ... there is no practical reason or policy justification to require licenses for Charter Schools."

In other words, this harassment of Jumoke and charter schools in general was a complete and utter waste of time. The health department was overzealous and misguided in exercising its charge to promote health and safety. A dose of common sense and its recent visit to the school should have been all that was needed here.

The aborted legal threat to shut down Jumoke almost resulted in the state's undercutting its own efforts and investment in reducing the academic achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers.

Jumoke is one of the state's emerging charters. I've been following its progress for years. It educates about 400 K-8 students, mostly black and many poor. Open since 1997, it struggled for most of its years before hitting its stride. By 2012, Jumoke plans to open a high school, giving it a complete pre-K to Grade 12 experience of discipline, structure, high expectations.

Soon, it could be a model in urban education.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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