Sunday, April 21, 2002

Troubled school needs to stay open

        Ohio might decide Tuesday whether to close Sabis International School of Cincinnati, a charter school in Mount Auburn that educates 672 economically disadvantaged elementary students.

        No one is saying the school is a bad one.

        Children are learning and are motivated to succeed.

        No one is saying the school is unsuitable. Its beautifully renovated building has a new gymnasium and cafeteria, and uncluttered, uncrowded classrooms.

        The issues endangering this school are financial: Who should control the school's daily and long-term finances? How much should be spent on education? How much should end up in the pockets of the for-profit owners?

Profiting on pupils

        The people who put the school in jeopardy are the ones who helped found it — Sabis' four-member community board of volunteers, which is charged with safeguarding its academic goals.

        Last month the board sued to dissolve itself and the school. Members claimed school leaders are too secretive about money and that not enough is going to education while too much is going into the school's corporate coffers.

        According to Sabis' numbers, Ohio paid it $5,267 per pupil last year. It also spent $3,535 on instruction and pupil support and $2,250 on administration and “business support.”

        Sabis' parent company has also invested $4 million to $5 million into the school, says school director Derrick Shelton, and the state contract gives it only five years to recoup that.

        From a business standpoint, that's not unreasonable.

        But schools aren't like businesses, and education costs money, critics say; there's only so much “efficiency” in a classroom.

        A recent visit to the school didn't reveal any cut corners.

        Mr. Shelton, an ex-cop and financial adviser, makes children his business now. Most principals have open-door policies, but students come into Mr. Shelton's office even when the door's closed, even during meetings. He gives them priority and a firm, big-brotherly hand.

        Two girls who earlier this year disdained taking tests — they threw the papers onto the floor — have each bet Mr. Shelton they'd score 80 or better.

Quality control

        Mr. Shelton's not top dog, though. That's Sephira Bailey, chief of “academic quality control.”

        Armed with detailed statistics — down to every test question answered by every pupil in every class — she guides teachers to keep them on track of Sabis' strict instructional schedules.

        For students who fall behind, she also oversees the school's “intensive” learning classes, tutoring sessions for reading and math. Children clamor for tutoring.

        Two boys stopped Ms. Bailey that afternoon and begged her to bend the rules. Though they'd both passed their tests within a point or two, they wanted tutoring to improve their grades.

        “The students are thriving,” Mr. Shelton says. “They're not producing at the rate of Walnut Hills yet, but there have been gains in attitude, in climate.”

        Twice each year, in September and May, students take a nationally standardized test. The results show positive trends for each grade.

        It's too early to give Sabis a flunking grade. And the school shouldn't close until it gets one.

        State regulators, school leaders and board members meet this Tuesday. They should negotiate greater public accountability, limits on non-educational costs and reasonable profit-taking.

        They shouldn't close the school.

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