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The University of Wisconsin’s Office for Educational Opportunity rejected an application to open a third non-district approved charter school in Madison.

Arbor Community School was set to have opened in the fall and serve 40 students between kindergarten and third grade, eventually blossoming to 100 students in its sixth year.

UW System President Ray Cross cited concerns about the proposed school’s location, which after several changes, would have used space from St. Bernard Parish on Atwood Avenue.

“I believe this third proposed location lacks meaningful access to green space, which is a significant departure from a key component of the proposed school,” Cross wrote in a letter  to the school’s founders on Monday. “The lack of meaningful access to green space, particularly after several prior shifts in the school’s potential location, coupled with concerns about the school's ability to recruit the staff necessary to succeed based on the proposed model leads me to conclude the proposal is not ready for authorization.”

The school initially was set to be located at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center before switching to the Goodman Community Center and then St. Bernard.

Arbor Community School, which formed a nonprofit to run the school, had plans to focus on project-based learning.

“Learning will take place outside the classroom as much as inside; moving, exploring the natural world and interacting with the community,” Arbor’s application said.

Lynn Munsinger Brown, the school’s co-founder, told the Wisconsin State Journal that she was surprised at the OEO’s decision and reasoning.

In an interview with the Cap Times, she said there's now no legal way to open the school for the upcoming school year, as DPI requires notification of opening a school by Feb. 1.

Arbor Community School had plans to join the open enrollment period that began on Monday.

"I have applications translated into three languages ... they made this decision at 5 p.m. on Friday (Feb. 1) after the DPI had closed," Munsinger Brown said. "For next year, there is no legal way to receive authorization for the school."

Arbor Community School originally wanted to be authorized under the Madison Metropolitan School District, but the district showed no interest.

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Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham penned a letter to Cross in September 2018, saying that Arbor Community School “lacks academic, innovative, and equity-focused substance, and would mark a concerning use of OEO’s authority, especially here in Madison.”

When MMSD did not want to partner with Arbor, organizers went to the Monona Grove School District in 2017 to start pilot programs of the school. Organizers said in their application that families in the MGSD overwhelmingly supported the school’s model in a 2016 survey.

Cheatham and MMSD have been opposed to the OEO, which was established several years ago by the state Legislature as a way for schools to be authorized other than the district approval process.

“MMSD is working with great intention to create and broaden access to innovative learning experiences for underserved students and families,” Cheatham wrote last fall. “Our own charter schools, Nuestro Mundo Community School and Badger Rock Middle School, and the recently launched Early College Stem Academy and MicroSchool models, are a few examples of MMSD’s recent innovative efforts in service to our unwavering commitment to equity.”

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said Tuesday that the district’s position on Arbor hasn’t changed since the letter was first sent to Cross last fall.  

The OEO approved One City Schools and Isthmus Montessori Academy as independent charter schools last year. The OEO is still deliberating whether to approve Milestone Democratic School, which would focus on increasing student voice in the school’s structure.  

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.