Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham asked her front-office team in September whether it was worth trying to stymie the proposed Arbor Community School charter school.

The University of Wisconsin System has narrowly rejected an application for what would have been the third charter school in Madison not authorized by the Madison School District.

Arbor Community School would have opened this fall with 40 students in kindergarten through third grade, and hoped to serve as many as 100 students from kindergarten through eighth grade by its sixth year of operation.

It would have used an “inquiry-based and project-focused learning” model in space rented from St. Bernard Parish on the city’s East Side, according to the school’s updated application submitted in January to the UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity. Community, well-being, nature and equity were to be its four “pillars of strength.”

In a Monday letter to Arbor, System President Ray Cross notes that the school first identified the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and then the Goodman Community Center as potential sites.

But St. Bernard “lacks meaningful access to green space, which is a significant departure from a key component of the proposed school.”

Documents from the OEO show that reviewers of the school’s application split 2-2 on whether to authorize it.

School co-founder Lynn Munsinger Brown expressed surprise at OEO’s rationale for rejecting the school, saying the office never told Arbor that the St. Bernard site was a concern.

She noted St. Bernard backs up to community garden sites and prairie plantings along the Capital City trail and is in a socioeconomically diverse area.

“It was selected because it was within walking distance to parks,” she said, including the 90-acre Olbrich Park less than a mile away.

Brown said the school initially wanted to become a charter through the Madison School District, but officials there showed no interest.

The school then partnered with the Monona Grove School District in the summer of 2017 to provide pilot programs of the school’s model. Activities for students included building a chicken coop and wheelchair ramp, yoga and breathing exercises “and much exploration at Aldo Leopold Nature Center, including long hikes and exercises designed to heighten awareness to self and nature,” according to a March state Department of Public Instruction grant application.

The programs got high marks from parents, but the Monona Grove School Board later backed off further work with Arbor because the district was planning to build a traditional school and didn’t think it could invest the “political capital” in that and in a partnership with Arbor, according to the grant application.

Arbor then turned to the UW System process created by Republicans in 2015 — over the Madison School District’s objections — to charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee. Brown said that as a part of that process, the school looked into partnerships with a variety of organizations to provide space before beginning contract negotiations with St. Bernard in November.

District opposed school

The Madison School District has historically been hostile to charter schools — especially ones it doesn’t authorize and directly control — and documents from the district show officials there were seeking to derail the Arbor school.

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According to emails released to the State Journal under the state’s open records law, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham on Sept. 10 asked her chief of staff, Ricardo Jara, and other front-office officials whether Arbor was “worth trying to stop? Or change somehow? If so, how?”

Cheatham expressed the district’s opposition to the school in a letter to Cross on Sept. 24 that points to alleged deficiencies in Arbor’s application, and accuses OEO of not sharing information with the district about the school.

“I am writing you to formally request that the OEO immediately terminate contract negotiations with (Arbor Community School) or, at the very least, require that this school not be located in the City of Madison,” she wrote.

That same day, former Madison School Board member Ed Hughes took Cheatham’s letter to a board of directors meeting of the Goodman Community Center, where Arbor was then trying to secure space.

In an email to the Madison School Board and district officials after the meeting, Hughes said he told the Goodman board that as a “community member who has had a long history of involvement with Goodman,” the board “ought to think carefully about what they intend to do, because there could be significant community blowback to a decision that could be seen as undermining our public schools. I said it wouldn’t be a good look for them.”

On Sept. 27, Jara sent an email “update” on Arbor to the Madison School Board in which he said the Goodman board denied Arbor’s application, “citing political concerns if they decided to approve it.”

Goodman executive director Becky Steinhoff said in December that her board rejected Arbor’s proposal because the center had just opened a new building and was “experiencing a period of enormous change.” She reiterated that on Monday. Jara declined to say what he meant by “political concerns,” or who expressed them.

School rated ‘strong’

OEO on March 7 declared its “intent to authorize establishment of Arbor Community School” as a charter, “subject to ongoing internal approval.” In June, the state Department of Public Instruction approved it for up to $700,000 in state charter school planning and implementation grant funding.

Grant application reviewers gave the school’s application 45 out of a possible 50 points, rating it “strong.”

“We never saw ourselves as adversaries to (the district),” Brown said. “I don’t believe that educational opportunity is a zero-sum game where this kid over here thrives in multi-age hands-on learning, that it means that this kid over here can’t thrive in a traditional model.”

Isthmus Montessori Academy and One City Schools began operating as OEO-sanctioned charters in the fall, serving about 175 and 90 children, respectively. The Montessori school had operated as a private school since 2012 and is chartered to serve pre-schoolers to ninth-graders. One City began as a private pre-school in 2015. The Madison School District has about 27,000 students.

Still awaiting OEO’s possible approval is another independent charter proposed for Madison — Milestone Democratic School.

It hopes to open in August 2020 at a yet-to-be-determined location with an initial enrollment of about 40 to 50 students. It would focus on “student-directed, project-based learning,” according to a 14-page “Iteration #1” of the school released in December, and would use one-on-one coaching and internships as part of “a democratic system where each student is able to decide what are the things that they think” are important to their “academic, social and emotional” success.

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