- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Two Mississippi charter schools have gotten approval Monday to expand enrollments, despite concerns over low test scores in one school’s first year of operation.

The Charter School Authorizer Board approved plans for RePublic Schools to expand its two middle schools in Jackson to 600 students apiece. Serving grades 5-8, ReImagine Prep is currently capped at 440 students overall and Smilow Prep is capped at 476 students.

Outgoing CEO Ravi Gupta told the board that the schools are getting more applications than there are currently slots, especially at the sixth grade level, where he said there’s a 51-student waiting list at ReImagine Prep in south Jackson.

“We have really high demand starting in the sixth grade,” he said.

ReImagine Prep is in its second year, while Smilow Prep opened in August. Results discussed Monday by the board showed that while ReImagine Prep outperformed students in the Jackson public school district in math, its test results were lower in English language arts.

That led to questions from the board about whether RePublic should get to serve more students.

“Do you think that expanding enrollment at this time will impact further on not getting the test scores up?” asked board member Karen Elam of Oxford.

RePublic Regional Director Kate Cooper said RePublic had overhauled its approach to improving reading, focusing on smaller groups, more independent reading, and using a different testing system to monitor progress.

“Every indication is this is going to be a much stronger year,” Gupta said.

The board voted unanimously to allow RePublic to expand.

There are only three charter schools currently operating in Mississippi, with Republic of Nashville, Tennessee, running two of them. However, the creation of charter schools were the subject of legislative battles and Republican leaders regularly count them as among their most important educational accomplishments since 2011.

RePublic also won approval Monday to delay the opening of an elementary school from fall 2017 until fall 2018. Gupta says RePublic wants to hold off because it hasn’t hired a principal yet.

“No. 1 on our list is, ‘Do we have a capable, strong leader in place?’” he said. “We will not open a school if we don’t.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff%20Amy .

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