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Large North Texas Charter School Works To Avoid State Closure

Bill Zeeble
More than 2,000 kids attend Faith Family Academy, a charter school in Oak Cliff. The state says the charter's performed poorly for three straight years, and if it cannot win its appeal, the Texas Education Agency will close it

Last month, the state shut down Prime Prep Academy, the charter school that football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders co-founded. There’s another charter that’s nearly twice as big that could face the same fate.

It’s called Faith Family Academy, and it has more than 2,000 kids at its Oak Cliff campus. If the state follows through, it could be the biggest charter in North Texas to close.

The three-strikes rule, enacted two years ago in what’s known as Senate Bill 2, is pretty straightforward, according to DeEttaCulbertson, a spokeswoman with the Texas Education Agency.

“Any time a charter school has three years of poor academic ratings or three years of poor financial accountability ratings, or a combination thereof, the  commissioner has to revoke the charter,” Culbertson says.

School officials sent notes home and posted the ratings online, as required by law. But at a school program just before the holidays, with hundreds of kids and parents in the gym, Stella Oziri knew nothing about the threatened charter.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Stella Oziri has a 5 year-old daughter at Faith Family and likes it. She says her daughter's doing well. But the state may close the charter because it has failed to meet state standards three consecutive years

“It’s news to me,” Oziri said. “But then I think shutting down the school would be a big minus to a whole lot of parents and kids. But I think something needs to be done quickly.”

Oziri, with her 5-year-old, wasn’t the only parent in the dark. She likes Faith Family, and says her daughter’s doing well. She says the school is good.

But that doesn’t mean it is. Remember Prime Prep? Senate Bill 2 was the state legislature’s attempt to add teeth to charter rules.

“The way Senate Bill 2 came to be, and then it being retroactive, I was in shock,” said Mollie Purcelle, superintendent at Faith Family for three years.  

She says the charter fixed its financial problems long ago, but state figures are always two years behind, so the years of good marks don’t count.  And those consecutive bad academic years? She says almost all of her students are at-risk kids, and every one of them qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.  

Mollie Jo Purcell is Faith Family's superintendent. She hopes to save the Oak Cliff school by having Faith Family's Waxahachie charter run it. The state must approve the move. A decision is weeks, or months, away.

“You’re talking about almost 100 percent English-language learners,” Purcell says. “And if they’re not learning English instead of Spanish, their home situation and their poverty situation are so much to the fact that they are probably 500 vocabulary words behind where they need to be.”

Purcell says before Senate Bill 2, these kids got testing and ratings breaks from the state. No more. She fears this argument that the law’s not fair won’t convince the TEA. So Faith Family Academy, with operations in Waxahachie and Oak Cliff, will try Plan B.

“Because we have two charter schools, what we’re asking the commissioner to do is to allow us to expand the Waxahachie charter and use the facilities and the property in Oak Cliff to serve the students under the Waxahachie charter," Purcell says.

That means Faith Family would give up its Oak Cliff charter. Purcell says the Waxahachie charter meets state standards and would just be doing what at least one other charter school in Texas has been allowed to do.

It may be a long shot. Almost every charter school that’s appealed a state revocation has failed.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.