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Armadillo charter school must drop its GED program

PHOENIX — A popular GED program at the Armadillo Technical Institute may be dropped as the charter school and the Phoenix-Talent School District develop a new agreement to address concerns about low graduation and high dropout figures.

Both the institute and district officials agree that the way the state counts GED students hurts them on state "report cards" for Armadillo and Phoenix High School.

"With heavy hearts we are willing to do what we have to do. The way we look affects the district," said Armadillo's Interim Executive Director Kim De Costa. This year more than half of the institute's 11th- and 12th-graders are in the GED program.

At its March 19 meeting the district's board voted to pursue a new charter. In January the board had voted 5-1 to not renew the agreement that expires at the end of this school year. Armadillo representatives asked the board to reconsider in March.

"The Armadillo leadership team came back to us with a revised alternative that looked like it addresses the issue that we had the biggest concern about," said School Board Chairman Craig Prewitt.

Because the state counts GED students as dropouts, that lowers graduation rates. Phoenix High School had a 71 percent graduation rate in 2012 compared with 8 percent for the charter school. That resulted in a district-wide graduation rate of 56 percent.

"They are actually considered like another high school in our district," said District Superintendent Ben Bergreen.

Armadillo would have had a 44 percent graduation rate in 2012 if it hadn't been running a GED program, De Costa said.

The 2012 state "report card" on schools said Armadillo needs improvement in achievement and graduation rate. Armadillo had 38 of the district's total 74 dropouts.

Some Armadillo students may leave several times during the year, and each time they are counted as a dropout, said De Costa.

Other concerns raised by board members at the January meeting will be addressed as the charter is created, said Bergreen.Those include Armadillo staff qualifications, governance, personnel matters, fiscal stability and curriculum.

Armadillo already has taken steps to address other concerns, Prewitt and De Costa said.

"They are doing a much better job teaching teachers," Prewitt said.

Armadillo also has created a new board structure and has a new accountability structure that Prewitt said the district's board would probably view favorably.

"We welcomed those changes, and that's why we are working on a new charter," said De Costa.

Armadillo has 118 students in sixth through 12th grades.About 40 of those live in the Phoenix-Talent District. It was the first public charter school in Jackson County when it started in 2000. All seven teachers are registered with the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

Dropping GED instruction may have a slight impact on next year's numbers, De Costa said. The charter restricts enrollment to 120 students.

"We'll probably budget for less numbers just to be on the safe side," said De Costa."We are constantly enrolling students and we do have a waiting list."

De Costa said she'd probably budget for 105 to 118 students. She said she would also work with the district if it did want to retain GED at Armadillo.

Work on the new charter will take place over the next few months in time for board consideration before the end of the fiscal year.

"They have been doing a decent job. We'd like to see them do even better," said Bergreen.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.