Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mason Classical Academy – Collier County’s newest charter school

Mason Classical Academy (MCA) is Collier County's newest charter school. I wanted to know more about it because two candidates for the School Board – Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds - were involved in its start up. What unmet needs does MCA intend to fill? What role did Lichter and Donalds play in it, and what role will they have going forward? Would there be a conflict of interest if they become School Board members, as some have suggested? In this post, I will consider those questions.

I recommend that you read my prior posts about charter schools (Part 1 and Part 2) for background before reading this post.

General description

MCA is a tuition-free Hillsdale College Charter School “dedicated to a classical education.”  In its initial year (2014-15), it will serve 276 students in grades K-6. It plans to serve 564 students in grades K-12 by the 2018-19 year. This compares to the Collier County Public School District’s current 44,000+ students.

Hillsdale College is one of the Young America’s Foundation’s top conservative colleges. Through its Barney Charter School Initiative, “the College will support the launch of K-12 charter schools [… to] train the minds and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.”

MCA is one of four Barney Charter schools opening in 2014; four others opened in 2012 or 2013; one more is to open in 2015.

MCA was founded by its Board of Directors, whose “mission and vision … shapes and influences the culture and leadership of the school,” according to its website. The Directors currently are
  • Kelly Lichter, President
  • Byron Donalds, Vice President (husband of Erika Donalds)
  • Jason Lane, Treasurer
  • Shelly Connors, Secretary
  • Laura Miller, Director
MCA’s mission is “to develop within its students the intellectual and personal habits, values, and skills upon which responsible, independent, and productive lives are built, in the firm belief that such lives are the basis of a free and just society.”

The school is located in a leased facility at 3073 South Horseshoe Drive, one block north of the Naples Airport.

The 210-page Collier County Charter School Application submitted to Collier Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton and the School District’s Charter Application Review Committee in August 2012 includes voluminous detail about the School’s Educational Plan, including its curriculum, organizational plan and business plan. The School has a $2.0 million budget for its 2015 fiscal year.

The School will operate under a 51-page contract with the School Board and pursuant to §1002.33 – Charter Schools, Florida Statutes. 

What unmet need does it fill?

According to the Application (p.12):

MCA brings a Classical Education to Collier County, which does not currently exist thereby giving parents and students an exceptional proven alternative. MCA will ground education in the humanities, the sciences, and the arts in several current and research-based curricula/programs in the elementary and middle schools….

In the high school, students will receive a classical liberal arts education that aligns with but exceeds Florida standards. Students will study all subjects — literature and language, rhetoric, math, history, civics, the sciences, music and art—through sound, time proven methods…. Students at all levels will be trained in Socratic Seminars to encourage intelligent, logical, and independent thinking. …

Most teacher education programs do not teach potential teachers about classical education, so MCA teachers will have excellent professional development opportunities and learn the skills necessary to implement a classical education.

Other differences

Unlike the District-operated public schools, the District’s BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program will not be offered. MCA “believes that [BYOD] will distract students from learning the core knowledge stressed in a classical education.  MCA strives to instill critical thinking skills in students that are timeless and can be applied for a lifetime, no matter how technology changes.”

In addition, no computer classes will be offered.

Kelly Lichter and MCA

Kelly Lichter was the founder and driving force behind the formation of MCA. She said in a January 2014 interview with The Report Card that:

My husband and I decided to consider opening a charter school because I was deeply concerned about the kind of education my kids would get in the public schools. I was concerned about the growth of anti-Americanism in textbooks, and the rush to cover as much information as possible. It was as though the school administrators preferred quantity to quality in history and social studies.

I also taught economics, and was pushed to give passing marks ‘just to get them through.’ The school seemed to always want to lower the bar. In addition, there seemed to be a race to embrace every new and unproved trend in education….

According the The Report Card, “Mrs. Lichter says that she knew about Hillsdale College because her father was a great admirer of Hillsdale College and their values:

“My father Don Mason was a patriot, a Viet Nam veteran, and a real believer in the American dream. … I guess I inherited his enthusiasm for the American dream and Hillsdale’s belief in American Exceptionalism. So when I learned about Hillsdale’s Barney Charters, I applied. And when the application was approved in 2012, we named the school after my father’s family name. We believe, and Barney believes that education should not be about who you are, but what you can accomplish.”

Lichter is President of the MCA Board of Directors, and intends to continue in that role. When asked how she will make the time to serve on the School Board, she said the newly-hired principal will take over as the point of contact with Hillsdale, as well many other functions she has performed to-date.

Erika Donalds and MCA

Donalds is not currently listed on the MCA website as holding any Board or staff position, and I do not believe that she does.  Her husband Byron serves as Vice President of the Board.

However, according to About Erika on the “Erika Donalds for School Board” website, Donalds “is an Advisory Board Member and Director of Operations for Mason Classical Academy, a Hillsdale College public charter school opening in Collier County in Fall 2014.” And her LinkedIn profile lists “Advisory Board Member, Mason Classical Academy, September 2012 – Present.” This probably reflects Donalds’ failure to update those sites for recent changes.

Donalds told me on July 11 that her role with MCA had been to help with the financial portions of the charter school application process, and that while she plans to attend the MCA Governing Board meetings, she will not serve in an official capacity. At the League of Women Voters Candidate Forum on July 10, she said that if she were to be elected, the School Board would be her only volunteer activity.  (Note that the School Board is a paid, not a volunteer, position.) 

She also said at the LWV Candidate Forum that one of her children will be attending MCA, creating an ongoing connection between Donalds and MCA.

Conflicts of interest?

Wikipedia says “a conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary influence.”

Ms. Lichter has stated that she has obtained legal opinions, including from the state Department of Ethics, that there is no problem with her serving on the School Board and as President of MCA.

Ms. Donalds no longer serves in an official leadership role with MCA, but plans to continue to attend meetings, one of her three children will be attending the school, and her husband is Vice President of the Board.

Even if you think there is a conflict or potential conflict of interest regarding a particular matter that may come before the Board for a vote, would recusing her/themselves from the vote satisfy that concern?

Now what?

Now that you know something about charter schools and about MCA, the question for you as a voter is, how do you feel about the ongoing and/or past involvement of these candidates with MCA? Do you want to know more about them, their qualifications and priorities? Or is this information about charter schools, MCA, and the role of the two in its formation and going forward, enough for you to either dismiss their candidacies or to decide to support them?

I’ll be sharing more information about Lichter and Donalds, as well as information about the other candidates, in the coming weeks, and I’ll ultimately tell you how I’m going to vote. Stay tuned.

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