By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- To Amaris Brady, improving education in the city of Youngstown boils down to gently piecing together a complex jigsaw puzzle.
"If you are missing a piece, you might still be able to see what the puzzle is, but it doesn't feel whole," said Amaris, 15, of Liberty, a freshman at Legacy Academy charter school on the city's South Side.
"That's the way I feel about Legacy: If we don't have it, if Legacy closes, it won't make the city and it won't make the education system whole. We still need that one puzzle piece."
Tug of war: If Legacy, the city school board and the Ohio Department of Education are the participants in the ongoing tug of war over Legacy's right to operate as a charter school, the nearly 200 pupils at the school are the rope.
In the 10 weeks since the city school board challenged Legacy's legality and the state withdrew funding, Legacy pupils say they feel caught in the middle of a political battle that mostly has to do with money and power and little to do with them.
Despite dwindling funds and rampant rumors that the school could close, pupils remain confident Legacy will overcome, stay open and flourish.
"I believe in the destiny of Legacy," sophomore Akesha Joseph, 15, of Youngstown, said at the school last week.
"It doesn't even cross my mind about it closing. The only thing I'm concerned about is how it's going to progress."
Last summer, the Lucas County Educational Service Center in Toledo approved a charter school contract for Legacy to operate a school for children in kindergarten through 10th grade at Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church in Youngstown.
The school, led by the church's pastor, Bishop Norman L. Wagner, opened in October with classrooms in the church and six adjacent modular buildings.
How it works: Charter schools are privately operated yet publicly funded schools that do not charge tuition and receive about $5,000 per pupil annually in state and local funds.
In December, the Youngstown Board of Education filed a lawsuit contending that Lucas County ESC cannot sponsor charter schools outside Lucas County. The state education department agreed and withheld funds from Legacy.
Legacy, in turn, filed lawsuits in two courts in Columbus, saying the state is illegally withholding the money.
Last week, Legacy approached the city school board for help, formally asking the board to replace Lucas County ESC as its sponsor, thus freeing up funds for the school.
The school board has steadfastly opposed charter schools because it claims they siphon pupils and money from the city school district. There are now five such schools in the city.
If the board would become Legacy's sponsor, the school district would lose $342,857 in local funds this school year, district officials project. Bishop Wagner offered last week to return $200,000 of that if the board would sponsor the school.
Not amicable: But the board's history with Bishop Wagner has been less than amicable. Some board members still believe Bishop Wagner owes the school system money under a now-expired agreement to lease one of the school district's closed school buildings.
Although a formal vote has not been taken, the majority of the seven-member board does not appear to support Legacy's request. Some board members have said they would welcome the pupils to enroll in the public schools.
Stuck in the middle are Legacy's pupils, most of whom live in Youngstown.
During a break from their black studies class last week, a dozen Legacy eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores gathered in a small conference room in the church and talked passionately about the school, some breaking into tears.
What kids think: Eighth-grader Angelique Roberson, 13, of Youngstown, says she transferred from Hayes Middle School on the city's North Side to Legacy this year.
"At first, I wasn't too sure about it because I was leaving all of my friends, but now that I'm here, I really like it," Angelique said, crying.
"It really hurts me so bad that people are trying to close the school down."
"The press," said freshman Ciera Grace, 14, of Youngstown, "they're getting all of the negative information. They never actually come inside the school and into the classroom and see for themselves. They just keep feeding on the negative, and that upsets me."
The pupils say Legacy has a caring environment and hard-working teachers who have tried to keep pupils' spirits high and their attention focused on schoolwork in spite of the school's uncertain future.
The lack of funding has meant a shortage of textbooks and reference books, such as dictionaries, the pupils said. Most computers don't work or aren't hooked to the Internet, they said. The school also lacks a support staff, such as a nurse or guidance counselor.
"We're still getting along fine," Ciera said. "We're still learning."
Placing blame: The pupils say they can't help but blame the city school board and the state for Legacy's uncertain status.
"They shouldn't be worrying about, like, all of the money," said freshman Devale Diehl, 14, of Youngstown. "They should be worrying about, like, the students."
While city school leaders say Legacy leaders are to blame for the school's dilemma, pupils think otherwise.
"If Legacy has created a situation that is a negative one, I want to know, really, what it is?" said freshman Candice Brown, 15, of Youngstown.
"I don't see how you can place any blame on trying to help [pupils] succeed," Akesha said.
Positive focus: So, the pupils said they'll push forward, attending school, gaining strength from each other and trying not to allow the swirling controversy to distract them.
"If we focus on the school closing, it could get in the way of a lot of stuff we're doing," said freshman Ashley Clinkscale, 15, of Youngstown. "So, we don't focus on the negative."
"I think in the end we will win," Ciera said. "I believe that. I know that with all of my heart."