Education

Failing Charter Schools: Victims of Unfair Regulation or Blights on Public Education?

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Jeffrey's father, a towering man with a crew cut and broad shoulders, says his wife initially resisted sending Jeffrey to Jefferson Academy because of its poor academic track record. But a visit to the school changed their minds, convincing them that it was the best place for their son.

Today, Jeffrey -- a seventh-grader at the charter school -- can solve complicated algebra problems, though he still struggles with making eye contact and tying his shoelaces. He can create intricate stop-motion animation films using the digital camera his parents bought him, though he still refuses to touch bananas or wear shirts with tags.

Blay says that his son's teacher, Janice Stewart -- one of the school's founders -- understands Jeffrey in a way other instructors never have.

Jefferson Academy has been educating students like Jeffrey since it opened in 2003.

Inside the plain, stuccoed building, which once housed offices for the state's Department of Economic Security, the carpet and walls are clean but worn. The school is tiny, with a student body that averages about 150 pupils.

Also in this series:

Arizona Charter Schools Often Ignore Latino Students and English-Language Learners

The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes New Meaning If Your Child Has a Disability

As Jeffrey sits in class in early September, Stewart circles the room, helping students work math problems in their spiral-bound notebooks. As she answers a question, she gently rests her hand on a student's back. When the group's murmuring gets too loud, she softly whistles to remind the students to focus. Stewart says her students, some of whom have sensory disorders, respond better to rhythmic sounds than to loud voices.

Jeffrey starts singing aloud and Stewart softly reminds him that other students are trying to concentrate. Without a fuss, he muffles his song.

Stewart snaps her fingers in the air a few times and a silence falls over the room.

Jefferson Academy is a public charter school, and its leaders say they accept all children who walk through the doors. In the past few years, the school's unique educational style has attracted a growing number of students with special learning needs or emotional disabilities, as well as kids from economically disadvantaged homes (even some who are homeless). It also has attracted students who simply didn't make it elsewhere.

Parents beam about the academic and social transformations they see their children make at the school. Blay has seen such changes in his own son.

"I was playing football with the kids the other day, and I just realized how well he fits in at this school. All the kids are just like him in their own way," he says. "At the other schools, the kids would pick on him. But here, he's doing great."

Jeffrey's newfound success finally has given the Blay family some peace. But that soon may come to an end.

For almost a year, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, represented by the Attorney General's Office, has been pushing to shut down the academy.

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Monica Alonzo and Ashley Cusick