Education

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

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It's clear to anyone who has spent time at Jefferson Academy that Janice Stewart's heart is in the right place.

Stewart graduated from Utah State University with a teaching degree in 1987, and she taught in Washington and California before moving to metro Phoenix.

In the early '90s, Stewart left the classroom and opened a preschool and daycare in her home while she raised her growing family. She closed the daycare in 1994 -- just as Arizona passed the law allowing for its first charter schools to be established -- and she decided to return to teaching, this time at a charter school.

In charter schools, Stewart says, she had "more teaching moments in just two weeks" than she'd had in all her previous education jobs combined.

Stewart kept teaching at charters, left a troubled marriage, and then met the man who would become her second husband and business partner.

Sandy Stewart is a former taxi driver with a degree in business management. He was born and raised on an Idaho farm. Between Sandy and Janice, the Stewarts have 10 children, including a son with autism and two adopted daughters who were removed from a severely abusive home.

The Stewarts eventually found themselves working at a charter school in Show Low. It closed when its management company decided to focus on Phoenix-based schools, and so the couple decided to open a school of their own.

State charter officials granted a license to Founding Fathers Academies, the Stewarts' charter management organization, and they launched Jefferson Academy of Advanced Learning in 2003. Sandy serves as executive director while Janice acts a middle school teacher and administrator.

Today, the Stewarts' own children attend the academy, and their grown daughter and a son-in-law both teach at the school.

Jefferson Academy's population is unique. More than 60 percent of its students receive free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty, and 10 to 15 percent of students are homeless. The student body is mostly white, with the remaining 10 percent to 15 percent of students identifying as Latino and about 5 percent identifying as black.

Jefferson's special education population is large. About a third of students receive special education services. Of the kids who aren't classified as needing special education, 90 percent are between one and eight years behind grade level when they enroll at the academy, Sandy Stewart says.

Arizona law lays out three central elements of charter schools: They provide a learning environment that will improve pupil achievement, they provide additional academic choices for parents and students, and they serve as alternatives to traditional public schools.

From the beginning, Jefferson Academy aimed to do all three.

The school's premise was uncommon. The academy serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Upon enrollment, each student is assessed to determine his or her academic level, and then teachers create an individualized learning plan for each child at the school. (These are separate from the formal plans required by special education law.)

"We wanted to allow children to learn in their own way, not just at their own pace," Janice Stewart says. "We tell them they can go as fast as they want, but not as slow at they want."

The school's small staff -- five teachers and several teaching aides -- means that each teacher must handle multiple grade levels at once. Children are taught using a mix of individualized lessons and group instruction at their current academic level.

The Stewarts say their alternative approach drew the attention of families with special needs children, particularly kids with autism and emotional disabilities. The Stewarts pride themselves on running a school where such students can feel safe, cared for, and successful.

Jefferson Academy had grown in size and served nearly 200 students at the time of its first five-year review, Janice Stewart says. The state charter board reviewed the school, and it passed. State records show that from 2005 to 2010, Jefferson Academy was labeled a "performing" or "performing plus" school.

But in the fall of 2011, with the adoption of Arizona's letter grade assessment system, the academy's rating dropped suddenly to a D.

And the ranking wasn't a fluke. Jefferson went on to receive D ratings again in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013.

Three consecutive D grades gave the Department of Education the right to assign Jefferson Academy an F, which it did.

Judging by the numbers, Jefferson hasn't been doing well. In 2013, Jefferson students were outperformed by more than 60 percent of their academic peers statewide on both the reading and math AIMS tests. Only 16.9 percent of the school's students passed the AIMS math test, compared to 60.9 percent of students statewide, and only 38.1 percent passed the reading test, compared to 77.2 percent of students statewide.

The academy's poor letter grades are a direct reflection of these low scores.

But the Stewarts say the state's letter grading system is problematic for schools like theirs. They argue that the system discourages schools from taking in kids who struggle academically -- often special needs students -- because they might drag down test scores.

"It's not the schools pushing these kids out," Sandy Stewart says. "It's the law."

Janice Stewart refuses to consider turning away special needs students. "Where would they go? Which child is it going to be?" she asks. "They come to us, and it's our job is to educate these children in the best way possible."

In September 2013, the school was told it had not met the State Board for Charter Schools' academic performance expectations. That board -- the entity that gave the Stewarts their license to run the school -- looks at state-issued letter grades and additional data in assessing whether a school is up to par.

The board ordered Jefferson Academy to submit a document demonstrating the progress it had made toward meeting expectations, and a site visit by several board employees was scheduled for November 2013. After the site visit, Jefferson Academy was told the progress document submitted by the school wasn't adequate.

The board summoned the Stewarts to attend a meeting in early December 2013. The Stewarts thought there might be some discussion of next steps, or of additional documents they would be required to submit. Instead, they watched in shock as the board members passed a motion to issue a Notice of Intent to revoke the academy's charter.

And so a decade after Jefferson Academy opened its doors, its founders received formal notice that their school was about to be shut down.

On the day after Christmas, Sandy Stewart sent a letter to parents informing them of the board's decision, thanking them for their concern and support, and delivering one clear message: "We will not be closing -- period!!!!!"

But that might not be Sandy Stewart's decision to make.

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Monica Alonzo and Ashley Cusick