Great Hearts Charter Network Botches a South Mountain Campus Acquisition

Joseph Flaherty
Great Hearts, a charter network, told families that they would move students of Teleos school just east of downtown Phoenix to a new location on the campus of South Mountain Community College (pictured here). The governing board denied the proposal.
A new school on the property of South Mountain Community College would be the "gem" of Great Hearts Academies, the charter-school network's president told families of students in April.

"We look forward to welcoming you to this site very soon," President Erik Twist said in a video that boasted of the plan Great Hearts had with the college.

Parents and students of the Teleos Preparatory Academy, the only Great Hearts school near downtown Phoenix, were watching with particular interest: Students and faculty at the school are supposed to move to the new facility for this fall semester. 

However, the charter network has botched its planned acquisition in two significant ways.

Great Hearts first said the new school would serve grades K-8, then reversed itself, deciding instead to serve only K-6 students. That threw parents of some Teleos students into limbo.

Now, as Phoenix New Times has learned, all Teleos families face a bigger problem: There is no new school building.

With the start of the 2018-19 school year just a few months away, Great Hearts has not been approved to move onto the South Mountain college campus.

Teleos has approximately 200 students, according to the latest federal data. With the closure of Teleos, Great Hearts will lose one of its only schools in metro Phoenix that serves a predominately black and Hispanic community.

A Great Hearts spokesperson said that the network does not "intend to close Teleos." Nevertheless, officials are making contingency plans to accommodate Teleos students at other Great Hearts schools this fall.

A prestigious charter network, Great Hearts operates 28 public schools in Arizona and Texas, emphasizing a "classical liberal arts" curriculum, including Latin. The network plans to expand by moving out of the current Teleos site and creating the all-new Archway Classical Academy South Mountain on the community college campus.

But its leaders have encountered opposition from the community college governing board.

During a May 22 meeting, the governing board of the Maricopa County Community College District unanimously denied Great Hearts' proposed ground lease for the SMCC campus site. MCCCD board members didn't ask any questions of two Great Hearts representatives in the audience, nor did they discuss the Great Hearts lease before denying it in a 7-0 vote.

click to enlarge Teleos Prep, a K-8 Great Hearts school located just east of downtown Phoenix. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Teleos Prep, a K-8 Great Hearts school located just east of downtown Phoenix.
Joseph Flaherty
Teleos Prep, until May, served grades K-8 and currently sits next to a church at 1401 East Jefferson Street in Phoenix.

In the video announcement sent to Teleos families on April 25, Twist is standing in the gym of the SMCC school site near 24th Street and Baseline Road.

Twist reels off some of the building's features while gesturing robotically. "We are proud to make this beautiful place the new home for Teleos Prep," he says.

In a statement, a Great Hearts spokesperson said the charter network is working to reach an agreement with the district governing board and chalked the MCCCD denial up to a "misunderstanding."

"Our long-term goal is to serve K-12 students in the South Mountain neighborhood," Great Hearts spokesperson Bill O'Dell wrote in an email. "However, we haven’t yet secured a deal with the District. Both sides are working in good faith to do so."

In contrast, in an emailed statement to New Times, the president of the district governing board said that no agreement is on the horizon.

"I believe it is unlikely that a deal between GH and MCCCD can be reached before the start of the 2018-2019 school year," Board President Laurin Hendrix wrote.

Asked why the district denied the proposal, Hendrix wrote, "I assume that all seven members of the board voted 'no' because they did not believe that the proposal was in the best interest of Maricopa County Community College District."

Unless Great Hearts can resolve the impasse, Teleos Prep parents are stuck, waiting to enroll their students for the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Beyond the issue of the new school's location, Great Hearts has also backed away from a plan for Archway South Mountain to serve grades 7 and 8.

In the April 25 email to Teleos families obtained by New Times, Teleos Prep Headmaster Christina Lucas-Sheffield told parents that the new school will serve grades K-8 and will open this August for the upcoming school year.

"For many years, we have longed to give Teleos a home of its own," Lucas-Sheffield wrote. "The community deserves it, and with our new Archway South Mountain campus, we can ensure every one of our current and new scholars has the best learning environment and facilities we can offer."

Yet officials later decided to serve only K-6 at Archway, according to O'Dell.

To muddle the issue even further, the website for Archway South Mountain currently states that the school will serve grades K-5.

O'Dell said that Great Hearts is calling families of seventh- and eighth-graders at Teleos Prep to offer them seats at the Great Hearts school of their choice.

For parents like Paul Goss, it's too late. Goss’ daughter Tiare was planning to spend eighth grade at Teleos next year when Goss heard that the school was closing; students and faculty would move to the beautiful new South Mountain campus, Great Hearts explained.

Their family was thrilled. “We were like, 'Oh great, that’s even better,'” Goss said.

But by late May, there were signs that the move wasn’t going as planned. Days before the end of the school year, Tiare mentioned to Goss that Archway South Mountain would not serve the rising seventh and eighth-graders who were currently at Teleos.

Confused, 45-year-old Goss couldn't believe what he was hearing. The next day, he demanded answers from the Teleos headmaster, who admitted that his daughter was right — the new school would no longer accept seventh- and eighth-graders. The sudden change left the family in the lurch.

“It’s really difficult to get into a new school if you haven’t set it up during the previous school year,” Goss said. He and his wife, Samantha, are attempting to find another charter school that will accept their daughter on short notice. The other Great Hearts schools are too far from their home and work.

Goss said, “There are a lot of parents that don’t even know what’s going on right now.”