Two New Charter Schools Fight Back Against Unexpected Closures
Updated 10:15 a.m. MDT 10/18/19
St. GEORGE — When charter school Saint George Academy opened here three years ago, Jennifer Racker says her family’s life changed.
Her son has Asperger’s syndrome — and the Racker family has moved all over the state and to Wyoming trying to find a school like the one in Washington County where he would be supported, not bullied.
“It’s a night-and-day difference,” she said. “He is happy. He is comfortable. He doesn’t have stress. He feels safe. He loves it.”
Though the school, which enrolls 252 students, has become a vital resource for many families, its financial struggles are compounded by under enrollment. These issues were made public last spring when the State Charter School Board issued the academy a notice of concern — the first step the board takes once it has identified any deficiencies in a charter school.
School officials expected to discuss these concerns when they walked into a meeting with the charter school board in Salt Lake City last Thursday. Instead, they learned their school — along with one other, Capstone Classical Academy in Weber County — would be closed.
Such closures are a rare occurrence in Utah. There are 132 charter schools across the state, and only two have been closed since 2018, according to state education records. None have ever been closed in Washington County.
Capstone Classical Academy and Saint George Academy both held emergency meetings Monday night to discuss next steps with their communities. The schools plan to contest the board’s decision, and will receive hearings within 30 days of submitting their appeals.
David Jones is the executive director of Saint George Academy. He says that the academy is much more than a place with strong academics and a great special education program.
“For so many of our students, this is their safe place,” he said. “This is the first place where they’re accepted and know they’re loved.”
The Utah State Charter School Board presents six steps in its oversight model for state’s charter schools.
Officials from both Capstone Classical Academy and Saint George Academy told KUER that their schools had received notices of concern but not official warnings or probations — the two stages listed before closure on the board’s model.
“There are required steps that they need to take, and they did not. So we are all taking action,” said Dr. Susan Goers, the director of Capstone Classical Academy, which opened just last year.
The Northern Utah charter school blends classical education with Finnish classroom approaches. It enrolls 177 students.
In an email to KUER, the State Charter School Board’s executive director Jennifer Lambert said that the steps outlined in the oversight model are not “necessarily sequential.”
“Each step is a different tool that allows us to serve the best interests of students across the state,” she wrote.
The board has not responded to a question about which steps were taken in advance of the closure of the American International School of Utah and Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts — the only other schools the board has closed in the last two years.
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.