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stokesLast spring, nine out of every 10 students at the Utah County Academy of Science (UCAS) met grade-level benchmarks on the science portion of SAGE, Utah's year-end test for public-school students.
That success rate was the highest among Utah's charter schools, followed by Success Academy, InTech Collegiate High School and the Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (NUAMES).
Those four schools share a number of similarities beyond their exemplary test scores. They're part of a family of Utah early-college high schools that, while operating as independent charter schools, were created through partnerships with traditional school districts and Utah's public universities to form a dual track to a high school diploma and an associate degree.
They also rely on internal staffing for school operations instead of outsourcing to private management companies a practice that is common among Utah's charter schools.
"We want to make sure that we do handle things in-house," UCAS Principal Anna Trevino said. "We're all very, very capable of handling the administrative duties at the schools and we don't necessarily need someone else telling us what to do."
An analysis of charter school expense reports by The Salt Lake Tribune found that a handful of Utah companies are paid millions in taxpayer dollars each year to assume administrative functions.
The companies range from financial consultants who provide bookkeeping and human resource services, to comprehensive management firms that hire school staff, select classroom curricula and oversee day-to-day operations.
In an op-ed published in The Tribune on Friday, Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, defended those contractual partnerships as an innovative model that maximizes public school funds.
"Interestingly," he wrote, "these schools are many of Utah's best performing charter schools."
As most Utah charter students are in elementary or middle school grades, comparisons can't be drawn from graduation rates, AP exams or ACT scores. But schools that outsource administration to private companies were less likely to score among the highest on SAGE.
Utah Connections Academy, Utah Virtual Academy and American Preparatory Academy are comprehensively managed by Maryland-based Connections Academy, Virginia-based K12 Management and Draper-based American Preparatory Schools, respectively.
All three schools scored below the state average on all three SAGE test subjects: science, math and English language arts.
Van Tassell said SAGE scores are an imperfect measure of school success, and charter schools are nationally competitive on other testing systems that aren't required to be reported to the state.
It is "unequivocal," he said, that American Preparatory Academy is among Utah's best schools.
"You look at the totality here and it's hard to imagine that all of these different variables don't point in a similar direction," he said.
Other schools that contract with Utah's largest charter companies shows mixed results on SAGE.
Academica West, a finance and consulting firm, serves only charter schools and charges between $350 and $400 per student.
Of the 17 schools that contracted with Academica West last year, six bested the state average on SAGE, five were below average and the remaining six were below-average on at least one subject.
Among those was Utah Career Path High, which partners with the Davis Applied Technology College to offer students the ability to earn technology certifications along with their diploma.
The school's board of directors includes Layton Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, whose son Jed Stevenson is president of Academica West.
Judy Clark, Utah Career Path High vice-principal, said it should not be compared to the higher-scoring UCAS, NUAMES or InTech.
"We are an early-college school, but our school mission is not to produce an associates degree," she said. "Our missions are totally different."
SAGE scores at Utah Career Path High improved in 2015 after the school was among the 10 worst-performing schools in 2014.
Clark said the school enrolls roughly 180 students, including many who are academically at risk.
And roughly half of the school's students opt out of SAGE, Clark said, which undermines the validity of test scores.
"There are a lot of contributing factors," Clark said.
Outsourcing financial tasks saves money that can be spent in the classroom, Clark said, while freeing up administrators to focus on learning.
"The director is still the school director and is chosen as a school leader by the board," she said.
NUAMES Principal Alan Stokes said his school relies on another public entity, Davis School District, for some of its accounting needs.
"We are very happy with what we have with Davis School District," Stokes said. "I think it's cheaper than going with, say, Academica West. And we have been very happy with the service that we've gotten from them."
He and others in the family of early-college charters that partner with traditional districts are also happy with their score-based success.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Stokes said. "I think it has something to do with the model."
Representatives from Alpine, Nebo and Provo school districts regularly sit on the UCAS Board of Directors, Trevino said, which leads to collaboration that helps students.
"We're not in competition for students," she said. "We are just trying to help the students gain the best education wherever it might be."
She said she is hopeful that other charter schools can build to the same level of success as UCAS, NUAMES and their sister schools.
But she added that some charters are beginning to claim the early-college title without fitting the proven model of Utah's early-college system.
"We feel like we've worked so hard over the last 12 years to establish such good schools," she said. "And then when they piggyback on our success it's kind of frustrating."