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West Valley City charter school for teen moms will replace administrators in bid to fight forced closure

Published July 6, 2017 1:03 pm

Kairos Academy • Petition drive, administrative shake-up result in hearing on decision to close school for pregnant teens and young mothers.
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At age 20, Esmeralda Huerta is four academic credits away from earning her high school diploma.

After dropping out of Hillcrest High School and being homeless for roughly a year, the Midvale resident enrolled at Kairos Academy and is working toward a career in nursing.

"I'm definitely going to college," Huerta said. "I've never seen my grades be as good as they are now."

But now Huerta's future at Kairos Academy is unclear, as students, parents and school community members push back against the school's recent forced closure, circulating an online petition that says it has started an appeal. On Tuesday, the petition had accumulated more than 1,800 signatures.

The Utah State Charter School Board last month voted to shut down Kairos, a West Valley City charter school for girls that focuses on pregnant teens and young mothers.

Huerta said she was unaware Kairos Academy had been on probation since 2015, and that she "fell into a depression" when she learned of Kairos' pending closure. "I'm so close to graduating," Huerte remembers thinking. "Please don't do this to me."

The school has announced it will undergo a leadership transition in an effort to address criticisms. Kevin Fenstermacher, chairman of Kairos' governing board, said he will not seek another term as chair and that the school's principal will be replaced by an interim director.

An additional three seats will also be added to Kairos' four-member governing board, Fenstermacher said, with an eye toward candidates from academic backgrounds.

"As a board, we are optimistic," he said. "We are doing what [the charter school board] have directly and indirectly asked of the school."

Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the State Charter School Board, confirmed an appellate hearing would be held for Kairos, but added that a date and time have not yet been set.

But the school's announced changes may be too little, too late. The State Charter School board was unambiguous in its unanimous vote to shut down Kairos Academy. And individual board members disparaged what they perceived as an inability by the school to correct its low academic performance, operational challenges and financial shortfalls.

"I don't feel like this school, this particular charter, is salvageable," State Charter School Board member Michelle Smith said at the time. "If they had done anything in three years to improve themselves, I would not feel this way."

Kristin Elinkowski, chairwoman of the State Charter School Board, was not available for comment. But she said in a news release following the closure vote that while the board hoped Kairos would succeed, it had fallen short of expectations.

"We think charter schools can fill a need by offering alternatives for underserved populations, including pregnant teens," Elinkowski said. "Unfortunately, Kairos' enrollment numbers, test scores, and graduation rates showed our board that the school was not succeeding in serving these girls."

Sarah Young, an art and history teacher at Kairos, said she was surprised by the board's comments. The faculty and administration were "constantly" trying to improve the school, she said, and looking for ways to better support students.

Kairos Academy uses a blended learning model, Young said, in which the bulk of schoolwork is completed online while in-person instruction on a flexible schedule is offered at the school's West Valley campus.

"I have a lot of devastated students," Young said. "Other schools don't work with you when you have two jobs and a 3-year-old."

The charter school is also combined with free, on-site day care services, which Young cited as a critical component for Kairos' student body.

"There are other alternative schools who have day cares, but they usually service a lot of troubled teens," Young said. "That's not what you want your kids around."

Charter school board members, however, pointed to the higher academic gains made by students in comparable alternative education programs. Exact figures are unavailable due to Utah student privacy laws, but Kairos Academy has a graduation rate below 10 percent, and fewer than 10 percent of the student body score proficiently on statewide exams.

The school has also been plagued by low enrollment, which translates to fewer per-student public education dollars to maintain operations. The budgetary dynamics led the school to scale back its model, relying on adjunct and part-time staff that raised flags for charter school board members.

Kairos Academy opened in 2014 and enrolled roughly 90 students last year, far short of the 200-student projection in the school's original charter.

Fenstermacher said the discussion of Karios' enrollment numbers ignored the school's growth, from 40 students in 2015 to 101 students committed to attend this fall.

"Our break-even budget hovers around 60 to 62 students," he said. "A sizable portion of the school is devoted to the child care, which in its own right is expensive and costly to run."

He said students, for the most part, are sticking with the school despite the shut-down talks. There have been some transfer requests since the closure vote, he said, but turnover is common as some teens elect to return to their neighborhood campus after a stint at Kairos.

"We have students who use our school for different purposes," he said.

Fenstermacher also said that judging Kairos by its graduation rate and test scores is problematic, as his team sees success in relative academic gains and retaining children in an educational setting.

"The system has already failed them," he said. "By the time we're getting them and they're enrolling with us, more than half of them have already dropped out of high school."

If the charter board does not reverse its decision, Kairos has the ability to request the closure be appealed to the Utah Board of Education. But the state school board is not required to hear the appeal.

If the school is forced to close, Fenstermacher said it would leave a hole in the education services available to teen parents.

"Kairos serves a very important niche inside of our community in the Salt Lake Valley and beyond," he said.


Twitter: @bjaminwood






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