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Utah charter schools under new performance scrutiny

Published May 17, 2013 10:55 am

Eighty-one charter schools are evaluated on academics, finances and governance.
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For the first time, the State Charter School Board has evaluated Utah's 81 charter schools in three key areas — academics, finances and governance — creating a baseline for comparing the schools next year.

Not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

Kim Frank of the Utah Charter Network, a nonprofit advocate for schools, said she appreciates the board setting high standards.

"But I don't appreciate more bureaucracy and more mandate requirements of charter schools than district schools," Frank said this week.

Charters are public schools but have more leeway in how they hire staff or design curriculum than traditional public schools. For that reason, many charter schools have been able to explore new academic territory.

Nearly 9 percent of all K-12 Utah students attend a charter school. Enrollment has shot up over the past decade from 1,526 students in 2002 to a peak of 50,785 youngsters this school year.

Marlies Burns, state charter school director, said it's the board's responsibility to make sure these schools are held accountable: "This is the first year we have these performance measures for all [the 81 charters]."

The Salt Lake Arts Academy, one of the oldest charter schools in Salt Lake City, is in its 10th year. The school recently received a $102,000 grant from the Daniels Fund, which will furnish new classrooms and add technology.

The school received an 81 percent in its academic score, which put it in the second highest quartile for all charters.

That score is based on several measurements, including student proficiency on end-of-year tests; student growth on end-of-year tests; student retention; and for high schools, graduation rates and ACT scores.

However, the Arts Academy was in the lowest quartile in finances (at 57 percent) and in governance (42 percent).

Principal Amy Wadsworth said those scores need to be put into context. She pointed out the school is purchasing its building, so it has high debt.

And Wadsworth said the school was "dinged" because a certified teacher, who teaches grades 7-8, is missing an endorsement. The school has 300 students in grades 5-8.

"I think [the new measurements] are very valuable for the state [education] office and charter board because they'll understand the context of it, but it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to the public," Wadsworth said. "I have no objection to it."

Charter board staff, along with the Center for Research on Education and Outcomes at Stanford University, developed the new performance standards.

This is the first, or baseline, year, so charter officials cautioned against making immediate comparisons.

Charter school finances were measured under the following criteria: current ratio of short-term liabilities compared to short-term assets, cash on hand, debt ratio, adherence to budget, occupancy costs and audit findings.

Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake received an 87 percent overall academic score, putting it in the highest quartile, and had a similar finance score of 85 percent.

Principal Sandy Shepard said the elementary school, which receives Title 1 funding for having students from low-income homes, does well because of quality teaching and involved parents. She added the school is also buying its building, so it has high debt.

"I think it's a great way to show how schools compare across the state," Shepard said.

The Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science in Layton had the highest overall academic score for a high school at 90 percent, for finances at 100 percent, but in governance received an 80 percent score.

Governance measurements included whether charter board members are taking professional development classes, whether reports are submitted on time and complete, and whether all teachers are qualified and licensed.

Academy Principal Alan Stokes said the school needs to complete background checks on all of its board members, and he said he has no issue with the new performance measurement.

"It's extra but we're always doing extra," Stokes said of the early-college high school, where 40 seniors this year received their high school diplomas, as well as associate's degrees.

The State Charter School Board will use the new performance scores for three main reasons: to provide examples of best practice targets for charters; to act as an early warning system for charter schools in trouble; and to assist the state board in monitoring the overall system.

Chris Bleak of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools said the new system is appropriate for keeping charters accountable.

"I believe that this is an important first step," Bleak said. "[In future years] we'll be able to analyze it and fine tune it."

Officials said the new performance data will soon be available on the State Charter School Board website.


Twitter@rayutah Academics, engagement

Schools were rated based on student proficiency and growth on end-of-year tests; student retention; and for high schools, graduation rates and ACT scores.

Top 5

Ranches Academy

George Washington Academy

North Star Academy

Bear River Charter School

Good Foundations Academy

Bottom 5

Dual Immersion Academy

Utah Virtual Academy

Alianza Academy

Quail Run Primary School

Unitah River High

Financial status

Schools were rated on current ratio of short-term liabilities compared to short-term assets, cash on hand, debt ratio, adherence to budget and occupancy costs, and audit findings.

Top 5

Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (AMES)

Bear River Charter School

Canyon Rim Academy

City Academy

Fast Forward High

Bottom 5

Endeavor Hall

Maria Montessori Academy

North Star Academy

Odyssey Charter School

Weilenmann School of Discovery


Governance measurements, which could change, this year included whether reports are submitted on time and complete, and whether all teachers are qualified and licensed.

Top 5

Beehive Science & Technology Academy

Early Light Academy at Daybreak

Noah Webster Academy

North Star Academy

Ogden Preparatory Academy

Bottom 5

East Hollywood High

Merit College Preparatory Academy

Salt Lake Arts Academy

Liberty Academy

Uintah River High






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