Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2014

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Facing charter timeout, school rushing to open in a YMCA

A new charter school hopes to offer classes at the Durango Hills YMCA beginning in September, rather than wait until construction of a permanent facility is complete.

Imagine Schools Inc., which manages dozens of charter schools nationwide, preferred to wait until 2009 to open its second campus in Clark County, said Vickie Frazier-Williams, the company’s vice president for the Nevada region.

But circumstances have changed. The state Education Board’s approval for the new campus expires this fall. If the school isn’t open by then, the school’s organizers will have to apply again for state approval, said Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem. But it is now because the state Education Board and the Clark County School Board have imposed moratoriums on new charter school applications. If the school misses the deadline, any new application will be held up indefinitely.

“At this point, we don’t know how long the moratoriums will last,” Rheault said Thursday.

So Imagine Schools is pinning its hopes on the Durango Hills Community Center YMCA. Kathleen Potter, chief financial officer of the YMCA of Southern Nevada, said discussions with the charter school are under way.

Imagine Schools already operates the 100 Academy of Excellence charter school in North Las Vegas. The nonprofit 100 Black Men of Las Vegas is affiliated with the school, which opened in 2006, and members of the organization serve on the school’s governing board and as mentors to its more than 400 students.

The state and county boards said a lack of resources to review applications and monitor charter schools made the moratoriums necessary.

Citing concerns about the proposed programs, the state board nixed requests last week by two online charter schools to expand classes to students in grades K-3. The board also canceled review of a charter school proposal by former state board member Gary Waters. That was one of 11 pending charter school applications exempted from the moratorium.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional campuses, but have greater freedom in staffing, scheduling, curriculum and instructional methods. Students must be taught to the same state standards. The school’s governing board must be made up of local residents, including at least three educators who have been licensed by the Nevada Education Department.

Charter schools are allowed to hire Imagine Schools or other companies to manage the schools.

To be sure, a charter school might need several years to find its footing. And the 100 Academy has endured 18 months of unsteady operation.

The school has had problems with high staff turnover, as well as with meeting the state’s requirements for providing appropriate services to special education students. After student enrollment dipped, the school finished its first year $285,000 in debt to Imagine Schools, raising red flags with the district and state education officials.

In October, the Clark County School Board considered revoking the academy’s charter. After Imagine Schools announced it had forgiven the debt, the revocation vote was put off.

“We have learned a great deal,” Frazier-Williams said of the academy’s earlier struggles. “I think that’s going to help us have a smoother start next time.”

So why open a second school before the first campus has proved itself a success?

“In a perfect world, we would wait,” Frazier-Williams said. “But Southern Nevada needs choice in education right now.”

The Imagine Schools model focuses on what’s known as a standards-based curriculum, which emphasizes mastery of fundamental skills and basic knowledge. At 100 Academy, character development is also a central tenet. Students must abide by a dress code, and Saturday sessions are occasionally required.

On a recent day, a young boy was sent to wait in the front lobby after a classroom outburst. When an administrator arrived, the boy got up from his seat, crossed his arms and began marching angrily toward her.

“Please go back and try again,” she said in an even tone. “I don’t stomp at you, you don’t stomp at me.”

The boy returned to his chair, and then made a more polite approach.

The Imagine Charter School of the Valle plans to open Sept. 2 at the YMCA. Imagine Schools is aiming for an enrollment of 300 students in grades K-5.

The governing board is made up of retired and active Clark County School District educators and other community members. Board member Michael Pickett, a vice president of Western Alliance Bancorporation, spent last year teaching fifth grade at 100 Academy.

He was impressed by its philosophy, particularly the emphasis on character.

“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Pickett told the Sun on Thursday. “I certainly would have enrolled my own child in the school.”

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