One in four Utah charter schools is now a duplicated campus

May 12, 2019


That was the advice Freedom Preparatory Academy was met with when the school was looking to expand to offer a secondary school. It didn’t stop them.

“That almost served as an impetus for us to hop on board and say we can do this,” said Lynne Herring, the executive director of Freedom Preparatory Academy.

The Provo-based public charter school started as a K-8 school with 350 students in a Provo warehouse in 2003. Since then, it’s grown to include a separate elementary and secondary campus in Provo and has an elementary school campus in Vineyard, boasting a total system enrollment of about 2,000 students.

Campus replication isn’t unique to Freedom Preparatory Academy. Utah has 134 public charter schools, which enroll more than 78,000 students statewide, according to the Utah State Charter School Board’s 2019 annual report.

Of those schools, more than a quarter are a charter school whose network has more than one location. That number is about consistent in Utah County, as well.

With the oldest charter schools in Utah celebrating 20 years, it’s expected that more charter schools in Utah will stem from existing models.

Taking the leap

As more and more parents were drawn to Freedom Preparatory Academy’s model, its leadership quickly came to the realization that its East Bay warehouse wasn’t going to cut it.

The school taught kindergarten through sixth grade in the facility, although its charter allowed through the eighth grade. As demand grew, the school added seventh grade, but had run out of room at the warehouse.

The problem was that the school needed to figure out how to build a $10 million building, but didn’t have a path through the state at the time to secure the money. They could get someone to secure the loan, which wasn’t going to happen, or find a way to get their own bond. The school ended up going through Provo, which allowed them to use the city’s bonding ability without impacting local property taxes.

Its expansion didn’t stop there. Parents started requesting a high school, and the school returned to the drawing board.

“Our charter has been driven so much by parents,” said Chris Helvey, the director of finance for Freedom Preparatory Academy.

The school not only had to create curriculum for the new grades, but purchase expensive equipment for high school programs like music and career and technical education. It added a ninth grade in 2012 and has since built its secondary Provo campus in five phases.

“It has really been an evolving process that we just wanted the best facilities possible for our students,” Herring said.

Helvey said changes that allow charter schools to be able to bond by using state bond credit has made it easier to secure funding for expansion. He said the school’s solid academic reputation and financial history has also made funding — and gaining state approval for additional campuses — more accessible.

It most recently bonded in 2017 for $55 million, which included purchasing all of its campuses and paying off bonds.

The school continues to grow. It continues to hold a lottery every year for enrollment and has a waitlist.

It next plans to add preschools at its two elementary campuses. It is not currently planning for a secondary campus in Vineyard.

“We have no plans at this point to consider that,” Herring said. “But we never say never. We have done that too many times.”

Growing to a new area

As Spectrum Academy began eyeing spots for a potential second location, it was a group of dedicated Utah County parents that helped bring it to Pleasant Grove.

The school, which is designed to teach students who are on the autism spectrum, had started in North Salt Lake and has seen growing demand.

“We had such a long waiting list in North Salt Lake, and a lot of our population of parents and students who were in our lottery were so discouraged because they had been on a waiting list, a lot of them, up to seven years,” said Liz Banner, the principal of Spectrum Academy’s Pleasant Grove campus.

Now in its fifth year, the Pleasant Grove campus is preparing to graduate its first senior class.

Banner said the school was excited, but a little hesitant about opening and taking and on new students and employees, some of which might not have worked with children with autism before.

“Once we got through that first year understanding where the kids were at, it was easier adding one year at a time,” Banner said.

She said Spectrum Academy works to tailors its experiences to local opportunities. In Pleasant Grove, that includes helping students gain job skills in a safe environment.

The school building is also specifically designed to be autism friendly, including having a different color of pain covering the teaching wall and minimizing what’s on classroom walls.

Moving to a new community meant introducing the school’s concept to a new audience.

“One of the biggest challenges was just helping people understand who we were and what our purpose was, and what our mission statement was, and that we were there to help serve those who need a little extra support and help,” Banner said.

The school currently has a waiting list of more than 300 students. Banner said the school will begin discussions about a potential third location if the waiting list exceeds 500 students.

Reaching its limit

With six locations in Utah and a seventh in Las Vegas, American Preparatory Academy holds the title of the charter school with the most locations in Utah.

But other than adding a second Las Vegas location and expanding its Salem location to serve all grades, the charter network does not plan to add any additional locations.

“We really want to continue to improve our model, and expansion makes that challenging, so we are excited to not be expanding very much,” said Carolyn Sharette, the executive director of American Preparatory Academy.

Sharette said the school wanted to expand early on after its 2003 opening as its waitlist grew longer and longer, but couldn’t because at the time the state had yet to allow multiple schools to exist under the same governing board. Instead, she worked to launch different schools for parents who wanted their children to attend a school with a similar model.

Once satellite campuses were allowed, American Preparatory Academy applied for one and opened it second location in 2009.

Since then, it’s continued to expand.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Sharette said. “It is busy, but we have a lot of structure and really good people, so we have a lot of consistency from campus to campus.”

Sharette said the leaders at Utah’s charter schools talk and help each other where they can. For schools looking to replicate, she suggests the schools have a well-developed model so it can be easily recreated and have forms and data-tracking systems in place.

Despite the schools’ popularity, she does not foresee any additional locations outside of Utah.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s not part of our strategic plan,” Sharette said.

What the future holds

When the first charter schools in Utah opened their doors 20 years ago, charter advocates knew there was a pent-up demand for them, but didn’t know the movement would have spread so far.

Now, there are specialized options from schools focusing on science, to ones with models based around entrepreneurship, to schools centered around the performing arts.

The growth has been spontaneous, according to Royce Van Tassell, the executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

“It’s not as if they’re coordinated, it is folks looking around and saying, ‘I think this will work and we need this in Utah,’ and we’ve just seen a tremendous flowering of charter schools across the state,” he said.

Van Tassell said successful charter schools inevitably gather large waiting lists, and that adding multiple campuses to a school is a way to help expand.

But expansion can bring about challenges. He said schools must make sure that employees can maintain the culture of a school at a replicated site and stay true to the original school’s charter. Schools can struggle to find a place to build, or an existing building to take over.

He foresees that the future will contain a mix of new and existing concepts in charter schools.

“I expect we will continue to see new ideas come out, and charter schools will continue to grow in Utah as the number of students in Utah public schools continue to grow,” Van Tassell said.