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

First Published      Last Updated Jul 19 2017 09:18 pm

Kairos Academy » Petition drive, administrative shake-up result in hearing on decision to close school for pregnant teens and young mothers.

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.

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