A network of Utah charter schools is facing backlash over its top administrator’s use of social media, including a February statement that criticized illegal immigration for fueling a drug “scourge.”

Students at American Preparatory Academy, or APA, in West Valley City protested last week, partly in response to a since-deleted Facebook post by Carolyn Sharette, executive director of American Preparatory Schools.

“Yes let’s offer the dreamers a future,” Sharette wrote, “but let’s not forget the lost futures and dreams of families and young citizens who have been devastated by the drug trade that has been fueled by illegals pouring into our communities.”

Her series of posts between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, which included a link to news coverage of law enforcement activity in Salt Lake City, concluded with Sharette writing, “WE MUST SECURE OUR BORDERS and carefully vet those who want to come be our neighbors. Praying for a wall.”

Tayler Khater, a former APA teacher who now works at Skyline High School, said he was “disgusted” by the immigration-related post. But he said it was indicative of longstanding attitudes by Sharette toward racial and cultural diversity.

“In terms of top-down attitude, it was easily the most racist place I have ever worked,” Khater said of APA.

The former teacher said APA students who are not native English speaker are prohibited from using their birth language on campus. And violations of that policy, he said, can carry academic consequences.

“I had multiple students who were suspended from my class just for speaking Spanish,” he said.

Khater also took issue with an etiquette program at the school, which culminates in a celebratory ball where students are instructed to address each other as “miss” or “master.”

“It’s just like a 1950s debutante school,” Khater said. “It encourages a very particular Western, Anglo-Saxon approach and they sell it as getting [students] ready for the business world.”

English only

American Preparatory Academy operates seven charter schools in Utah. One of its West Valley campuses is known as “The School For New Americans,” and the majority of its enrolled students are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

The public charters are run by Sharette’s private company, American Preparatory Schools, with Sharette filling a role analogous to that of a school district superintendent.

In emails to The Salt Lake Tribune, Sharette and Brad Findlay, the school’s governing board chairman, confirmed the school’s English-only policy and the content of its etiquette lessons, described by Findlay as an “ambassador” program.

Sharette disputed Khater’s characterization, describing him as a disgruntled former employee. If a student is overheard speaking their native language on campus, she said, the worst sanction they might receive is a verbal reminder to converse in English.

“It is not something that we give referrals or consequences for,” Sharette said, “because once students understand the rationale, it usually ceases to be an issue.”

The English-only policy is meant to prepare students for higher education, Sharette said. She compared it to immersion instruction — in which students learn a new language by using it for large portions of their school day — and said it has contributed to the academic success of APA’s English language learners.

“Our standard at school is that everyone speaks English at school, regardless of a student's home language,” Sharette said. “This is part of our academic curriculum.”

And the intent of the ambassador program, she said, is to ensure that students are comfortable in a variety of educational, professional and social settings. The event includes lessons on navigating a five-course meal, proper use of utensils, greeting guests and appropriate business attire.

“Professional dress instruction is part of our academic curriculum,” Sharette said. “Some of our girls are Muslim, and their professional dress incorporates appropriate religious garb.”

The program begins in fifth grade and is required for all students, Findlay said, and culminates at a dinner at the upscale La Caille restaurant in Sandy for ninth-graders.

“It truly is a highlight evening in their year,” Findlay said. “The evening ends with the opportunity for each student to dance a waltz with his or her mom or dad or guardian.”

Khater, who left the school in 2014, said he did not recall the lessons being adapted to the culture or religion of individual students.

“I never saw that,” he said. “Maybe that’s something they say now.”

Other controversies

In addition to her statements on illegal immigration, Sharette has raised eyebrows for online posts that object to school breakfast programs for low-income families and question whether Islam is a peaceful religion.

American Preparatory Academy has also generated controversy over the last year for its efforts to construct a new high school in Draper.

That has involved an ongoing property dispute with the school’s neighbor; the demolition of a nearby residential home to allow emergency vehicle access; and the erection of what residents called a “spite fence” to hide a banner critical of APA’s administration.

Sharette said last week’s protest, which occurred after school hours, highlighted student concerns beyond her social media comments, but she declined to elaborate on other motives behind the protest, citing student privacy laws.

“There’s a bunch of stuff involved,” she said. “You’ve got a disgruntled employee. You’ve got students who are working lots of issues and we are working with them, and always have.”

Because attending charter schools is optional and the schools operate independently of Utah’s 41 school districts, charter administrators have broader leeway to impose conduct and enrollment policies than their traditional public school counterparts.

Sharette said information on APA’s academic goals, policies and programming is readily available to parents who elect to enroll their students. If anything is deemed inappropriate for a particular family, she said, they are free to attend a more suitable charter or their neighborhood school.

“Given the waiting lists at each of our schools,” she said, “we believe our curriculum and school culture is desirable to a large number of families of all backgrounds and ethnic origins.”