Charter school group to shut down teacher licensing program that violated Utah law

The group’s program had been put on probation for a year after several noncompliance findings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hawthorn Academy in West Jordan, on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Hawthorn is one of six charter schools that make up the Wasatch Front Consortium, which runs a teacher licensing program that is set to shut down next month after a year of probation.

A group of Utah charter schools is set to shut down its teacher licensing program after state officials found that some licenses it issued did not comply with state legal requirements, leaving 51 educators in limbo as the state seeks an alternative way for them to complete their licenses.

The program, run by a group of six charter schools called the Wasatch Front Consortium, has been on probation since last November, after the Utah State Board of Education during routine monitoring identified several compliance issues, said Malia Hite, executive coordinator of educator licensing for USBE.

It is one of 53 Alternate Pathway to Professional Educator License programs (APPEL) in Utah. APPEL programs allow individuals who already have a bachelor’s degree to become licensed teachers through their employing school or district rather than a university.

Put on probation

The Wasatch Front Consortium’s problems stemmed, in part, from its program granting licenses to four individuals who had not met the state’s requirements, though this was largely because the consortium was not properly evaluating its candidates’ competencies in accordance with the law, Hite said.

“We found there were just a lot of things that were not being done well and in violation of state law,” Hite said.

The consortium is a collaboration between six charter schools: Ascent Academy, Hawthorn Academy, Highmark Charter School, Mountain West Montessori Academy, North Star Academy and Quest Academy. Since 2020, the program has enrolled 95 educators, according to state documents.

“A few of our teachers were frustrated because they were given a plan to achieve licensure, completed that plan, and then were told that they had additional requirements,” said Angie Johnson, principal of Mountain West Montessori, about the program’s impending closure.

USBE first issued a corrective action letter on Nov. 10, 2022, that detailed the terms of the program’s probation and outlined several conditions that needed to be met in order for the consortium to retain state approval.

But over the next year, the program failed to meet those terms, prompting the USBE to intervene.

On Dec. 8, the USBE Law and Licensing Committee voted to recommend the full board revoke the program’s approval status if it doesn’t voluntarily shut down by Jan. 15.

“We need to make sure that we’re providing opportunities to our prospective teachers that prepare them for the classroom appropriately,” said state board member Molly Hart on Dec. 8.

The consortium’s program director and superintendent of Hawthorn Academy, Floyd Stensrud, confirmed the program plans to dissolve before USBE’s deadline.

“There are [several] schools associated with the consortium, and some of them were unable to meet the rigorous demands that the state required,” Stensrud said. “I do not fault any of the schools for not being able to meet the rigorous requirements of the state. They did the best they could to meet these demands under difficult circumstances.”

Where the charter group fell short

To become an educator in Utah, candidates must prove they have certain competencies, Hite explained. That’s different than many other teacher-preparation programs, which require specific courses to obtain a license.

Utah made the switch from a course-based system to a competency-based system in 2020, the same year APPEL programs were established, Hite said.

APPEL candidates must maintain a teaching position during the two-year time frame it takes to complete the program and must demonstrate, through observation and evaluation, that they posses the required competencies. About 1,400 educators are currently enrolled in APPEL programs across the state, according to Hite.

The consortium was not observing or evaluating their candidates adequately, said Hite — an issue the corrective action letter and probationary terms attempted to correct.

The conditions outlined in the letter stipulated that, beginning November 2022, USBE would review the files of the program’s next 20 candidates recommended for licensure before they could receive their licenses. If 95% of those candidates received approval on first review, the consortium could exit probation, according to the letter.

But the consortium missed the mark. Of the 14 candidates recommended for professional licensure in the following year, only nine gained approval on initial review — a 64% success rate, according to USBE records.

The consortium also failed to create required remediation plans for four educators who had previously been issued licenses later found to be in violation of state law. USBE gave those educators until June 1 to meet requirements, but only one candidate met the deadline, state records show. The others’ professional licenses reverted to a nonprofessional status.

The letter also required that Stensrud regularly meet with USBE and participate in APPEL director meetings, either in person or virtually, each month. He attended all but two director meetings, said Hite — a violation of the probationary terms.

Stensrud said he was unable to attend one meeting because of a scheduling conflict; he missed the other because it was announced just a day before, he said, and he did not receive the notice in time.

Hite said USBE is working with the charter schools to potentially join a larger APPEL coalition administered by The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. That way, the 51 educators left in limbo could continue on.

A decision has not yet been finalized, Hite said, but at least one school in the consortium, Mountain West Montessori, has confirmed plans to join with the association, the school’s principal said.

“Personally, I feel that this direction will be a more productive path for our teachers,” Stensrud said.