SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Charter School Board denied an appeal of its decision to close a West Valley City school that serves teen mothers and pregnant teens.
"This has been gut-wrenching for me," board vice chairwoman DeLaina Tonks said at the appeal hearing on Wednesday. "I love hearing the success stories and I love seeing the services you’re providing to these students. The thing that still keeps me up at night is the lack of academic progress."
The board voted 4-2 to terminate the charter for Kairos Academy after a two-year probation period.
Kairos Academy opened in 2014, but concerns about low enrollment numbers, unlicensed teachers and failure to meet probation requirements halted the charter's success.
"This is hard. I know none of us wanted to be here," said Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the charter board. "The reality is that this school has been on probation for multiple years, multiple probations, has not met the terms of those probations and is not meeting their mission."
Available data showed the academy had lower graduation rates and SAGE test scores than alternative options already available to students.
The school estimated an 80 percent graduation rate, yet less than 20 percent graduated in 2016 after four years.
Sparse daily attendance and uncertain financial sustainability added to concerns. Student academic success dropped in 2016 compared to the previous two years, including low proficiency and growth in language arts, math and science.
"While no one questions the good intentions of those involved with Kairos Academy, our obligation as a board is to ensure the best possible outcomes for students," Kristin Elinkowski, charter board chairwoman, said in a statement. "This was a hard decision, but we could not ignore the performance data. We must protect students’ interests first."
The Utah State Charter School Board voted unanimously in June to begin the process to terminate the charter. More than 1,400 people signed an online petition urging a reprieve for the academy.
"It's really frustrating and disappointing," said Sarah Young, a Kairos Academy history and art teacher. "I do think we're hurting the most vulnerable of our population."
Members of the Kairos Academy school board also expressed dismay about the vote.
"We need alternative models, we need alternative schools," said Julie Adamic, a Kairos Academy board member. "I'm disappointed that the State Charter School Board and staff did not provide Kairos mentoring prior to them getting to the point of closure."
The academy recently appointed new board members, but many administrative changes were made too late. Adamic said she was just voted as a board member on Sunday.
"Many of us did not know to what extent they were in trouble," Adamic said. "It's sad that efforts have to go toward bureaucracy rather than improving the school, but I understand the process."
The academy served students grades nine-12, with 81 students enrolled at the end of the 2016-17 school year. More than 77 percent were ethnic minorities, according an earlier press release from the academy.
"I'm very upset," said Patrice Goins-Boyd, founder and former academy board member. "What disappoints me is the fact that we never got the chance to allow the new board to do anything."
"When we graduated, we had African, we had Native American, we had Hispanic and Latina girls from all around who were at that graduation who represent our school. And they will be displaced," she said.
Several Kairos students also spoke during the public comment section at the beginning of the hearing.
Nichole Rodgers was pregnant at age 15 as a freshman in high school. She enrolled at Kairos Academy shortly before she gave birth.
"I had a bunch of girls come up to me, touching my stomach, being really welcome to me," she told board members. "Letting me know that I'm welcome at this school."
Rodgers, 17, said she didn't have a driver's license or job when she had her son, Noah. The education and day care services available at Kairos Academy was a perfect fit for her.
"He’s almost 2 now, but until he’s in school, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish my high school education if this school closes," Rodgers said.
After the decision was made to shut down Kairos Academy, Rodgers and her mother, Tennille, were disappointed.
"It's a little bit frustrating. I feel like a lot of these girls are going to have a disadvantage on trying to find something that will fit their needs as far as graduating from high school with a day care," Tennille Rodgers said.
"You can't win," Nichole Rodgers added. "It's just not fair. It's basically like they had their mind set and they don't want to change it. And I think that's not fair."
Kairos board members said they plan to appeal the decision to the elected Utah State Board of Education.
"We will be appealing. But what we were hoping for today was to be able to have enough time to be able to go and create that school improvement plan. It does take some time," Adamic said. "Now our efforts are going to be on the appeal."
The Utah State Charter School office is prepared to help displaced students find other schools and options for the 2017-18 school year, a press release stated.
"We want what's best for students. When the school closes, we want them to have a good place to go," Lambert said. "We are offering any support and help that we can because we want these students to be successful."