More than 20 years after Arizona law was changed to allow capped-enrollment charter schools to open in the state, many in and around Flagstaff still struggle to be ethnically representative of the demographics of the city.
The 2010 census, after breaking out the 12,600 residents of Hispanic origin from the “white only” population, as was done in past censuses, shows a white population of 53 percent for the city of Flagstaff.
By contrast, according to enrollment data from the Arizona Department of Education collected in 2014, with the exception of the PEAK School, white-only students make up 70 percent or more of the enrollment at all local charter schools. (see chart)
Flagstaff Unified School District has just two schools with a white population above that mark, and nine are 50 percent or lower. Not included is Leupp Public School, which enrolls nearly 100 percent Native American students due to its location on the Navajo Nation.
Tax credit data also paints a picture of differences between FUSD and local charter schools. All local charters except two averaged more than $100 per student in tax credit expenditures by parents and donors for extracurricular activities. Out of 15 FUSD schools, only four averaged $100 or more, according to data from the Arizona Department of Revenue.
While each of the charter school leaders interviewed said their schools embrace diversity and try to create opportunities for all, many contended that the lack of bus service and free meals, plus sibling preference, make achieving that goal difficult.
“Ideally, Pine Forest would be as ethnically and as culturally diverse as the city of Flagstaff is,” Pine Forest Charter School Principal Michael Heffernan said.
The Flagstaff Unified School District receives about $2 million annually in “desegregation” funds, which is money designated to be used to help educate diverse populations.
“The reason we levy for the desegregation funds is to offset additional costs that come with either district decisions or state laws,” FUSD Superintendent Dave Dirksen said.
Dirksen said the state requires English language learners to participate in intensive English instruction, an unfunded state mandate that receives some of the district’s desegregation money. Most of the rest of that money, Dirksen said, goes to other portions of the English language learning program, such as professional development, personnel and supplies needed.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Mary K. Walton said the district is also required to provide transportation to students that live outside of a one-mile radius of the school. Dirksen said the district’s fleet of buses drives a total of 8,000 miles a day transporting students, including a later “activity bus” that services students in extracurricular activities.
“We pride ourselves on our transportation department,” Dirksen said.
Dirksen said about 23 percent of students in FUSD go to schools outside their neighborhood boundaries, including students who attend magnet programs or choose a different school.
“We do everything in our power to provide access,” he said.
Seven FUSD elementary schools qualify for Title I funds, which are given based on the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced price meals based on low family income.
Dirksen said students and parents in FUSD expect and receive good nutritional experiences, whether they pay for meals or not, and said the options available in the district contribute to diverse school environments.
“The culture of the school district is one that truly embraces the power of diversity,” Dirksen said. “We are so empowered in our classrooms and on our campuses by the strength diversity affords us.”
Lack of food service and transportation can make attracting a diverse population a challenge for charter schools, school leaders said.
“We have done research on the national school lunch program, but it is cost-prohibitive for a small school like ours,” Heffernan said. “While nutrition and health are a very large part of our curriculum, we know there are families who either left the school or never enrolled because they ask if we serve free lunch, and the answer is no.”
Heffernan said the school’s anticipated move to its new campus on Cedar Avenue and Fourth Street bring the possibility of serving food on campus. The site, which used to be St. Pius X Catholic Church, has an on-site kitchen, but the equipment is not up to usable standards yet.
Heffernan said the school plans to explore the option of food service when the move to the Cedar campus is complete.
Other charter school leaders said they have come up with other solutions to solve the lunch dilemma that do not require involvement in the National School Lunch program.
Northland Preparatory Academy Principal Toni Keberlein said outside vendors sell food on the NPA campus, but students who either cannot afford to buy a lunch or forgot a lunch are given food from a pantry on campus.
“We know the kids who need help,” Keberlein said.
NPA Superintendent Bob Lombardi said families who cannot afford to pay fees associated with coursework or school activities are not charged, and he said no financial information is taken at the time of enrollment.
Sean Clark, the principal of Basis Flagstaff, said when the school knows about a student who might not be able to afford food, there are options in place.
“We can’t provide lunch service like a public school, and we don’t have a kitchen,” Clark said. “But when we know about a student who can’t afford lunch, we help them out. We can give them food from the teacher’s lounge. We really try to keep that out of social situations; it’s hard enough to be a kid without that.”
Clark said the school contemplates adding transportation every year, but has not been able to work out the funds needed. Last year, the Mountain Line modified its route schedule to better service some of the schools, including Basis. He said the school also wanted to look at more formal carpooling arrangements.
Keberlein and Lombardi said the public bus is also a popular mode of transportation for their school, which contains sixth grade through high school.
Most students at Pine Forest, which contains preschool through eighth grade, are too young to take public transportation alone, Heffernan said.
“We rely on families being able to bring their kids to school,” Heffernan said. “But with the move to our new campus, which is located closer to many neighborhoods, we hope some families will be able to walk or bike to school.”
Arizona law requires charter schools to admit siblings of students who already attend the school before other students who have applied to attend. The law also gives the option to a school’s individual governing board to extend that privilege to children of faculty members and of board members.
School leaders said they recognize the purpose behind the law, but also said the limited number of spaces available, combined with admitting siblings first, can greatly restrict the opportunities to increase diversity on campus.
Keberlein and Lombardi said parents of prospective students at NPA are required to attend one of three “preview sessions” that are hosted during the school’s open enrollment period.
Keberlein said the sessions include information about what NPA does and does not offer, including not offering transportation or traditional food service. After the session, parents can turn in a completed application and are entered into a lottery.
Keberlein said the school schedules the sessions at varied hours to be mindful of working parents, including Saturday sessions and one weeknight session.
“We do not pick them, they choose us,” Keberlein said. “As long as they get into the lottery, they are our kids.”
Keberlein said the school annually admits 100 sixth-graders, with between 30 and 35 slots filled by siblings of older students before others are chosen by lottery if more students apply than can be accommodated. In all older grades, students are admitted when an opening occurs by a student leaving the school.
Clark said the school does administer a diagnostics test, which he stressed is not an admission test, to students to judge their abilities and guide their placement into the Basis system.
“We want to serve every single student and every single family that wants to be here,” Clark said.
Both Clark and Heffernan said their schools are working to increase opportunities to admit more diverse populations.
Clark said it is hoped that expanding to lower grades will allow Basis to admit a diverse group of students. The school, which will begin offering third grade this school year, was approved to gradually expand to offer kindergarten through high school.
“We really value diversity,” Clark said. “We are trying to find ways from the inside and outside to make the school more available, and expanding to the primary grades is a huge way to do that.”
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