ST. GEORGE — After the school submitted an appeal, the Utah Charter School Board has voted to keep the St. George Academy open for now.
In a rare move, the board reversed its course to close the grade 8-12 public charter school and voted unanimously to place the academy on probation through the next school year, allowing it enough time to shore up its finances and grow enrollment.
“We were encouraged the school was able to resolve some of the most immediate and pressing financial concerns for this year,” said Jennifer Lambert, charter school board executive director. “Their board and their community have responded in the way that I think we would hope a school would respond.”
Following several layers of internal and board analysis, it was determined that the steps the academy was taking to trim expenses were proving successful.
The steps included renegotiating their current lease, a plan for an interest-only purchase of the building under terms of a seller-financed transaction, and nearly four months of lease debt forgiveness. The school also plans to pay off its current revolving loan by August, freeing up the money that would normally require budgeted funds.
After considering different enrollment scenarios, the second criteria used to rescind the vote for closure, Lambert said even with the most conservative estimates the school will not run out of money before the end of next year.
“Therefore, there is no need for immediate action,” Lambert explained. “We want to give the school the opportunity to increase their enrollment so that they can have long term financial viability.”
The St. George Academy receives funding based on its enrollment.
“It’s rare that a school is recommended for closure and then that is rescinded by the board,” said Cynthia Phillips, charter school board member. “I think it speaks to the school’s excellence as a financial manager, the support it has in the community and the support it was able to engender from its creditors.”
Other board members expressed similar statements, singling out the community of Washington as an influential force behind the board’s decision to rescind the closure.
In preparation for the vote and to leverage their voices in unison, Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, hosted a town hall meeting on Monday that was well attended.
More than 150 students, family and academy staff joined in unity to argue in favor of keeping the school open.
During the town hall, Callie Sheneman, an eighth-grade student at St. George Academy, said her school is more like a family where nobody feels judged for who they are.
“The time and energy most kids would be putting into trying to change themselves to fit in is actually spent on learning,” Sheneman said. “It’s changed my life, the faculty and students are so kind and accepting.”
At St. George Academy, Sheneman added she feels a sense of belonging and safety.
“I can tell how much our teachers care about giving their students the best education they can,” she said. “They care deeply about their students, and I know I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it.”
Before she attended the academy, Lily Twitchell was in public school, an environment that she said was not safe.
“I was being bullied every day, but I was really good at hiding it,” she said. “Nobody really knew until I told my parents. We decided it was a better idea for me to leave.”
Living close to the academy watching as it was being built, she toured the finished campus and felt there was something different. What her parents, friends and school staff didn’t know was Twitchell was hiding a deep secret.
“I was giving myself three weeks to feel different, and then I was going to commit suicide if things didn’t change,” she said.
Although faced with despair, Twitchell began feeling better, and change started to happen.
“During the first few weeks, (staff) told us how we were important and that we were valued here, and that was enough to stay,” Twitchell said. “It’s been two years, two months, three weeks, six days since I was going to commit suicide, but because of St. George Academy, I am still alive and I am still here.”
Many students spoke during the town hall meeting, talking about how they considered St. George Academy as the best place on Earth.
Freshman EmaRose Waletzko has been attending the school for about three months. During this time, there has been a dramatic change in her life as well.
“St. George Academy is my home away from home,” Waletzko said. “The second I stepped foot on the grounds I felt creativity flying around me. I felt unity take me by the hand and twirl me around.”
Before attending the academy, Waletzko said life wasn’t easy. She was a public school dropout and heavily addicted to street drugs.
“My life served no purpose and I was living every day for my next fix,” she said. “I felt hopeless, lost and broken.”
Skeptical when a friend who was attending the academy told her how warm and inviting the culture of learning was, Waletzko took the chance and enrolled.
“Everyone is so loving,” she said. “The atmosphere is so light and airy. I feel at home. There are hundreds of smiles around me, loving familiar faces that I now call family. I have actually gotten to the point that I am loving what I am learning.”
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