St. George Academy moves towards a blended opening with a new director and a new direction

The outside view of St. George Academy, a charter high school for students in grades 8-12, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Darren Edwards, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — When St. George Academy opens Aug. 10, it will offer parents a blended education model to choose from, waive all students fees and start the school year with a new executive director at the school’s helm.

Following the departure of the charter school’s former Executive Director David W. Jones, the academy began a search to find a replacement knowing this school year would have many challenges including being on a one-year probation to fix its finances and enrollment. They didn’t have to go far to find someone to fill Jones’ shoes.

St. George Academy’s Executive Director Christy Hall may be a new face at the top leadership position, but she is a familiar face on campus being one of its founding members. St. George, Utah, date undefined | Photo courtesy Christy Hall, St. George News

Almost immediately, Christy Hall – St. George Academy’s dean of faculty who has been with the school since it opened in 2017 – expressed her desire for the top spot and now finds herself with the required business cards to prove she got the job.

Then the hard part began. She, along with her staff, is tasked with guiding the school through the muddy waters of opening its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opening, Hall said, is based on three learning options: in-person, online and a hybrid of the two others called synchronous (live-steaming) classes.

“The advantage of the synchronous school is students can opt-in or opt-out at any time during the semester,” Hall said. “If any student is feeling uncomfortable with face-to-face learning, they will be able to stay at home while still participating in classroom instruction.”

Synchronous learning opens a leeway to return to the classroom at any point, offering flexibility to the learning process, Hall added.

“Instruction will be seamless and students will be able to shift in and out, depending on their circumstance, during this uncertain time,” Hall said. “We are really excited about synchronous schooling which is a creative and innovative solution to prepare for this fall in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

St. George is also offering a completely digital-based, self-paced, learning model presented via the internet.

If families struggle with purchasing laptops or connectivity to the internet, the school will work with individual parents to find solutions to online and synchronous learning.

“The takeaway is that we are dedicated to making sure our students have what they need,” Hall said. “We will exhaust every available resource to make sure students have access to the remote learning process.”

One criticism of remote learning is that when you take one-on-one time with a teacher away, the student may suffer academically.

If children are identified as not moving through the online curriculum, St. George Academy has worked to establish methods, practices and intervention procedures to help any student struggling – especially with distance learning.

“Something we have now that teachers didn’t have last year is the resources to be more successful,” Hall said. “We have digital interfaces and cameras capable of live streaming in all of our classes. We have the structure now to be successful in a different way.”

For students and parents who choose face-to-face, classroom instruction, St. George Academy will take every precaution to safeguard the health and safety of staff, students and the families children go to after the final bell rings.

Hall said the school is adopting a prevent, protect and connect strategy.

“Prevention, we are doing daily temperature checks,” she said. “We have sanitizing stations all over school, increased cleaning procedures in place, and plans to sanitize the entire school if anyone tests positive for COVID-19.”

Protection focuses on “deep” cleaning of bathrooms and common eating areas, practice of social distancing and requiring face coverings for faculty, staff, visitors and students. It will also include having all the desks facing in the same direction, enforcing oneway hallways when warranted and educating students why social distancing “works to minimize the spread” of the virus.

Going beyond COVID-19 protocols, when it comes down to it school is more than reading, writing and arithmetic, Hall said.

Students at St. George Academy, Washington, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Darren Edwards, St. George News

“We want our students to learn how to be responsible citizens in many ways,” she added. “During the next few months that will mean how to be safe and responsible in the current climate because this is the most pressing issue we are facing right now.”

The connected pillar to the upcoming school year intertwines the three educational programming components to learning.

It is an overall approach that Hall has confidence will succeed.

The academy is a public charter school authorized to teach grades 8-12 with a focus on college preparatory.

The school opened in August 2017, and there are approximately 250 students scheduled to attend classes in one form or another during the 2020-21 school year.

For the academy, it has been a rocky road since mid-October.

On Oct. 10, the Utah Charter School Board voted to close the school but later rescinded that decision in November. The school was placed on a one-year probation to shore up its finances and meet enrollment expectations of at least 300-350 students by their third school year.

The state charter board monitors authorized schools for fidelity to their charters and general financial compliance standards established by the Utah State Board of Education.

When schools fail to meet their charter agreement or to comply with school board rule or legislative statute, the Utah Charter School Board can revoke charters or terminate schools.

Following several layers of internal analysis, it was determined that the steps the academy was taking to trim expenses, prior to being placed on probation, 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.

Students communicate using American Sign Language during “Silent Weekend” conference at Saint George Academy, St. George, Utah, Feb. 23, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Increasing attendance still remains an uphill battle, remaining relativity flat year-over-year.

Still, Hall is optimistic about the future of staying open.

“We were given a list of metrics to meet in order to get off probation,” she said. “Several of them were financial, several involved our internal controls and finally enrollment.”

As of July 1, the academy has met all of the expectations except enrollment, which continues to be a bur under the saddle.

“Our enrollment needs to be at 300,” Hall said. “We do think we will meet this goal this year by the time we get to October because we’ve already surpassed enrollment from last year. We really only need about 40 more students to meet the state board’s mandate.”

As a tuition-free school, the academy receives funding from the state based on enrollment.

Although tuition-free, the school usually charges $225 in student fees. This year, the school has decided it was “best” for the families to waive student fees and rely on grants and other funding mechanisms.

“We’re not going to be out that much money, but it will really help our families, especially if it’s a family of four who are all school-age children and they are all in school together,” Hill said. “This is really hard on a family who may be dealing with a layoff from work.”

To accommodate a different way to look at funding, the state has set up a “continuing enrollment policy,” which considers six measurements to determine if a distance learner is moving forward with their academic goals. Through the measurements, the state can determine how many students are actively participating in distance learning. In turn, the school receives its state funding based on the data.

As a founding faculty member, Hall has been dedicated to the development of the academy’s mathematics and Language Arts programs.

Hall’s goal is to maintain the unique culture of the school, the effectiveness of its 19 teachers and its “distinctive edification of young people.”

Hall has been a part of the Utah Charter School movement for 21 years, starting her career as a mathematics teacher at one of the first charter schools in the Beehive state, Tuacahn High School.

“When director Jones left, and as a founding member of the school, I felt very motivated to keep the school going in a positive direction,” Hall said. “It’s going to be a great school year even with all of the challenges that we face.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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