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A Charter School is Born

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A story of how a charter school started out as an idea to meet a need, the struggles it encountered trying to come into being, and the amazing impact it’s had so far on its community now that it is open and serving students.

St. Helen Elementary School, part of the Roscommon Area Public Schools (RAPS) closed its doors at the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year.

The school was located in St. Helen, Michigan, a rural village with a population of less than 3,000 residents. St. Helen, along with the adjacent community of Roscommon, comprised the geographic boundaries of RAPS, with an elementary, middle and high school also located in Roscommon. Until the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year, students from St. Helen attended middle school and high school in Roscommon. The decision of the RAPS Board of Education to close St. Helen Elementary School, due in large part to its perceived lack of financial viability, and consolidate it along with Roscommon Elementary school, resulted in a strong community without a single school. Soon thereafter, RAPS placed the building and the 24 acres of land it was located on up for sale.

A group of community members led by Jennifer Jarosz, a mother of two and owner of the local diner where she waits tables, decided to pursue the idea of establishing a charter school to replace their closed elementary school. Soon thereafter, Rural Education Matters (REM), a non-profit organization whose charge it was to support the idea of establishing a public charter school to serve the children of St. Helen and all others who wished to enroll, was born.

After failing to convince the local community college to grant the group a charter, REM was at an unfortunate crossroads due to the statutorily imposed cap on university-based charter school authorizers being met. Jarosz and REM organized a grassroots effort in support of raising that cap, visiting Lansing and testifying at legislative hearings, and on December 20, 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Synder signed a charter school reform bill that lifted the cap on charter schools in Michigan.

The following April, REM and community leaders from St. Helen were successful in securing a charter from Lake Superior State University. What followed was a profound effort that reflects the power of community collaboration, committed parents and professional willingness to take a risk on a new and exciting public charter school to replace the closed St. Helen Elementary School.

After establishing a Board of Trustees for the new public charter school, the school was named the Charlton Heston Academy (CHA), school leaders were recruited, a team of educators selected, and the former St. Helen Elementary school facility purchased in preparation for a September launch.

While the school was named after an individual who grew up in the community and whose family still has property in the area, the school was not given any financial help from the family or the estate. In fact, the only funds available to get the school off the ground were those granted through the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) Start-Up and Implementation Grants. However, these funds could not be used for facility renovation, and roughly $100,000 was needed to correct 21 facility code violations before opening the school.

Small businesses and individuals throughout the St. Helen community came together and worked around the clock to get the school open in time, and in a few short weeks the school was able to make the necessary renovations and put a physical school building and educational program in place and open its doors to approximately 200 students in grades K-8.

The former St. Helen Elementary School enrolled approximately 135 students in grades K-6 when it closed.

This grassroots effort, including round-the-clock preparations (literally community members driving their tractors to the school to help with landscaping, grandparents cleaning old desks, etc.) throughout the Labor Day weekend directly preceding the opening of the school, actually made the entire school community more inclusive, strong and resolved.

For the first time, parents in the area had a real choice in where they sent their children to school.

Enrollment continued to increase in the school’s first year of operation, and parents from neighboring communities were enrolling their children in the school. A pre-Kindergarten program was added late fall, and CHA added a 9th grade in the fall of 2013 and a 10th grade in the fall of 2014. The school recently completed a facility expansion in order to accommodate the increased demand for its seats, and has already begun plans for a second facility expansion. Amazingly, CHA is poised to enroll approximately 500 students in grades PreK-11 in September, with plans to add a 12th grade in the fall of 2016, celebrating its first graduating class in the spring of 2017.

The school’s educational program is based on a strong core academic program, extended school day and year-round calendar. While the State of Michigan requires 1098 instructional hours each year of public schools, CHA provides 200 instructional days and approximately 1600 instructional hours.

Interestingly, other traditional schools are responding and trying to implement year-round calendars, but are struggling due to union restrictions and other financial barriers. The freedom and autonomy allowed by schools of choice, and the fact that parents are indeed exercising their right to choose the educational environment they feel is best for their child, is creating a ripple effect that is improving all schools for all children.

The school focuses heavily on experiential learning, community collaboration and engagement, and the incorporation of American democratic values throughout the academic program and school culture. In fact, one reason why the school was named after Charlton Heston was because of this vision of teaching core democratic values as part of the school’s culture, and that Heston was considered by many to be a “patriot” of sorts.

The name isn’t the only local connection, however; many of the school’s leaders know first-hand what it’s like to grow up in the rural Michigan community.

Jennifer Jarosz, who led the effort to get the charter school started in the first place, has served as the President of the Board of Directors of CHA since the school’s charter was approved. And in fact, her efforts have led to her recently being asked to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Both David Patterson and Jason Sarsfield, life-long friends and RAPS graduates who grew up in significant poverty but thanks to supportive families and great educators along the way both lead successful adult lives, returned to play a role in the charter school. David Patterson, a graduate of RAPS, successfully lead a charter school in Detroit, returned home to serve as Superintendent and has done so since the launch of the charter school. Jason Sarsfield, after a successful career in teaching and charter school authorizing, returned from his role at the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute to serve as Chief Academic Officer. After helping to lead the pre-optional phase of the school, first year of operation and transition into year two, Sarsfield went on to serve as Vice President of the National Charter Schools Institute, and will return to service again as Chief Academic Officer on July 1, 2015.

For these folks, the charge is personal to ensure families have access to an excellent education. In the charter school realm, much of the focus is on urban areas, yet many forget that urban poverty and rural poverty actually look quite similar.

Approximately 85 percent of CHA students are economically disadvantaged. This fact drives CHA educators and leaders to relentlessly pursue excellence for each and every single one of its students. They know upward mobility is created when children living in poverty are equipped with skills and knowledge that allow them to take control of their own destiny.

Now, the St. Helen community is equipping its children to have that control, by launching a charter school that delivers the promise of an excellent education for all students.

To learn more about the school, you can visit www.charltonhestonacademy.com or email its leaders at dpatterson@charltonhestonacademy.com or jsarsfield@charltonhestonacademy.com.

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