SLC charter school helps refugee students become ‘citizens’

Story and photos by BRADY LEAVITT

Each school day the uniformed elementary and middle school students of American Preparatory Academy in Draper, Utah, stand at their desks to face the American flag. They recite in unison “The Pledge of Allegiance” and sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Dressed in matching white shirts, navy vests and sweaters, plaid skirts and khaki slacks, it is difficult to discern that these charter school students come from all sorts of social, economic and cultural backgrounds. But next year, if Director Carolyn Sharette has her way, APA will have an even more diverse student body.

American Preparatory Academy Director Carolyn Sharette

American Preparatory Academy Director Carolyn Sharette

Sharette, 49, plans to open APA’s first satellite campus in fall 2009. The school, located at 2650 S. Hempstead Road in West Valley City, will be called The School for New Americans. The school will focus on helping refugee children integrate into Utah and American society. SNA will accomplish this by maintaining a specific percentage of local, refugee and immigrant students at the school. It is designed to help all students catch up in subjects the struggle with at a pace and level suited to their needs.

“These kids who are 13 and go into seventh grade, when do they get to go back and work on kindergarten phonetics?” asked Catherine Findlay, a volunteer who is helping to coordinate the school’s efforts with refugee service organizations in Salt Lake City. SNA, she said, will be a perfect fit.

The student body will be precisely tailored. SNA’s official target student profile is 140 “settled” refugees — meaning they have been in the country for at least one year — who have strong spoken English skills, with eight to 12 refugee children per grade, kindergarten through ninth. Up to 25 percent of the total student enrollment will be refugees. The remaining portion will be students from the surrounding areas as well as any others who are able to get into the school.

Achieving this blend of students is complicated. According to Sharette, federal law prohibits charter schools from discriminating against any applicant, meaning  the school cannot just admit the desired 140 refugees if any other students are already on the waiting list. In other words, a wealthy white child has as much right to attend SNA as any refugee.

To deal with this, the school is informing refugee families before any others, Findlay said. Findlay, 41, has been working to contact potential families through representatives from refugee service organizations like the International Rescue Committee, The Asian Association of Utah and the Refugee Services Office in the Department of Workforce Services.

The first application period for refugee families ended on Nov. 30, Findlay said, after which SNA began accepting all students on a lottery basis. In future years, all students, refugee or not, have to be admitted by drawing. The school has some power to give added “weight” to certain at-risk groups like refugees. Weighted students have a higher chance of being picked in the lottery, but that will be the only tool available to maintain the desired balance, Findlay said.

To succeed with ‘those kids’

APA has become immensely popular in recent years; a student may have to wait years to be admitted. Sharette said she has felt APA’s model would be successful with all types of students since the school opened in 2002. However, the school’s critics discredit the results because of its location in affluent Draper, Sharette said.

A third-grade class at the American Preparatory Academy sit mostly at attention. In August 2009, APA will open a second campus in West Valley City aimed at helping refugee children.

A third-grade class at the American Preparatory Academy sit mostly at attention. In August 2009, APA will open a second campus in West Valley City aimed at helping refugee children.

“Who wouldn’t succeed with ‘those’ kids?” Sharette said people have asked her.

But they miss the point, she said. The programs and curriculum that APA uses are designed to work for gifted and struggling students alike, and it is not fair to discount results based on socio-economics.

“We want the opportunity to show that, and it’s best for us to do that in an economically-challenged population,” Sharette said. SNA is “the proving ground for our model.”

As a charter school, APA has a greater degree of flexibility in choosing the curricula it uses than many of Utah’s public schools. APA emphasizes grouping students based on ability and not necessarily age or grade level in subjects like reading, spelling and mathematics. A student who requires 20 repetitions to learn something will not be grouped with students who require 200 repetitions, Sharette said.

The new school will replicate the programs already in place at the APA Draper campus, Sharette said. APA and SNA are charter schools, meaning they receive government money but operate autonomously from school districts’ governing boards.

APA’s record of increasingly high test scores is a measure of success for both the entire school and individual students, Sharette said. This is because APA only uses and adapts curricula based on research, Findlay said.

“It’s not like we’re a bunch of parents who say, ‘Oh, we’d like to try this,’” Findlay explained. Instead, all the coursework is picked based on academic research and adapted through statistical feedback teachers collect in their classrooms.

APA also uses a method of call and response called Direct Instruction in the classroom. As the class moves through material, the teacher repeatedly cues students to respond individually or as a group. Many educators consider the method because it focuses heavily on rote memorization and recitation. But Sharette swears by it. One benefit of direct instruction for refugee children, she said, is that it encourages them to vocalize responses, which will accelerate their learning of the English language.

Opponents to the chartering program have criticized schools like APA of funneling tax dollars away from traditional public schools, increasing the strain on an already overworked system. Sharette sees charter schools as a great way to relieve stress on growing districts by giving parents an alternative for their children’s educations.

The school not only focuses on helping children to develop academically, but also emphasizes citizenship and patriotism, Sharette said. Students receive a grade in citizenship based on their participation and preparation, their punctuality and their adherence to school rules. A student can get straight A’s in all academic subjects but fail citizenship, she said.

The students and teachers at APA recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and the national anthem each day. The Veterans Day celebration is the biggest holiday at the school, according to Laura Leavitt, 48, a third-grade teacher at APA. Sharette hopes APA will give incoming refugee and immigrant populations the skills and tools to function in America, to prepare all students to be citizens.  

A wake-up call

Getting the permission and resources to start the school was a three-year process. In 2005, Sharette applied with the Utah State Office of Education to open a second campus but was denied. The law at that time did not allow charter schools to have satellite campuses, she said.

It was disconcerting, she said, to be denied a second campus in spite of APA’s record of success. At the time, 2,850 students were on an admissions waiting list for the school. Sharette contacted several senators and representatives who she knew were supportive of charter schools.

“To have that denied was kind of a wake-up call for legislators as well,” Sharette said. “They were interested in helping us to make sure the law wasn’t the thing that was keeping us from being able to replicate.”

The law allowing charter schools to open satellite campuses passed in Utah’s 2007 general legislative session. In April 2008, Sharette received permission to open SNA in August 2009.

“It was very exciting because I have such confidence this will go forward and that it will be great for so many families,” Sharette said.

Excitement and worry

Not everyone shared her enthusiasm, Sharette said.

Opening the new school will require Sharette to be away from APA for much of the time. Some parents and teachers feel insecure, if only briefly, when they think she is leaving the campus, Sharette said.

“All we have to do is remind them that we’re taking this to 560 new kids, bringing them the same things that they’ve experienced [in Draper],” Sharette said.

Others worry about how to deal with the difficulties of working with refugee children: how the school will overcome language barriers, how the school will furnish transportation for students, how the school will provide meals and after-school programs — services offered by Utah’s state governed education system.

Sharette described a meeting she held in her office with workers and educators from the refugee services community to see how APA and SNA could complement their work: “When I came into the meeting, there were a lot of feelings being expressed about the hugeness of the problem,” Sharette said.

She said the representatives asked her — even challenged her — to explain why SNA would accept only 140 refugee students. How would SNA deal with children who came without food? What would they do when they came without appropriate clothing? Were there after-school programs? The conversation lasted for about 30 minutes and turned sharply negative, said Findlay, who was present at the meeting.

Sharette nodded, acknowledging each concern. Then she directed the group’s attention to a framed quilt that hangs in her office.

The 4-by-4-foot quilt has the painted handprints of 25 orphans who live on a farm in Zambia. Sharette is a member of the board of directors for Mothers Without Borders, which runs the farm. Africa has millions of orphans, she said, but we have 25.

“That experience,” she told the group calmly, “has taught me a lot about doing your part, and that making the difference in the lives of 25 kids is worth something.”

Sharette then added, “I want to be really clear that our mission is academic achievement and character development for 140 kids.” And  then she asked the question: “Is that worthless to you? Should we go in a different direction?”

The room was silent.

“One after another said, ‘No, of course not. It will be wonderful to serve these 140 individuals,’” Sharette said. “They started looking at the individuals,” she said, “and that, I think, is the key to this work.”

The legacy lives on

Sharette said she is not sure what people mean when they say, “it won’t work.”

“The ‘it,’ I think, has to do with a group of people who are very overwhelmed by how difficult the big picture is,” Sharette said. “We’re taking one piece and only one piece, and I think that piece is worthwhile for us to take. Is it worthless because we can’t do it all?”

Of the many people interviewed for this story, most, if not all expressed their admiration for Sharette’s ability to motivate people to action and to spread enthusiasm. She is, they said, a perpetual optimist. In an interview, she recoiled at the word “problem” and would only accept a question when it was rephrased it as “challenges and opportunities” the school faces. 

“Carolyn would never acknowledge negativity,” Findlay said.

Sharette recognized that she deals with problems and obstacles differently than many people. She views everything as a learning opportunity and a challenge, never a problem. Her method of dealing with challenges is a product of her upbringing, she said.

A handmade quilt with the hand prints of orphans who live in a Mothers Without Borders farm in Zambia. Carolyn Sharette is a member of its board of directors.

A handmade quilt with the hand prints of orphans who live in a Mothers Without Borders farm in Zambia. Carolyn Sharette is a member of its board of directors.

In her office, near the African quilt, hangs a picture of her father and family with the words “The Legacy Lives On” written across the bottom. He taught his children to be advocates in the community and encouraged positive thinking, she said. Sharette said her father would pay $100 to any of his children and grandchildren who memorized a collection of inspirational poetry he helped publish.

She then recited one of the poems, which speaks of an individual’s role in building up their community.

The poem, "Your Town," is one of Sharette's favorites.

The poem, "Your Town," is one of Sharette's favorites.

“These are the kinds of things that I learned growing up,” Sharette explained, “After a while you see everything in the context of moving forward.”

They are the kinds of things that Findlay also hopes to transmit to her own children and to the students at APA and SNA.

Findlay told of a day that she visited the Granite Peaks adult ESL program for immigrants and refugees, looking for parents who might be interested in enrolling their children in the new school. Her son Bradley, then 8 years old, accompanied her. As she walked in, they saw a row of 12 pictures along one wall.

The photos were of the adult ESL students and included short, personal bios, Findlay said. The students told their names, where they came from and why there are in America. Many had goals to return, someday, to their own country, she said. She was touched by the images, but more so because her son was there to see them first-hand.

“My son got to look down this wall and get exposure to 12 different countries in 10 minutes,” Findlay said with emotion in her voice. He was getting an education, she said, the education of diversity that she hopes is replicated at the School for New Americans.