The Texas Education Agency Is Preparing to Close an Azle Charter School for Foster Kids

The way that Azleway Charter School Superintendent Steve Lenz describes it, his students wouldn't last long at a regular old public school.

Even the ones that aren't hospitalized or in special ed are often several grades behind where they should be. They also tend to move a lot. "Some of our students might come to us for three months, some might come for nine months, some might stay for two or three years," Lenz says.

Worse, they're often mistrustful of adults, and might do something violent to show it, like throw a desk at a teacher.

While other schools would call the cops in that situation, Lenz says his staff would bring in a counselor or therapist.

That's because Azleway isn't just a charter school. It's closely linked to the Azleway Inc., the company behind a group of facilities in Texas for foster kids who don't have anywhere to go.

Its largest facility is a 50-acre boys ranch in Chapel Hill, which provides what the company describes as "intensive therapy in a relaxed atmosphere."

The facility's benevolent-looking website explains:

The ultimate goal of the Azleway Boys' Ranch is to guide and nurture each boy into the best living situation possible, whether that means a return to the biological family, a loving foster home, or transitioning into independence.

The school part came later. The company got a charter from the Texas Education Agency in 2001 to start a three-campus, taxpayer-funded school tailored for its kids, including the boys from the ranch. But not for much longer. Next year, it will probably be up to the local public school district to provide that intensive therapy during school hours.

That's because the Texas Education Agency announced in December that it is revoking Azleway's charter. Not for any of the potential problems mentioned above. The TEA sent a letter to the school in December, listing three reasons for the closure. First, there's an "academic rating of AEA: academically unacceptable" that the school got in the 2010-2011 school year.

The next year, it was the school's finances that were in trouble, with "a financial accountability performance rating of 'Substandard Achievement." The following year saw another "substandard" year in finances. Two bad finance scores and one bad academic one makes three, and three bad scores in either category in three years is all the TEA needs to revoke a charter.

It's a rigid system that works retroactively, counting past academic and financial failures against schools even if they've since corrected the problems, as we reported earlier this year.

In its brief, jargon-y revocation letters to the charter schools facing closure, the TEA has pointed to Senate Bill 2 as the reason for this formula. That's the law that recently went into effect giving the TEA that strict formula of three bad marks in three years, and you're out.

But SB 2 isn't the only law in Texas addressing charter schools. In June, a new law, Senate Bill 306, went into effect. It makes a special exception for students who are in juvenile or residential facilities (such as the Azleway boys ranch) to not be considered for the general education accountability standards.

That bill hasn't helped Azleway's case, because, unlike SB 2, it's not being applied retroactively. "It seems that our school has been caught in a no-win situation where there is no consistency in how the laws are applied," Lenz wrote in a public letter complaining about the school's impending closure.

Azleway has tried to appeal the ruling, and another hearing is scheduled for April. If the school loses, then the charter will be revoked at the end of June. "That means our guys are going back to public school," Lenz says.

Without the charter, students from two of those shuttered campuses will now likely feed into Chapel Hill ISD, though in one of the campuses, the students are hospitalized. For those kids, the district will now be responsible for providing the educational materials to their hospital, says Chapel Hill ISD Superintendent Dr. Donni Cook.

The other group of students expected to make the switch come from Azleway's 50-acre boys ranch. Cook is preparing to take them on next year though she's still figuring out how. Her district might need to hire more counselors or start its own charter school. She doesn't support the TEA's decision. In fact, she'll probably do her best to imitate the education the kids were receiving at their old charter school.

"I've spent numerous hours looking for services to provide those kids. Our goal would be to do what they [Azleway] have done," she says.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn