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Ignoring the warnings: Charter school closer to closing

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An entire school, failing. That’s the unfortunate reality facing the latest casualty among Utah’s charter schools. After years of warnings from state regulators, The American International School of Utah stunned parents and students this week, announcing the school may close in a month.

The announcement has parents scrambling to figure out where to send their children, and administrators scrambling to find money to pay teachers for the rest of the school year. This latest episode is a stark example of the difficulties of attempting to provide alternative education for Utah’s children.

“It may fall on deaf ears or it may sound shallow for me to say it, but my heart is breaking.”

That was the somber introduction from AISU’s chairman of the board of directors, Kent Buggraa, this week to an open meeting between AISU and hundreds of concerned, and in some cases, panicked parents. Members of the school’s governing board shared the grim news with parents.

“We want you to know what led us to the predicament we’re in,” said Executive Director, Tasi Young.

Young went on to explain how an unusual business model – a partnership with a for-profit management company – formed the foundation for the ambitious project that took the form of a K-12 school. That’s school’s mission statement, and it’s promises to parents, was “a transformative model of education in the 21st century” for a highly diverse body of students. It wouldn’t be long before the evidence emerged the school was not making the grade.

By August of 2017, the Utah Charter School Board issued a “Notice of Concern,” informing the school it was lagging behind median standards for academic achievement. Even the school’s claim of an international student body proved not to be true. Annual state reviews found AISU’s student body is less diverse than the average Utah school.

By December 2018 the state served AISU with a letter of warning, placing the school on probation, ordering measurable improvements in students’ test scores in core curriculum subjects. 

But the crippling shortcoming for the school appears to be money. AISU has almost run out of it. According to the current executive director, Tasi Young, the school’s first three years were marked by exorbitant spending.

On the heels of the warning letter, an order from the Utah State Board Department of Education, which may have dealt a death blow to the school. The state ordered AISU to repay $514,905 in federal and state funding, citing “unallowable expenditures.” 

School governors have told parents they are deliberating their next move, looking to a best-case scenario of keeping the school open until the end of the school year, at the end of May 2019.

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