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Bill would help students stay in same charter system

Advocates for changing charter school admission preferences included, from left: Lori Venberg and Andrea Rumsey, who are charter school parents; Leanne Fawcett, headmaster of Archway Classical Academy; and Jim Barlow, whose two grandsons attend Archway. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Lauren Saria)

PHOENIX -- After six years as a parent at Archway Classical Academy in Chandler, Lori Venberg is searching for a new school for her daughter.

She wasn't unhappy with the charter school, which serves kindergartners through fifth-graders.

As luck would have it, her daughter's name wasn't selected in a lottery, required by state law, that determines who will be admitted to the prep school on the same campus serving sixth- through 12th-graders.

"That was our home," Venberg said. "That's where we'd hope to be through high school, for both of my children."

A state lawmaker wants to address the problem faced by Venberg and many other parents by changing the enrollment preferences for charter-school admittance.

HB 2494, authored by Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, would give enrollment preference to students who attended a charter school under the same educational management organization.

Boyer said changing the preferences would prevent disrupting students' educational development.

"The purpose of this is just to keep that continuity of curriculum," Boyer told the House Education Committee on Monday.

The committee unanimously endorsed the bill, forwarding it to the House floor by way of the Rules Committee.

HB 2494 also would also extend preference to grandchildren or legal wards of charter school employees; charter holder employees, board members, directors, partners, and officers; and members of a school's governing board. Current law offers those groups preference for their children.

Boyer said expanding the preferences to include not only children but also grandchildren and legal wards would accommodate the needs of nontraditional families.

The hearing brought out several parents who told the committee they want their children to be able to continue within the same charter system.

Venberg said she chose Archway Classical Academy for her two children because it offers a liberal arts-based program common to all schools operated by the Great Hearts Academies.

Venberg and her daughter, so desperate to stay within the Great Hearts system, also applied to three other campuses and ended up on the waiting list at all four.

"It's kind of an emotional thing for me because I have a fifth-grade daughter who's been at this school since the school started," she said. "It's like a family, and we didn't choose Archway just to have her go through fifth grade."

For parents like Andrea Rumsey, who carefully select a charter school based on curriculum and teaching techniques that may not be available elsewhere, choosing a new school can be a challenge.

"For those of us who selected a particular school, we find our other options as mediocre -- they are our backup plan," she said.

David Lujan, chief administrator at ASU Preparatory Academy, with locations in downtown Phoenix and Mesa, said even though kindergarten through 12th-grade students share the same campuses, students must enter a lottery between the eighth and ninth grades and aren't guaranteed a seat for high school.

"That's something that is a trouble for us," he said.

Lujan said moving prevents the academy from best preparing its students for college since the curriculum is designed for students to follow through 12th grade.

Jim Barlow said the luck of the draw can have far-reaching effects for parents with multiple children. He has two grandchildren, one of whom entered the lottery for sixth grade at Chandler Preparatory Academy and wasn't selected. The other still attends Archway Classical Academy.

Barlow said his daughter, a single parent, might be forced to withdraw both students because she will be unable to transport each to different schools.

"To me it's kind of like being at home, and all of the sudden you're told you're not going to be living here anymore," he said. "You have to move over here because, in this case, your lottery didn't come up."

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