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State board approves new STEM-focused charter school in Des Moines

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The Iowa State Board of Education has approved a new charter school for Des Moines that will be the first in the state to work with an outside management company. The organizers behind Horizon Science Academy believe it can improve learning for students currently struggling at their neighborhood schools.

The approval comes at a time when school choice has come back to dominate discussion in the Iowa Legislature. The issue has been a priority for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Expanding publicly-funded charter schools was a key victory in that agenda.

As Reynolds pushes state lawmakers to pass a plan creating state-funded Education Savings Accounts for students at private schools, the approval of a new charter school is a reminder that other changes made to increase parent choice in the state’s K-12 education system are still playing out.

Horizon Science Academy is only the third new charter school to be approved under a law passed two years ago. That law allows for charter schools — which cannot charge tuition or use selective enrollment — to be created by local public school districts or by independent founding groups. The latter is the case for Horizon.

Des Moines business people Sunnie Richer and Roger Brooks are the schools’ founders. Enrollment will be open only to students from Des Moines Public Schools. Richer and Brooks hope to draw low-income students from schools in north Des Moines, where students are largely Black or Latino.

Schools in that part of the city also lag behind state academic standards. Richer said she wants to give students another option.

“These kids, if they can get some extra special attention, especially in a program that is STEM oriented, that could really change their outcomes professionally in a really big way,” Richer said.

Compared to the other new charters approved under the law — both specialized high school programs — Horizon Science Academy would be more conventional. It could eventually grow to be a full K-12 school. And, unlike the others, it would contract with an out-of-state charter management organization called Concept Schools.

Getting to know Concept Schools

The Schaumburg, Illinois, nonprofit has run charter schools since the late 1990s and currently oversees 31 schools in six Midwestern states including Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Many of those fall under the same name of Horizon Science Academy.

Chief strategic growth and communications officer, Chris Murphy, said Concept charter schools put a heavy focus on subjects like science, math and technology. Horizon Science Academy in Des Moines would do the same.

“All of the schools have a similar focus on STEM education and college preparation,” Murphy said. “If I'm a family that is within a community or a neighborhood that has a traditional public school that's truly struggling and has for decades, I'm going to welcome this option.”

According to Murphy, if someone walked through one of the organization’s charter schools, it would look like any other. One of the main differences, he said, is the time spent on core subjects like math, science and reading. The school day and the school year are both longer than at a traditional school, which allows teachers to spend more time on those areas.

“That allows us opportunities to increase the amount of time that students are in the classroom,” Murphy said. “We have double-English classrooms. We have double-math classrooms as well in our curriculum. It just provides more opportunities within the school day to really support students in student learning.”

When the school opens next fall, Horizon Academy expects to enroll 190 students in kindergarten through third grade. That number is projected to grow to 390 through seventh grade over the first five years.

The school’s location has yet to be finalized, although discussions have included leasing a portion of the former Franklin Jr. High building.

Charter schools do not receive transportation funding. Murphy said that could make it much harder to attract the students the school means to bring in.

“Finding a possible partner for transportation is a really high priority and if that means adjusting the budgets or raising some private funds to support that transportation, that is something that the board is really interested in investigating to provide our students that access point,” Murphy said.

In exchange for Concept Schools’ management of areas like human resources, curriculum and budgeting, Horizon will pay a fee — up to 10% of state funding per student which would currently amount to around $740 per student. Another part of the financial arrangement is a $400,000 zero-interest startup loan that Horizon Academy will pay back over the first five years.

Turkish-inspired charter schools

Concept Schools is one of several charter organizations in the U.S. founded by Turkish-Americans that are either inspired by, or affiliated, with a religious movement led by Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gülen. Gülen was exiled from Turkey and now lives in Pennsylvania. His teachings put a strong emphasis on education. Followers have started schools across the globe, not just the U.S.

One sign of the movement’s influence in Concept Schools is on the senior staff, who are primarily Turkish-American immigrants, however, Murphy said there are no ties to Gülen.

“There is some general connection to the idea of what Gülen stands for, but for the most part there is no direct relationship between Concept Schools and any sort of global organization,” Murphy said. “Concept schools is a standalone nonprofit organization.”

It is also common for Horizon schools in other states to bring in teachers from Turkey on working visas, especially to cover areas like math and science. When it comes to hiring teachers in Des Moines, Murphy and Richer said those decisions will be led by the local governing board.

“We might have teachers from different programs and walks of life, but they will all meet the state requirements for licensure requirements, and they will be hired by that (governing) board,” Murphy said.

Now that the Iowa State Board of Education has approved a five-year contract for the school, that board will start the process of hiring a principal and teachers with plans to open for the 2023-2024 school year.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa