One grandmother of a student at Beacon Academy approached its administrators and offered this glowing praise: “My grandson doesn’t hate your school.”
Not love. Not like. Just an absence of hate.
For some schools, this praise — if they would even call it that — wouldn’t register as eventful, but at Beacon they consider it among the highest praises possible. That’s because the charter school, which falls under the umbrella of the State Public Charter School Authority, only enrolls credit-deficient students. School has already proven to be a challenge to them for one reason or another. Many have already dropped out once. Many work to help support their low-income families. Some are battling homelessness. Some are teenage parents. Approximately a tenth are on probation.
“We’re a school full of students who hate school,” says Andrea Damore, executive director of academics at Beacon. “They haven’t had good experiences at schools. When they get here, we tell them they need to forget all that, that we operate differently.”
When the charter school movement first began, one of its selling points was that schools freed of restrictions could become experimental laboratories for new academic and organizational models, which if successful could be adopted more broadly. In the decades since, charter schools have become much more industrialized, dominated by a handful of national, for-profit “educational management organizations” that are criticized as being successful only because of their ability to avoid the hardest-to-teach students.
Beacon Academy evokes that original spirit of the charter school movement. Independently operated and not attached to a national educational management company, they have experimented and fine-tuned their approach to reaching students who have fallen through the cracks elsewhere.
At the end of freshman year, students at traditional public school districts are supposed to have six credits. Students enrolling at Beacon after their freshman year must have zero, meaning they failed every high school course. Similar entry requirements exist for higher grade levels. The severity of their credit deficiency means the catch-up options available to them at traditional district schools aren’t always enough.
To get them back on track, Beacon eschews the traditional two-semester model in which students take six subjects over the course of the nine-month academic year. Instead, students take three nine-week courses at a time. The accelerated pace allows them to make up more credits over time. They also place students into the courses that match their academic progress rather than the grade level they are supposed to be at.
Tambre Tondryk, the executive director of operations at the school, says that all too often students are set up to fail. They’ll be enrolled in progressively harder or different subjects despite having failed prerequisites. By allowing mixed grade levels, Beacon allows students to work at appropriate levels, but some are still behind on the educational basics they should have learned in elementary or middle school. To counteract that, Beacon offers a slew of ‘electives’ like reading and math fundamentals that students can take concurrently to try and boost their chance for success.
“As much as want to turn schools into factories, they have to be about individual students,” says Tondryk, adding that the constant scheduling of the school’s approximately 400 students is challenging but crucial to their success.
Beacon opened in 2008 under a standard six-year contract approved by the state. It originally accepted all students. The school was reauthorized in 2014 but overall underperformance issues put it in hot water with the charter authority. Rather than close in 2018, its board chose to readjust its mission and focus only on those students who need the most help.
Beacon is considered an online/distance-learning school but has a physical campus, near Flamingo Road and Rainbow Boulevard. Students are required to attend physical classes twice a week. This blended model allows for greater accountability and one-on-one guidance while still providing the flexibility the students need to balance the challenges they face outside the classroom.
The school employs four full-time social workers who check in with students. They connect them with bus passes if transportation is an issue, wireless hotspots if internet is an issue at home, and clothing banks if needed. Einsteins Bagels provides free bagels, which lay around in classrooms as a breakfast option for the hungry.
“It’s one less excuse for them not to come,” says Tondryk.
The hands-on approach makes a difference, administrators say, but that difference doesn’t translate into the traditional performance standards the Nevada Department of Education or the State Public Charter School Authority uses to rate schools.
Beacon is considered a 1-star school by the state education department. The graduation rate for the Class of 2018 was below 60 percent.
“That’s our target student population,” says Damore. “That’s what you are going to get when you enroll students who are severely credit deficient and have essentially already dropped out.”
Last year, Beacon Academy became the first school under the state charter school authority to move to the “alternative education” classification. This allows them to bypass performance standards like graduation rates and instead be evaluated and reauthorized using other measures set by the charter school board. For Beacon, student progress on recurring academic tests and course completions are part of those evaluations.
Their charter contract is up for renewal by the charter school board next year. Tondryk, Damore and the Beacon board of directors are hoping they aren’t just renewed for another six years but are also given the greenlight to expand to a second campus — one on the east side of the valley.
They are optimistic about their chances, though they are also keeping a watchful eye on the online charter school reform efforts working through the pipelines of the Legislature.
Beyond their own belief in the system they’ve created, Beacon also has students on board. A survey of students found a majority had positive feelings about the school. Even more telling: The school has all but stopped marketing efforts. Prospective students are coming to them, recommended by school counselors and current students who’ve spread the word that this school isn’t like the others.
That’s how Vianca Murillo arrived at Beacon. The 18-year-old had never liked school. Two Clark County School District middle schools had expelled her for fighting. For freshman year, she enrolled in Odyssey High Schools, an online charter school authorized and overseen by CCSD. There she couldn’t physically fight anyone, but she still lacked motivation, so she simply failed everything. For her sophomore year, she enrolled at Bonanza High School but found herself once again acting out and failing classes. She estimates she attended “maybe four months” before simply dropping out.
A year and a half later, her boyfriend mentioned this new school his cousin was attending: “It’s different.”
Murillo decided to give it a shot.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder for sure,” she says. “I never used to like school. I’d just sit in class thinking, ‘This bell needs to hurry up. I need to get out of here.’”
Murillo says it was the teachers and staff who made the difference. They had enough time in their day to ask how about how her life was outside of the classroom, and she liked that she could vent about whatever crazy drama was happening at home. Her teachers had the time to offer her one-on-one help with assignments and concepts she had trouble with.
She surprised herself. English was kind of fun sometimes. Math wasn’t as confusing as she remembered.
Murillo’s English teacher describes her as a “sidekick” — the loving nickname given to students who constantly pick the seats closest to the teacher so they can interact with them most.
“I’ve never had connections to teachers like this,” says Murillo. “I hated teachers.”
When she entered Beacon, Murillo was in what should have been her senior year of high school. She had only two credits. She now has nine. She’s considered a second-year senior, but she’s making progress toward graduation. Murillo says if Beacon weren’t an option, she’d likely have just earned her GED at some point.
Murillo is trying to get her nephew to enroll at Beacon. She sees him going down the same path as her. She thinks he’ll do better alongside her than at the district school he’s currently enrolled at.
Tondryk and Damore don’t fault CCSD for the experience of students like Murillo. They acknowledge that severe underfunding has forced district schools to cut or share their counselors, librarians, nurses and other non-teaching staff. They have also led to classrooms of 40+ students, whereas Beacon’s largest class is capped at 30 students.
“We couldn’t do all this at CCSD,” says Tondryk. “They’d give us half a counselor. It’s just completely underfunded. It’s a different culture. In our case, as a charter, we are small enough we can focus on each student.”