© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The future of Quest Charter Academy hangs in the balance. Here's how things got here, and what happens next

The fate of the Quest Charter School remains uncertain after the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education voted not to renew the charter’s contract.

The district said Quest had not achieved goals regarding the rate of certified teachers employed by the school and academic progress. Quest argued that progress had been made towards their goals and that they had not violated charter statute.

This is not the first time the district has raised concerns about the charter school in its 14 years of operating.

History of Quest

Illinois passed its first charter school law in 1996, allowing a limited number of charter schools to be opened in the state. As of the 2022-23 school year, there are 58 charters overseeing 135 charter schools in Illinois.

Of those 58 charters, 36 are part of Chicago Public Schools. Other downstate charters operate in Normal, Decatur, Springfield, and East St. Louis.

Quest first opened in 2010 and currently serves grades 5-12. It’s split into a high school and middle school. The school is open to anyone in District 150 and students are chosen through a lottery process.

The goal of Quest was to be a math, science and technology school focused on preparing students for post-graduation. They started with 225 students in fifth, sixth and seventh grade. The charter school expanded each year until it reached a full capacity of 600 students.

Quest receives 85% per-pupil funding from the state and raises money through fundraising initiatives.

The district and Quest agreed to a five year renewal in 2015. The Peoria Charter School Initiative Board also voted to let their contract with Concept Schools expire. The charter school chain had been managing Quest, but was under an FBI investigation which resulted in Quest and 18 other schools getting raided. The Peoria Charter School Initiative Board determined they would manage the day-to-day operations themselves.

Members of the PPS school board raised concerns about Quest’s progress when their second renewal came up in November 2019. The board questioned Executive Director Taunya Jenkins over low teacher retention rates, high student turnover and special education personnel.

Forty-eight percent of Quest’s teachers were certified at the time. The 2015 agreement stated that 75% of Quest’s teachers needed to be certified. They had a 30.4% teacher retention rate.

Jenkins said Quest often had to help students catch up to grade level when they came from District 150. An attorney for Quest also argued the goals were “stretch goals” and that a lack of communication between Quest and the district made achieving them difficult.

Options to deny the renewal or renew it for another five years both failed. Instead, the board unanimously approved a two-year conditional agreement renewal.

The agreement was finalized in May 2020, with clearer goals established for the charter school.

The PPS board votes not to renew

Quest asked for another five-year contract renewal during the Dec. 11, 2023 board meeting.

An attorney for Peoria Public Schools made a presentation arguing against renewal. C. Frazier Satterly said Quest failed to achieve mutually-set benchmarks, including enrollment, teacher retention, and attendance.

According to the latest report card from the Illinois State Board of Education, Quest had 393 students enrolled for the 2022-23 school year. The school had a chronic absentee rate of 46.4%, compared to the district average of 40.5% and the state average of 28.3%.

Student enrollment at Quest has been steadily declining.

Questions around academic progress were brought up. Quest students on average fall below the district and state averages on English and language arts, math and science proficiency.

Quest does have a higher graduation rate with 86.5% of students graduating, compared to the district average of 81.2%.

Many of the district’s concerns revolved around a lack of certified teachers and low teacher retention.

According to the state report card, 53.6% of teachers at Quest are considered novices. This means they have less than two years of experience teaching.

Ten percent of D150’s teachers are novices and 7% of teachers in the state are novice.

Quest had a teacher retention rate of 59.6%. District 150 had a rate of 88.4% and the state’s average is 90.2%. The average teacher salary at Quest was $49,561, compared to the district average of $69,381.

What happens next

Timothy Higus, a lawyer from Miller, Hall & Triggs representing Quest, said District 150’s all or nothing approach to the goals was unfair and didn’t take into account progress that had been made.

Quest also argued that the Covid pandemic impacted progress and that moving students into Peoria Public Schools now will only further disrupt students' education. Higus said statute also stated that PPS needs to prove Quest violated the law or acted without the students best interest in mind.

The Quest school board directed Higus to file an appeal with the State Board of Education. They have until Feb. 13 to file that appeal and request a hearing.

A hearing officer who is independent of D150 and Quest will be assigned to the case. A hearing will be held in either Chicago or Springfield. Quest and D150 will be given 45 minutes each to present their case.

The hearing officer will then collect all the information and make a recommendation to State Superintendent Tony Sanders. He’ll then also review the information and make a recommendation to the State Board of Education, which will make the final decision.

It’s a lengthy process which Higus said could last until June.

Higus said Quest is in communication with District 150 about a transition plan in case the PPS school board’s decision is upheld. He says they are also planning for the next school year in case the PPS school board’s decision is overturned.

If the state board does overrule the PPS board, then Quest will continue to operate with ISBE as their authorizing entity. That means Quest and D150 will no longer have an operational relationship.

District 150 Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said the district will continue their preparations for the transition even as the appeal in in progress.

During an interview Tuesday with WCBU, Kherat said they had designated four middle schools and two high schools for Quest student transfers. She said locations and transportation options will be the main considerations for where students go.

The district will form committees and launch a website for parents to ask questions. She said letters will go out to Quest parents and teachers laying out options.

"[Quest has] great teachers, and we're looking forward to bringing them on to join our team," Kherat said.

She said the district will give tours of schools and have one-on-one conversations with Quest students and parents.

Kherat said the district hopes to work collaboratively with Quest during this process.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.