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Quest Charter Academy leaders present case to remain open in appeal hearing

Students and parents from Quest watch the appeal hearing at the Illinois State Board of Education office in Springfield.
Camryn Cutinello
Students and parents from Quest watch the appeal hearing at the Illinois State Board of Education office in Springfield.

Leaders from Quest Charter Academy met in Springfield Monday to make their case for why the charter school should stay open to the Illinois State Board of Education.

In January, Peoria Public Schools District 150 Board of Education voted 5-1 not to renew the academy’s agreement. Quest had long been criticized by leaders in District 150 for failing to meet certain academic goals.

Quest appealed the decision to the Illinois State Board of Education. Monday’s hearing was one step in a lengthy appeal process.

The presentations

Quest and D150 were each given 45 minutes to present their case to a hearing officer assigned by ISBE.

Quest lawyer Joshua Herman said that the academic goals established by the district were unreasonable, especially given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The district’s renewal process was designed to fail,” he said.

Quest was required to have 2% growth in English and Language Arts and math proficiency. They had 1.6% growth in English and Language Arts and 4.8% in math, according to the Illinois Report Card.

Quest was also required to meet the state average in graduation rate and 9th grade on track. Quest had a rate of 87.1% for 9th grade on track, falling short of the state average of 87.4%. They had a graduation rate of 86.5%, compared to the state average of 87.6%.

Herman said that District 150's all or nothing approach to the academic goals was unfair, and that the school board should have considered both the progress being made and the impact of the pandemic in their decision.

One of District 150’s biggest concern was a lack of certified teaching staff at Quest. The charter school has not met the 75% certified teacher threshold required by state law since the 2017-18 school year.

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

C. Frazier Satterly, District 150’s attorney, said Quest had not presented evidence that the number of certified teachers was going to increase. Quest’s presentation said they were adding certified staff and would reach that threshold in the 2024-25 school year.

Satterly also said that District 150 has hired eight of Quest’s teachers, as well as two members of the support staff and two assistant principals, since the vote to not renew the charter.

Satterly said that the data they were using had been provided by Quest. She said that according to that data, 18 out of 43 positions were filled by people with substitute teaching certificates, which does not fulfill the state requirement.

They also expressed concern over Quest’s teacher retention rate of 59.6%, which is significantly lower than the state average of 90.2% and the district’s average of 88.4%.

Satterly said this could be explained by the lower average salary, noting that Quest teaching staff is not unionized and therefore do not have a collective bargaining agreement.

Other concerns raised by the district included a lack of special education teachers, transportation issues and a declining enrollment at Quest.

Quest Executive Director Taunya Jenkins said they’re trying to attract students by adding sports to the high school and middle school. Herman also said that the last contract renewal process, where District 150 presented similar concerns but ultimately renewed the charter, dissuaded some parents from enrolling their students in Quest.

Public comment

Following the presentations and questions from the hearing officer, the public was allowed to give comments.

Lafelda Jones, a librarian and substitute teacher with Quest, said that when students come to Quest they often have to catch up on certain academic standards. She said the teaching staff is dedicated to getting those students caught up.

“The level of commitment of each educator to each child is staying after school, giving up lunch and prep to work with that scholar to ensure they are performing at their best,” she said. “This is what we do daily.”

She said parents and students she has spoken to do not understand why the school is closing.

Bryanna Johnson is a ninth grade teacher at Quest. She said the school helped her get her substitute teachers certification, and now have helped her get her full teachers certification.

“Because of Quest, they not only pay for the bulk of my tuition, they gave me in help with support that teachers were surrounding me that were veteran teachers that were there to support me and not only guide me through the process, but also give me some best practices along the way, and expose me to things that I may never have been exposed to,’ she said.

Three students at Quest spoke, all saying they experienced academic growth at the charter academy and asking that it remain open.

What happens next?

The hearing officer will review the documentation and testimony from the hearing before making a recommendation to the State Superintendent Tony Sanders. He will then present his decision to the state board, who will make the final decision. The state board must issue their decision within 60 days of Monday's hearing.

Higus told WCBU that Quest is working with D150 on a transition plan if the state board does not vote to overrule the D150 board’s decision to pull the charter.

If the state board votes to keep it open, Quest and District 150 will no longer have an operational relationship. The charter academy would continue to operate under ISBE's jurisdiction.

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