Phoenix charter for homeless students struggles with funding, academic success

PHOENIX — The Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix was given a big, fat F by the Arizona Department of Education’s new rating system, but one reason its academic success is low may be a shortage of funding for the population the school serves.

Children First is made up entirely of students who are living below the poverty line, 56 percent of whom are homeless as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act. The K-8 school, which is part of the Sequoia Schools, operates almost entirely on donations and strives to provide students with more than just an education.

“We want to help our children to see that there’s more to life than the miserable life they might have at home,” Superintendent Jerry Lewis said. “We’re trying to make up for what they don’t get at home.”

On top of education, the school offers students access to health care, food, clothing, after-school programs and more. Children First aims to equip kids with leadership and life lessons by teaching the kids money management, personal hygiene, gardening and cooking skills.

Lewis said they focus on helping the kids while they are at school because there is little administrators can do to help their parents.

“So we try to make a difference with the kids; that’s where we’re going to make a change,” Lewis said.

Eighth grade teacher Megan Wallace explains there are many barriers for these children to be academically successful, including their home life.

“I just grew to love the population we serve because these are the kids that need nurturing the most,” Wallace said. “When they leave here, they still don’t get it (nurture) at home.”

The Children First charter has been active since 2008 when Edkey, Inc. took over the charter from the Thomas J. Pappas School for the Homeless, which was shut down due to financial difficulties. Now, this charter school is facing the same problem.

Lewis said in order to improve performance, the school needs more funding so it can hire additional staff at competitive rates.

“With the teacher shortage, trying to find someone in this state, right now, that wants to work here, for what we pay—it’s a miracle we get anybody,” Lewis said.

The Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix offers students many resources, including an on-campus clinic sponsered by Phoenix Children's Medical Group. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
The Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix tries to inspire students to be leaders in school and at home. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
The Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix teaches students unique skills, like photography, through partnerships with companies like Kids in Focus. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
Superintendent Jerry Lewis said the school's goal is to provide stability and support. Many of the students are homeless and all of them live under the poverty line. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
The school functions on donations as they attempt to provide familes with everything they could need, including clothing, tolietries, food and school supplies. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
A mural at the Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix showcases Stephen R. Covey's seven habits of effective people. Most of the hallways at the school are painted and decorated with inspirational messages for the students. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
Students at the Children First Leadership Academy line up in the hallway while entering their classroom. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
A mural that faces the school's playground, reminding students to be leaders both in the classroom and at home. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
The schools receives many donations for paper and other schools supplies, but is lacking the necessary funding to fill positions that could increase the academic perfomance on campus. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
Eighth grade teacher Megan Wallace has been at the school for years. She said "You can give them everything that they need here but once they step out of the door you can only hope." (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
One of two computer labs available to students at the Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
Despite being rated as a failing school by the Arizona Department of Education, the Children First Leadership Academy in Phoenix attempts to teach a unique student population more than strictly academics. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)
A classroom decoration reinforces a theme seen across campus: creating habits that lead to success. (Photo by Tynin Fries/Cronkite News)

The school hopes to hire paraprofessionals to work part-time in assisting with more one-on-one learning. At another Edkey charter school in Tempe, Children First Academy, the school was able to gain grant funding to hire more paraprofessionals, something the Phoenix campus hopes to find.

According to charter administrators, in 2009 Children First Academy Tempe was rated by the state as “underperforming” in academics. But with the grant funding to hire an additional 11 paraprofessionals on campus, the school’s rating jumped to “performing plus” in 2010, skipping over the “performing” category altogether to show huge improvements in just one year.

While the Tempe location received grant dollars to fund hirings, the Phoenix campus is still searching for funding opportunities. As a teacher, Wallace agreed that staffing could make a big difference and start changing the school’s ranking.

“We need more support from the community and from the parents,” Wallace said. “I think if we were given resources, more manpower to work with the kids that would make an impact. We just need the resources.”