Changing Peoria's Educational Landscape

by Cindy Ardis Jenkins
Quest Charter Academy

Quest is transforming the education of hundreds of students each year through a rigorous curriculum and unique “No Excuses” philosophy.

In 2006, a group including both individuals and businesses recognized Peoria's need for a math, science and technology academy to offer parents and students an option within the public school system. The academy they envisioned would provide a higher quality of education by partnering with community resources to infuse new ideas into the curriculum and provide excellent resources for students.

Their vision became a reality when Quest Charter Academy opened its doors to fifth through seventh grade students in the former Loucks school building. This school year, Quest will educate fifth graders through high school freshmen and will open another campus in the former Columbia school building. The student population will grow each year until there are 600 students in 5th to 12th grade by 2015.

The Charter School Debate

There is significant confusion and deep debate regarding charter schools. While laws vary by state, charter schools are generally independent public schools that do not charge tuition and accept students regardless of socio-economic status or past academic performance. They are designed to boost student achievement. Some of the differences from traditional public schools include a longer school day and school year and a separate board of directors. In most charter school systems, teachers have the flexibility to try innovative methods to improve academic outcomes.

There is no denying that the charter school movement is growing. In the past 20 years, most states across the nation have recognized the critical need to try new and creative approaches to improving student achievement in our public schools. According to an article published by the Heartland Institute in January 2012, enrollment in charter schools across the country has surpassed two million students. In Illinois, there are 115 charter schools educating 42,000 students.

As the charter school movement grows, so does the debate. One of the primary issues is the impact of charter schools on student achievement. Research for the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Global Report Card found that more than a third of the 30 school districts with the highest math achievement in the country are actually charter schools—a very impressive statistic considering that charter schools constitute only five percent of all schools and educate just three percent of all public school students. However, a recent evaluation by the U.S. Department of Education found that, "On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress." No matter which side of this particular debate you favor, the fact remains that charter schools are dramatically altering the way students learn.

Changing the Educational Landscape

Quest Charter Academy is changing the educational landscape right here in Peoria. Quest differs from traditional public schools in several ways, including its rigorous, college-prep, STEM-focused curriculum with 90-minute math and science classes. Each school day is approximately an hour longer and the school year is 13 days longer than in traditional public schools. After-school activities like MathCounts, science fairs and other competitive pursuits are encouraged, and parental involvement is emphasized. There are four parent-teacher conferences rather than two, with some conducted on Saturdays to make it more convenient for parents who work during the week.

Quest students are offered a host of support services to help them succeed, including afterschool tutoring and Saturday School, which is available to both struggling and advanced students. In conjunction with teacher-required professional development days, Quest holds “buckle-down days” for students who need to work on their grades. The additional student time is provided by volunteers from nearby colleges, retired teachers and other business professionals, with guidance from Quest.

The teaching staff at Quest, diverse in demographics and experience, plays a significant role in differentiating the school: 10.5 percent are minority; 26 percent male and 74 percent female; 42 percent have a master’s degree; five percent have a doctorate degree; and 95 percent are certified. Teachers are on yearly contracts, and contract renewal is based largely on student achievement. A “No Excuses” philosophy among staff ensures that every student receives a high-quality education. Home visits by teacher-advisors are also a requirement. Teachers have flexibility in shaping both the curriculum and the environment for themselves and the students; as a result, staff turnover is low. Of the 23 staff and faculty at the school when it opened in 2010, 17 are still at Quest today. This continuity translates to greater stability for the students.

Quest is efficient with its funding, too, despite receiving just 85 percent of the Illinois State Board of Education’s per-pupil funding. As a not-for-profit entity of the Peoria Charter School Initiative, Quest Charter Academy must rely on its own fundraising activities to make up the difference for day-to-day operations—and then raise even more to remain fiscally sound and ensure a solid, well-rounded educational experience. This is no easy task considering the multitude of worthy non-profit organizations in Peoria.

A Look at Academic Outcomes

Now you’re aware of some of the unique features of Quest Charter Academy. Let’s get to academic outcomes.

Students’ potential and abilities are assessed via Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) testing three times a year, which allows teachers to revise their courses to fit individual needs. The Spring 2012 NWEA test results indicated an 88.8 percent proficiency rate in reading and 90 percent proficiency in math, compared to 2011 results of 81 percent in reading and 85 percent in math. On the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, 79 percent of Quest students met or exceeded the standards in 2011, and preliminary results for 2012 show 78 percent proficiency in reading and 85 percent proficiency in math, outscoring students in the local public school system in every comparable subject and grade level—with the gap widening as grade levels progress.

In addition, Quest is also proud of the following outcomes:

  • 93 percent student retention rate
  • 96.5 percent attendance rate
  • 82 percent parent-teacher conference attendance rate
  • 57 percent of students made the honor roll based on first-semester performance.
  • Quest’s MathCounts team received the Most Improved Team award at the regional competition held at Bradley University in the last school year, ranking fifth overall in the Tri-County region.
  • In March, eight Quest students participated in the Regional Science Fair in Macomb. Six students earned Outstanding Projects awards, and two received First Place awards. Three of these students advanced to the state finals held in May. In addition, two students received special awards from the American Society of Materials and the U.S. Army.
  • Two eighth-grade students competed in the State Science Fair against more than 1,100 participants. One earned a gold medal and Best in Show in the mathematics category, and the other received a silver medal. They were the only Peoria public school students represented at the fair.

Our Quest Has Just Begun

While it would be easy to look through rose-colored glasses based on the outcomes to date, Quest faces significant challenges, which it must address while maintaining and improving these outcomes. Quest’s demographics mirror those of District 150, although Quest has a higher percentage of students on a free- or reduced-meal plan. Quest encounters the same types of behavioral situations and has students at both ends of the academic spectrum.

Quest administrators and teachers have high expectations and work hard each and every day to ensure the success of the students. We believe providing a challenging, engaging and integrated environment that utilizes creativity, inquiry, discovery, problem-solving, critical thinking, project-based learning and best practices works for children of all socio-economic and academic backgrounds. This goes back to our “No Excuses” philosophy.

Quest will begin our high school program this school year, and here, we will also differ from the public schools. To prepare students to meet entrance requirements for top colleges, Quest’s graduation requirements exceed those of traditional Illinois public high schools and include 28 credits of coursework; a summer internship; 40 hours of community service; development of a digital portfolio; participation in a school, regional or statewide science fair; and a senior capstone project. In addition, every student will be required to take an online course from the Illinois Virtual School prior to graduation. Every student will also complete a college plan and resume, as well as necessary admission, scholarship and financial aid applications.

A Quest to be the Best

The Peoria Charter School Initiative is grateful to Dr. Grenita Lathan and the District 150 Board of Education for their support of Quest Charter Academy, believing that a STEM-focused charter school would provide some healthy competition that will assist in their efforts to improve Peoria’s public school system. We do not view District 150 as competition; rather, it is a partnership in which we share our outcomes, achievements and fiscal responsibilities.

Quest Charter Academy seeks to be an educational powerhouse. Right here in Peoria, Quest is playing a vital role in transforming the education of hundreds of students each year, which will in turn improve the quality of life and standards in our community. iBi

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