Kim Fowkes lives just west of Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill. PTA president at Washington Elementary for the past two years, she talks easily about the challenges involved in making sure her children get the education they need. When the conversation turns to her less-affluent neighbors, however, her face flushes and tears well up in her eyes.
Washington Elementary is nestled between Highway 89 and the west base of Capitol Hill. Like many elementary schools in the Salt Lake district, Washington’s students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Families in some neighborhoods enjoy the luxuries of an average household income approaching $90,000, while many others scrape by with less than $28,000. So many families speak Spanish at home that messages on Washington’s phone system are in both English and Spanish.
Although she enjoys a lifestyle similar to her middle- and upper-income neighbors, Fowkes doesn’t join them in sending her children to Wasatch or Ensign, two of the best elementary schools in the state. She is determined to make sure her children and their classmates receive a first-rate education at a neighborhood school.
She has worked with the school district to improve Washington, but declining enrollment and the seniority system have combined to push many of the best teachers out. Left behind are bright students the system doesn’t seem to care about challenging. For many, the native tongue is Spanish.
“I’m just convinced that these kids can do better,” Fowkes says, “but I just don’t see a possibility for parents to make a difference. The students get by with slang English,” she continues, “but they are not learning to read, write, and speak standard English. It’s not fair. It’s not what this country was founded on.”
When a former assisted living center in the neighborhood closed recently, Fowkes had a terribly immodest idea: open her own school in it. She called Jody Millard, a friend who had worked and taught in a variety of private schools for more than 20 years, and told her about the idea. Hearing Kim’s vision of a neighborhood school that held high expectations for all students, Jody confided she too had thought the building would make an excellent school. The two of them are now preparing to open the Capitol Hill Academy.
The Capitol Hill Academy will be a private elementary school serving students in grades K through 8. When running at full capacity, it would serve about 250 students. By using existing community resources like the city library, the planetarium, and the Children’s Museum, Fowkes and Millard expect to keep tuition below what the state spends per pupil on education.
Of course, all of this is still hypothetical. The papers are all ready to be filed, and at least 25 of their neighbors’ children want to attend, but two major obstacles stand in the way. First, the two women don’t know when–or if–they will be able to rent the Salt Lake Home. The owner of the building, Zion’s Securities Corp., understandably wants to know that the Capitol Hill Academy will be a financially viable tenant before signing a lease.
Therein lies the second problem. Kim Fowkes’ vision for the Capitol Hill Academy is for it to serve the children in her neighborhood, many of whom can’t afford transportation to send their children to other public schools. Paying thousands of dollars in tuition is out of the question. Fowkes is applying for every grant she can find, but even if those grants come through now, they won’t last forever. At some point, she and her neighbors’ children will need help.
In her mind, the best solution is for the state to implement parental choice. The state constitution guarantees a system of free public education, but she sees that system failing the children in her neighborhood.
Instead of having the district assign children to schools that fail them, Fowkes says the state should let parents choose where their children learn. If they want their children in a public school, a charter school, a magnet school, or a private school, the decision should be the parents’. Where they can afford to live shouldn’t decide for them.
Fighting back the tears welling in her eyes, she cries, “That’s just not fair.”
M. Royce Van Tassell is executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].