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Creating future scholars

Alumnae Tacey Clayton and Jenna Leahy open a charter school for young students who, otherwise, face a challenging future.

Scholars file into the room to the beat of African drums and slide into their sections with the precision of a marching band. Academic Director Tacey Clayton strides into the center, looking like she just emerged from a Fortune 500 meeting, and conducts the opening chant, “Who are we? We are CASA Academy!” the students cheer. “We know we can be what we want to be. We are CASA scholars, and we’re on our way to college.”

Next, Jenna Leahy, director of students and operations, bounds around the room, announcing upcoming career days. She pauses to praise an attentive girl with poised posture. “If she were in a job interview right now, we would show her so much respect.”

But none of these students will fill out applications anytime soon because CASA Academy is a K-3 charter school. “College is a mindset and a mentality we want our scholars to have from day one,” says Clayton, 31. It’s an ethos the two women incorporate into every detail of their one-year-old school, including the use of “scholar,” a word typically ascribed to Oxford doctoral candidates, not 6-year-olds.

“We think they will all be Oxford doctoral candidates,” says Leahy, 27, and she’s only half joking. This might not be surprising if CASA were in Silicon Valley. But it’s in a low-income neighborhood in Phoenix. Very few of these children’s parents attended college. Seventy-two percent are English language learners. These are the kids most people give up on. But not Clayton and Leahy.

Similar routes

The two women grew up on the other side of the educational divide: Clayton in middle-class Maine and Leahy as a day student in a New Hampshire boarding school that offered field trips to Panama. But each reached a crossroads. For Clayton, it was during a college class on educational inequalities; for Leahy, it was while volunteer teaching in Tijuana, Mexico. Clayton realized, “I don’t just want to teach. I want to teach the students who need the most help.”

They hadn’t met, but Clayton and Leahy were headed down the same path. Both joined Teach for America and were assigned to schools in Arizona, where they experienced America’s dismal education statistics. Six out of 10 third-graders can read. Low-income students are typically two years behind their high income peers.

Leahy’s classroom didn’t have enough chairs for students. “I knew what third-world education was like,” Leahy says. “I just wasn’t prepared for what it was going to be like in the richest and most powerful country in the world.”

High marks

But the women’s great expectations for their students paid off. Clayton’s second-graders advanced by more than a year and a half in just one year. Leahy’s kindergartners outperformed their peers in 74 schools in their charter network, including those in more affluent areas.

Unfortunately, the women knew their students would probably be passed on to teachers who believe children who have a parent in jail or don’t speak fluent English aren’t capable of succeeding. “Those high expectations in my classroom in contrast with low expectations elsewhere made me so sad,” Leahy says.

“I was affecting 30 students a year, but grade-wise and school-wise, the bar wasn’t set high enough.” Clayton had the same idea: “How can I broaden my impact?”


"I don’t just want to teach. I want to teach the students
who need the most help."

– Tacey Clayton, MAED/ADM '12


Jenna Leahy, MAED/ADM ‘14 (left) and Tacey Clayton, MAED/ADM ‘12 (right image)

Jenna Leahy, MAED/ADM ‘14 (left) and Tacey Clayton, MAED/ADM ‘12 (right image)

 

Sharing a dream

Both women earned master’s degrees from University of Phoenix, and Clayton earned another master’s from Arizona State University. Finally, their paths collided through the Arizona Charter Schools Association’s Aspiring Leaders Fellowship.

At that point, Clayton and Leahy had no intention of launching a school. In their 20s, they lacked school leadership experience, and the task seemed Herculean. Then, through the fellowship, they visited three cities to see high-performing charter schools. Touring the first school in Denver, they had an epiphany. “There was warmth and positivity, and you could feel the love on [the] campus,” Clayton says. “But at the same time, you could feel the structure and the expectations and the procedures and the routines. So we said, ‘This is the kind of school we want to create.’”

“There were a million reasons for us to say no,” Leahy says. “But we felt that there was such a sense of urgency that we had to say yes.”

They applied for grants, visited more than 50 top-performing charters, developed a governing board and prepared the curriculum. In August 2014, they opened their doors to about 150 students.

College bound

Some of the kindergartners didn’t speak a word of English. One hundred percent of the second graders were reading significantly below grade level. Nevertheless, they were treated like future degree holders.

Every day, scholars walk past walls decked with college pennants. Their classrooms are named after universities, and each has a college-related chant. They raise their “college hand” (straight and upright) and ask questions in their “college voice” (loud and proud). They’re awarded for acts of compassion (comforting a sad student) and perseverance (working hard at home to read a difficult book). Clayton says character education is as important as academics. Low-income students need especially high levels of perseverance to overcome obstacles and society’s low expectations of them.

Expecting success

When hiring teachers, the No. 1 quality Clayton and Leahy look for is: Do they believe low-income students can and will be successful? A surprising number of (failed) candidates say, “No.” Is it any wonder most low-income students lose faith in themselves?

“We need to show [students] that regardless of what happened last night, regardless of whether you have the money to buy brand new shoes, you can and you will get a good education, and we’ll make sure that sets you up for being successful,” Clayton says.

At the end of the extended school year, their goal is for all students to perform at one-and-a-half years above grade level. Watching kindergartners on a May morning reading words like “responsibility” and “perseverance,” it seems like they’re well on their way.

Meanwhile, the two leaders face their own challenges—mostly a shortage of funding. But what motivates Clayton to persevere is a desire for change: “seeing what is and what could be, and lessening that gap between the two of those things.” For Leahy, it’s love: “love for the children that we serve ... and the success we want them to have in life.” 

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For gainful employment information, including on-time completion rates, the median debt incurred by students who completed the program and other important information, please visit phoenix.edu/programs/gainful-employment.html.