Thackston trying to overcome adversity in new year
For the first time, students will begin their first day of classes at Helen Thackston Charter School uncertain if they will complete the school year there.
That’s because hearings to revoke the school's charter are likely to begin during the fall semester, and depending on their completion, a decision by the state Charter Appeals Board could order a closure before the class of 2018 receives their diplomas.
Former charter school New Hope Academy had an initial closing date of January 2014 — midway through the school year — but managed to get an extension through June of that year through an appeal.
Even with the possibility of closure, several parents at Helen Thackston’s open house on Thursday, Aug. 24, said they weren’t focused at all on the school's administrative issues but instead shared excitement for the new school year and for the school itself.
“I love Helen Thackston,” said Keisha Cross of York City. She is the guardian of student Quaisear Simmons, 17, who has attended the school since its inception in 2009 and is scheduled to graduate next June.
“To see where it was to where it is now — it’s incredible,” Cross said.
Quaisear said he remembers taking classes in the basement of a church across the street in fifth grade.
Now, he and about 500 other students roam around a three-story, 69,000-square-foot school.
“It’s changed so much (for the better),” Quaisear said.
Cross said the engagement from teachers is the reason why Quaisear has stayed at Thackston throughout its existence.
Reaction: The York City School District moved in early June to start hearings of revocation for the struggling charter school, which failed to provide documents on time and has declined in academic performance for years, according to a district resolution.
Regarding issues with the school’s charter, Cross said she is immune to the drama.
“I’m blind (to it),” she said. “I could care less.”
She said she won’t get caught up in the day-to-day developments of the school and added that there are problems in almost every institution.
“Look at who our president is,” she said.
The school has worked for Quaisear, she said, and that is more than good enough for her.
Quaisear said he has heard about the school’s issues but doesn’t believe there is a chance the school could close before he graduates.
Robin Sparks, of York City, said her son Raquel Dewitt has been training all summer to play on the William Penn Senior High School football team but will be starting his freshman year at Thackston. Since Thackston does not have its own football team, students are allowed to try out and play for the York High team.
She cites the close proximity to her home and smaller class sizes as the main factors in choosing Thackston.
Sparks also said she has heard of some issues at the school but said she hears mostly positive comments from friends and family members.
Sparks said she would consider speaking out against revoking the school's charter in front of the York City school board, but she is unsure if it has gotten to the point where her comment would be necessary.
Luis Duran, 16, who is entering his sophomore year and plays on the boys' basketball team, said he prefers attending Thackston over William Penn, which he briefly attended.
“I feel like the teachers push me more (at Thackston),” he said.
Recently, the Helen Thackston school board denied a proposal to lower the grade-point- average requirement for students to be part of PIAA sports teams.
Goals: The open house was the most well-attended in school history, according to Helen Thackston Principal Melissa Achuff.
“We ran out of sign-in sheets,” she said.
Achuff, in her first full school year as principal, said her first priority is fostering a new culture at the school, one centered on safe learning.
Discipline has been a problem at the school, but Achuff plans to implement an after-school program to give students something to look forward to during the day.
Achuff said she understands that she entered her role as principal in an unconventional way, but she looks forward to leading a “stable” year at the charter school, even if her name is unfamiliar.
“(Parents) might not have recognized me by name, but when they see me, they say, 'Oh yeah, I know her,'” she said.
Achuff replaced former principal Denise Butts, who wasn't seen at the school after Feb. 24 and was formally let go by Thackston's board of trustees in June.
Butts' sister and former Helen Thackston business manager Kimberly Kirby was terminated Feb. 24 and later charged with felony theft for allegedly stealing more than $12,000 in cash, checks and products from the school.
Getting started: Students will take aptitude tests to determine where they are in reading, writing and math skills as well as readiness in the workforce, according to Achuff and school CEO Carlos Lopez.
Achuff said the school year comes with another goal: overcoming adversity.
“We don’t have to defend our school culture,” she said, “but we’re fighting our battle (against charter revocation) and presenting our curriculum and all that we’re doing for these kids.”
Achuff, who previously worked at the School District of Lancaster, said she faces a new challenge as the head of a charter school.
“The students are the same, (but) the politics are a little different,” she said.
Hearings of revocation will commence Oct.13, according to a letter sent by hearing officer Ellen Schurdak to attorneys for Thackston and the York City School District.