Prescott Valley Charter School
Launched in 2002
Serves 256 students in grades K-8
Forty percent of students are Hispanic; 82% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 16% for English as a second language services, and 12% for special education services
The town of Prescott Valley is the larger end of the rural spectrum
Prescott Valley is home to eight charter schools
Model is based on 1) data-based instruction coupled with flexibility; 2) consistent structures and expectations; and 3) a family-like culture and community
Challenges include 1) finances; 2) transportation; 3) large population of high-need students; 4) a challenging district-charter relationship; and 5) teacher recruitment
In 2001, Dr. and Mrs. Atkinson founded Arizona Charter Academy in Surprise, Arizona. The Atkinsons had a background in private Christian education, and decided to open a charter school using the non-religious tenets of their background. A year later the Atkinsons opened a second charter school 90 miles north, in the rural town of Prescott Valley. This school, Prescott Valley Charter School (PVCS), opened its doors in 2002 under the direction of the Atkinsons’ daughter, Connie Reveile. The two schools operated under the same charter as “sister schools” — sharing curricula, professional development opportunities, and a handful of back-office processes — until 2007. Today, each school operates under its own charter. When Reveile retired in 2010, Monika Fuller, who had served as chief financial officer for both schools, took over as PVCS director. Her husband, Mike Fuller, came on board as principal in 2011.
After Monika Fuller took the helm in 2010, the school underwent a bit of a renaissance. Enrollment increased by nearly 100 students. The school staff adopted new curricula in reading and math, adding greater structure and continuity to the academic program. She closed the school’s high school program to accommodate enrollment growth in grades K-8, and rented a second building to house its larger student body. The school also began to provide in-house transportation, a food program, and free aftercare to help make it accessible to more families.
Today, PVCS boasts proficiency ratings on the most recent state reading and math assessments that surpass the local school district and the state. Achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students are smaller at PVCS than at the state level, especially in math. Even so, contextual factors, including being one of two dozen charter schools in the county, in a state where per-pupil funding is low and charter school oversight is more limited than in other states, have posed some financial, operational, and political challenges. But with a strong school model built on data-based instruction, high expectations, and a strong culture, PVCS continues to be a high-quality school option for the families of Prescott Valley.
The town of Prescott Valley is located in Yavapai County in central Arizona, about 90 miles north of Phoenix. It’s nestled between the Tonto and Prescott National Forests along Lynx Creek, where explorers discovered gold in 1863 and catalyzed settlements in the area. It was not until a century later, in 1978, that the town officially incorporated.
Prescott Valley has grown rapidly since its incorporation. Today, it is home to nearly 46,000 residents, triple that of the mid-1990s. Since its classification as a rural community in the 2010 census, the town’s population has continued to grow and may not be “rural” much longer. The majority of its residents identify as white, and one in five are of Hispanic origin.
Much of Prescott Valley’s population growth can be attributed to its reputation as a desirable retirement location. Prescott Valley specifically has seen a 25% increase in adults over 60 since 2009. The influx of retirees has had a significant effect on the local economy, as housing prices continue to increase even while economic activity is somewhat stagnant.
It's not just retirees who are moving to Arizona, however. Between 2000 and 2016, enrollment in public K-12 schools statewide increased by 28%, to slightly more than 1.1 million students.
Both Yavapai County and Humboldt Unified School District, the local school system that serves the town of Prescott Valley, experienced substantial enrollment growth into the mid-2000s. However, over the past decade, the K-12 enrollment in both Yavapai County and in Humboldt Unified School District has declined. Today, approximately 25,000 K-12 students are enrolled in schools throughout Yavapai County. Humboldt Unified enrolls about 5,600 students.
The students not enrolled in Humboldt schools likely attend a combination of private schools and charter schools, including PVCS. PVCS is one of eight public charter schools located within the town limits of Prescott Valley, and one of 24 that operate in Yavapai County. Like Arizona as a whole, both the Humboldt Unified School District and PVCS serve a student population that is primarily white and Hispanic. PVCS’ population of English language learner students and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch is substantially higher than both Humboldt Unified School District and the state of Arizona.
Percent of Students by Race/Ethnicity
Percent of Students by Subgroup
The relatively large number of charter schools given the community’s size has led to some tension and confusion about the role of charter schools in the community. As a whole, Arizona’s charter sector has a reputation of being the “wild west.” It has fewer, and more lenient, regulations on issues such as the number of charter schools that can open statewide or in specific communities, the reporting requirements charter schools face, how charter schools are regulated by their authorizers, and under what circumstances a school can have its charter revoked.
Moreover, the existence of new schools outside the traditional district context has created some challenges for the town’s families and students. High student mobility is one. As Humboldt Unified Superintendent Dan Streeter explained, “When I was in school, if there was a problem at my school, my parents went down to the school and got involved and wanted to be part of the solution. Now we’ve trained people to react in a market-oriented way. They simply pull their child out. They go somewhere else. But that mobility is really tough on students.” Some of PVCS’ teachers agree. One noted, “It’s too easy to change schools. If a kid has poor attendance and you call the family, they’ll just take their kids to another school.” This high mobility can create logistical challenges for the schools — complicated records transfers, for example — as well as cultural challenges within the schools. Staff may find it difficult to build a consistent culture and strong relationships with a constantly changing student body.
In addition, the plethora of school options can fray the social fabric in a small community: “It used to be that you’d have kids in the neighborhood who played together, went to school together, and as a result their parents volunteered together. Today, you can have four families who live on the same street but whose kids go to four different schools. In a small community like this, there is an elevated sense of community and sense of pride. However, in this environment, with all of these schools, you start to chip away at that cohesion,” noted Streeter.
The high student mobility and breakdown in social cohesion are challenges that the Fullers readily acknowledge. But providing a high-quality school option to Prescott Valley’s families is top of mind for them, and they’ve been doing it for nearly a decade. Even while serving a higher percentage of low-income and Hispanic students, and operating on lower per-pupil funding than the district, PVCS is posting student proficiency rates above statewide averages.
At a small elevation off of Route 69 in the southeastern corner of Prescott Valley, PVCS wouldn’t look like a school if it weren’t for the banner out front and the yellow school buses parked out back. But the campus, split across three buildings, is where Monika Fuller has come to work each day since 2010 as she has guided a rejuvenation of the school’s educational model.
Prescott Valley is an example of a rural community that is large enough to sustain multiple school options aside from the local district. In these larger rural communities, it is less imperative that these charters have unique models that are dramatically different from what the district offers. Instead, they can be successful by simply providing a better option than the district.
For PVCS, recent assessment data suggest that it is doing just that. Though the school’s proficiency rates have historically lagged statewide averages, the percent of PVCS students testing proficient or higher in reading and math has increased substantially in each of the last five school years. In 2018, the percent of students at PVCS scoring proficient or higher on the state ELA and math assessments surpassed both the local school district and the state. And while there is a substantial gap of 15 percentage points between Hispanic and white students at PVCS in ELA (47% of white students scored proficient or higher compared to 32% of Hispanic students), this gap is slightly smaller than the district’s white-Hispanic ELA gap of 17 percentage points. In math, the percent of Hispanic students at PVCS scoring proficient or higher surpasses that of white students by three percentage points. In contrast, both the district and state have substantial white-Hispanic achievement gaps (15 and 25 percentage points, respectively).
Percent of Students Scoring Proficient or Higher in ELA, by Race
Percent of Student Scoring Proficient or Higher in Math, by Race
The school’s teachers, leaders, and parents attribute the school’s success to three components of its model, which will sound familiar to educators in other sectors and settings:
Data-based instruction coupled with flexibility
Consistent structures and expectations
A family-like culture and community
These core elements have helped the school develop a strong academic program that supports all of its students in achieving strong academic outcomes.
1. Data-based instruction coupled with flexibility
During the school’s first several years of operation, teachers had full autonomy to develop and implement their own curricula. However, when Monika Fuller took on the role of school leader in 2010, that changed, as she strove to infuse greater structure and alignment. Many elements of PVCS’ model are drawn from the practices described in Doug Lemov’s book “Teach Like a Champion,” which has been a foundational resource for Fuller and her team. This book provides educators with 49 strategies for improving their practice and strengthening students’ academic success. PVCS’ special twist on these practices is the team’s incremental, thoughtful, and patient implementation. Each year, Fuller identifies one or two strategies to focus on and develops a coherent plan for supporting her teachers to execute them in their classrooms. She doesn’t expect immediate changes in students or in test scores; instead, she emphasizes strong implementation over a time period long enough for teachers to master the strategies and students to respond. Each year the teachers build on the strategies from the prior year, adding a few more to their repertoire, but never immediately discarding those that don’t seem to be “working.”
In addition to a thoughtful focus on teachers’ practice, Fuller also led the school through the adoption of new curricula in ELA and math. In K-2, teachers use Core Knowledge Language Arts. In math, teachers use Eureka math. This curriculum has enabled teachers to map the curriculum to the state standards and ensure vertical alignment — meaning that as students progress through grade levels, they are receiving a streamlined math education. The initial transition was tough, because Eureka’s approach is different from what many of the teachers and students were used to, but they are now in their fourth year of implementation. According to one teacher, “It was really a struggle at first, because it was so different from how [the students] had learned in the past. But now the kids I get have had it for four years and they are familiar with it. We are making greater gains now that we’ve got some experience working with it.”
All teachers at the school also regularly use Galileo, an online assessment system, to track and analyze student data in math, writing, reading, and science. Students take the online assessments between three and five times per year, depending on their grade level. Teachers are able to see which standards students have mastered and on which they need to provide additional support or remediation. This enables teachers to shift their instruction and pacing based on standards mastery. At the end of the year, the data enables PVCS’ leaders to gather instructional effectiveness data on their teachers, in order to better support them in developing their instructional practice.
2. Consistent structures and expectations
Like many charter schools, the teachers at PVCS develop structures and expectations that are consistent across classrooms, so students always know what is expected of them. As one teacher explained, “At the beginning of the year, we have to give Mrs. Fuller procedures. Where do backpacks go? Expectations are the same across classrooms, so there’s a lot of consistency.”
The focus of the “Teach Like a Champion” strategies that Fuller has chosen to focus on so far have been to help teachers and students maximize every instructional minute. As she explained, “We were seeing a lot of wasted time. At the beginning of the year, teachers plan things like their processes for sharpening pencils, going to the bathrooms, where backpacks go, and how to pass out papers. These kinds of transitions happen at least 20 times per day, so multiply that by the week, the year — those two minutes add up to a lot of instructional time.”
In addition to increasing instructional time, tightening up routines like these have the added benefit of ensuring all students know exactly what is expected of them at all times, which, PVCS staff believe, can mitigate behavior issues.
Within this structure, however, Fuller has left space for professional judgment and personal expression. Teachers appreciate that they still have room to add their own unique touch to their classrooms. As one teacher explained it, “I have a certain amount of freedom to teach the way I want to teach and to do some of the things that I couldn’t do [when I taught in the district].” A second teacher concurred, offering this explanation: “They value your expertise as a teacher. It used to be ‘just get in your room and do what you’re told.’ Here, it’s ‘be yourself’ and ‘do your own thing.’”
3. A family-like culture and community
Even with a strong focus on curriculum, data, and outcomes, school staff have been able to strike a balance between focusing on those items and embracing the “whole child.”
As one teacher explained, “We put a lot of emphasis on testing and that’s not always a full representation of a student or a teacher. It does bother me some that we put so much emphasis on testing.” On the other hand, teachers feel they have been able to strike a balance between focusing on student outcomes and getting to know the whole child: “There is other stuff going on in kids’ lives. Educators sometimes fail at [acknowledging] that; we don’t look at the whole kid. But that is probably our greatest strength as a staff. We look at the whole kid. We know if CPS visited them or if they’re sick. Because of that, students feel like they can achieve here.”
The staff strives to create a culture where all students feel valued and respected by all of the teachers, regardless of whose classroom they are in. This manifests, as one teacher explained, in respect for all the teachers in the school: “We don’t think that another teacher’s student is another teacher’s problem. If I see a fifth-grader running down the stairs, I’ll say something. I know that’s not the teacher’s expectation for her students. I’ve never heard a student say, ‘You’re not my teacher so I don’t have to listen to you.’”
PVCS’ leaders have created a culture that prioritizes quality instruction and students’ academic success alongside genuine care and respect for one another and a deep understanding of their students’ needs.
PVCS’ success has not been without its fair share of challenges over the years. In particular, Fuller operates the school on an extremely tight budget that has required substantial compromises to offer a high-quality education program to a diverse student population. The relationship between the local school district and the charter sector as a whole is strained throughout Prescott Valley, including between PVCS and the district. And as is the case in the community more broadly, teacher recruitment has been an ongoing struggle.
There are three factors that contribute to challenging financials at PVCS: state funding levels, high student mobility and unpredictable enrollment, and economic vulnerability in the community. Arizona ranks among the bottom of states in terms of per-pupil spending. In 2016, Arizona schools spent an average of $8,003 per student. Only three states spent less. This makes it difficult for all of Arizona’s public schools to meet the educational needs of their students, and even tougher for charter schools, which receive an average of 18.5% less revenue than district schools in the state. Finances are tight at PVCS.
Enrollment growth and stability is one way that charter schools can help stabilize their finances. Unfortunately, this has been a challenge for PVCS. The large number of charter schools in Yavapai County has spawned a generation of parents who are accustomed to shopping for the right school fit. Many parents in Prescott Valley move their children among the different school options, both between school years and during the school year. In addition to the academic challenges that high mobility presents, this can make it difficult for Monika Fuller to anticipate funding amounts and thus budget effectively.
Yavapai County’s economic vulnerability also plays a role in enrollment instability. When the local economy took a downturn shortly after the Fullers arrived, Mike Fuller explains, “We lost almost 30 kids just over the holidays. People picked up and left the community; families were moving looking for work. It devastated us. We almost closed. The community and the school have recovered dramatically in a short amount of time, but that was a really tough year.”
To help mitigate some of their financial challenges, the Fullers use what they call “creative budgeting.” They do things like use credit to make large purchases at the beginning of the year to ensure the school has what it needs on day one, and then they pay that off over the course of the school year. They’ve also developed good relationships with financial institutions that have enabled the school to take out private loans to support large purchases. For example, when the school needed new computers, the Fullers were able to secure a loan to purchase 180 Chromebooks. They’re paying off this loan over five years.
They also chose to close PVCS’ high school program at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Since then, the school has operated as a K-8 school. This was both a practical and financial decision: The school was experiencing enrollment growth primarily in grades K-8 while the high school program’s enrollment was declining. The school needed additional space to accommodate the growth in K-8. Without the finances to build or purchase additional space, the Fullers had to make do with what they had, and opted to close the high school wing. In addition, high schools tend to be more expensive to operate given the additional programmatic needs like differentiated course selection and greater demand for sports. Operating an expensive but shrinking program no longer made financial sense, especially when they could repurpose that space to accommodate more students in the early grades. With this change in grade levels served, the school’s facility is not quite at capacity. The Fullers hope to enroll a few dozen more students in the coming years.
Monika Fuller’s background in finance — she started her career at a finance company where she provided accounting support to charter schools, and she holds degrees in business and accounting — has helped PVCS stay in the black despite its tight operating budget. But without a significant influx of revenue, finances will be a challenge that the Fullers will have to continuously manage.
Charter schools in Arizona are not required to provide transportation for their students, and PVCS opted not to provide this service until Monika Fuller came on board in 2010. The rural locale, in which families are widely dispersed in the surrounding areas, can make it challenging for parents to drive their children every day. Moreover, as Mike Fuller explained, “Our building is in an industrial area, surrounded by auto shops, and there’s a lack of sidewalks or safe walking routes. So, we really have to provide transportation to our students.” The first year the school offered transportation, its enrollment increased substantially.
While the decision to provide transportation has paid off, it was not easy to execute. Initially Monika Fuller chose to outsource transportation to the county. But that was expensive and poorly managed. Prescott Valley’s students also come from several surrounding communities, so negotiating a route with the company that could meet the needs of all of the school’s students was a challenge.
After a year of outsourcing, she made the decision to bring their transportation in-house. The school purchased two buses. Currently parents of current and former PVCS students are employed as bus drivers. Their daily routes cover up to 30 miles in one direction in order to transport all of the students who otherwise would not be able to attend the school.
Much like the school’s finances, transportation is an ongoing challenge that the Fullers will continue to contend with. But not providing transportation isn’t an option. As she explained, “Without transportation, our enrollment would drop. We want to be accessible to the whole community. But it’s also a financial decision. Busing is expensive, but so is losing enrollment.”
3. Serving large populations of high-need students
Serving students with special needs and those from low-income families can often require additional resources and capacity that can be tough even for well-resourced schools. It’s even tougher for charter schools operating on tight budgets.
Four out of every five of PVCS’ students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a rate much higher than both the local school district (54%) and the state (49%). As a result, many of the students and families that PVCS serves are struggling with the myriad of challenges associated with poverty. Teachers note that children don’t always have a safe or quiet space to do homework. Some are responsible for caring for younger siblings after school, making it difficult to find time to study or complete assignments. Others have been removed from their homes and are living with relatives or with foster care families. This kind of instability can make it difficult for students to focus on learning during the school day. Some are tired, some are hungry, and some act out due to the trauma they’ve experienced.
In addition, 12% of PVCS’ student body qualifies for special education services. While this is a rate similar to the district (13%), there’s a perception in the community that PVCS is “the school that takes the ‘bad’ kids.” Regardless of reputation, Monika Fuller and the rest of the teachers at PVCS see a real need in the community for high-quality special education services. Fuller has applied to the state several times to become a provider for students with emotional disabilities who need private placements outside of traditional school environments (EDP). In spring 2019, PVCS was approved as an EDP site and will have 15 students enrolled in the program beginning in fall 2019.
Fuller, along with the rest of the PVCS team, is committed to helping meet the need for special education services in the Prescott Valley community, but doing so will not be easy. Though additional resources come with being an EDP provider, PVCS is still a small school operating on a tight budget. Continuing to meet the needs of the low-income and special needs students in the community will likely remain an ongoing challenge for the school’s staff.
4. Relationship with the district
The number of school options in Prescott Valley breeds competition for enrollment among schools, and the charter sector as a whole has a somewhat negative reputation in the state due to a few bad actors. This creates tension among residents who must essentially choose sides — sending their children to either district or charter schools.
There is little collaboration between the district and PVCS or between PVCS and the other charter schools. As Mike Fuller explained, “We’re kind of on an island here. Geographically, because of our school’s location, but also because of the negative talk among charters. We’ve heard things and parents would tell us things about the other schools that make us hesitant to partner with them.” Monika Fuller offers this example: “[Teachers in other charter schools] told parents that our school was insolvent and closing. The competition is cutthroat.”
Teachers, too, feel somewhat isolated from the larger education community. As one explained, “There has been animosity in the past toward people who have worked here who have gone to meetings at the state department of education. People from the district were just scathing.”
From the district superintendent’s perspective, there’s no relationship between the district and charter sectors and he sees little willingness from the charters to be involved in the broader community. Mr. Streeter explained, “We’ve created this strict sense of competition; there is no relationship between charter schools in the area and district schools. When we come together for countywide meetings that involve all of the schools, a majority of districts [in the county] are represented. Typically, just one charter school is there; there’s just one that is willing to participate at that level.”
Another point of contention between PVCS and the district is PVCS’ decision to begin enrolling 4-year-olds in its kindergarten program. Monika Fuller sees this as another way to meet the needs of the surrounding community — there’s a gap in high-quality child care and preschool programming. District leaders, on the other hand, feel that PVCS actively recruits 4-year-olds and that parents are taking advantage of this, not because they think their children are ready for kindergarten but because they lack other child care options. They’re concerned about what this may mean for the district’s first-grade classrooms if a handful of underprepared 5-year-olds shows up. Fuller indicates that PVCS does extensive readiness testing before admitting any 4-year-olds and that PVCS retains the vast majority of its 4-year-olds into first grade. Moreover, she maintains that this decision is a response to a service gap in the community. Regardless, the decision added another element to the already-tense relationship between the district and charter sectors.
The hyper-competitive context present in Prescott Valley makes it difficult for all schools in the community to come together toward a common goal. While this means that PVCS and other charter schools are largely left to do what they think is best for their students, it also means that teachers in these schools lack support and camaraderie that can come from professional relationships outside of their immediate colleagues. Moreover, as mentioned previously, the competition can lead to high student mobility between sectors and schools as schools compete for enrollment and parents move their children among schools trying to find the best fit. Logistical issues that come along with student mobility, like records transfer, can be made more complicated amid tense inter-school relationships. And school staff can struggle to build long-term relationships with students and their families, which are an important component of a school’s overall culture.
As Monika Fuller surmised, “I think it would be better for the kids if there was more of a positive relationship [among all the schools in the community].”
5. Teacher recruitment
Staff recruitment is a challenge at PVCS as well as in the broader Prescott Valley community. The relatively high — and rising — cost of housing is a major barrier to teacher recruitment. Coupled with low teacher salaries (like per-pupil spending, Arizona ranks near the bottom in terms of teacher pay, at just $49,892 on average), many new teachers simply cannot afford to live in the community. Charter school teachers often make even less than district teachers, further exasperating the housing challenge. As Prescott Valley Mayor Kell Palguta explained, “People want to come here, but housing is the challenge. [The district superintendent] is always chasing teachers. He’ll get calls a week before school starts from five to 10 percent of his new hires saying they can’t find housing.”
Yavapai County’s superintendents, who meet monthly, have begun pursuing the possibility of building homes for teachers on school-owned land, and then renting them to teachers at reduced cost. The idea is still in the early stages of development, and there’s a long list of entities — including each district’s school board — that would need to approve the project. Whether and how the project plays out, and whether these homes would be available to charter school teachers as well, remains to be seen. But many leaders in the community acknowledge that housing is a challenge that affects schools’ ability to recruit teachers.
As PVCS grows, the Fullers are feeling this recruitment challenge acutely. Finding special education teachers is a particular pain point for them. They’ve begun taking their recruiting efforts to other parts of Arizona and even out of state. Mike Fuller explains, “One of the biggest challenges is finding the right people. There just aren’t a lot of qualified people. We’ve had people move up from Phoenix or from Scottsdale …” Monika Fuller continues, “We’re starting to do more national recruitment. We’re starting to recruit from the Midwest.”
But even when the Fullers have been able to recruit teachers, they struggle to retain those recruits. They attribute this largely to the rural community, and the lack of cultural attractions and economic opportunities for young people. As Mike Fuller put it, “Folks who move here don’t always stay. They say, ‘I can’t do this community.’”
PVCS offers the families living in Prescott Valley a high-quality school option. The changes it has undergone since the Fullers became its leaders have strengthened the academic and extracurricular opportunities it offers its students. The school staff’s sharp focus on data-based instruction and high expectations have enabled its diverse student body to thrive, surpassing the performance of both the local school district and the state. As PVCS’ leaders look to the future, they’re hopeful that some of Arizona’s statewide reform initiatives, like teacher raises, can help alleviate some of the challenges they face.
But the school’s unique context presents challenges that the Fullers will continue to confront: A county experiencing significant population growth overall but declining K-12 enrollment, an economy increasingly focused on supporting a retirement community, and a rural area with relatively low population density but a significant number of charter schools. It’s clear that the strong outcomes of PVCS students are achieved despite tight finances, strong competition, high student need and mobility, and, at best, a détente with the local school district.