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Charter school with polygamist ties lacks diversity

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Screen Shot 2020-12-10 at 10.44.50 PM.png

A Former staffer at Vanguard Academy, who asked not to be identified, said she was confused by the racial makeup of the school.

"There was no one of Hispanic, there was no one of African-American, it was all-white,” she said.

Vanguard, a publicly funded charter school, has no racial minorities, despite being located in West Valley City, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is Utah’s most racially diverse city with a population that is 51% non-white.

Our Beyond The Books unit started digging and using Utah’s public records law, asked for the demographic breakdown of the student population from Vanguard Academy. We discovered that the school did not enroll a single minority student during its first four years of operation.

"That’s the question. How do you start a charter school in West Valley City and enroll no students of color?" said Brooke Anderson, a data specialist for the Jordan School District. She has looked at the racial demographics at every school in Utah and says Vanguard is the least integrated in the state.

"Pretty much every school has some students of color, because our communities are that diverse,” Anderson said.

We broached the subject with the school’s director, Suzanne Owen,

Chris Jones: How can that be? I guess, how can that be possible?

Suzanne Owen: We are absolutely, staunchly against any kind of discrimination.

Owen says when the school opened in 2015-2016, and employees marketed to neighborhoods in West Valley, but received very few minority applicants. Beyond The Books has discovered that only two minority students applied to attend Vanguard during its first four years of operation. Owen says thanks to the state’s open enrollment policy, schools can allow students to attend from anywhere in the state.

"A charter school in general will not always reflect the community around the building itself," Owen said.

However, Beyond The Books discovered that at least regarding schools near Vanguard Academy, that is not the case. There are four charter schools within two miles of Vanguard — all have double-digit minority populations.

Schools Near Vanguard

  • Mana Charter Academy: 97% minority population.
  • American Preparatory Academy-West Valley: 82% minority population
  • Roots Academy: 45% minority population
  • Endeavor Hall: 51% minority population

The numbers at Endeavor may be most telling of all, given that the school is located across the parking lot from Vanguard and its all-white population.

At the very least, the pattern of zero percent minority enrollment year after year suggests it’s not chance," Anderson said.

This week, Beyond The Books reported that Vanguard has links to the Kingston polygamist group. Beyond The Books also discovered that many of the students have the last name Kingston. Vanguard uses a state-approved lottery system to enroll students. The lottery, among other cases, gives preference to applicants who already have a sibling in the school. There is no evidence that the school is deliberately squeezing out minority students in favor of Kingston-linked children.

Meanwhile, Beyond The Books discovered that the lack of diversity at the school has received the attention of the Utah State Charter School Board. At a recent hearing to consider Vanguard’s application for expansion, charter board member Jim Moss took note of the small number of minority students in the school.

"It seems to indicate minority population is one percent versus the general population in the area that is roughly 50 percent," Moss said.

Vanguard’s school board, that Beyond The Books has discovered is made up almost entirely of members with links to polygamy, said it wanted to add more students so it could, in part, address the diversity problem. However, Beyond The Books dug into their application, and nowhere does it indicate that increasing minority representation is the goal; rather, the school says its primary reason for adding more seats is to make room for the siblings of kids who already attend the school. We asked Owen about the discrepancy.

Chris Jones: There is nothing in your application that suggests that increasing minority students is a priority.

Suzanne Owen: Our intent is, again, to educate all students interested in coming to Vanguard to receive that high-quality education.

Vanguard’s application for expansion was approved. Now, in addition to the $17 million they have already received from state taxpayers since 2016, the school could bring in hundreds of thousands of new money from the state now that they can add more students. Utah allots money to schools based on a per-pupil basis. On average, the state pays schools about $4,000 per student.

INVESTIGATION: Polygamy-linked charter school pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kingston companies

The state charter school board is aware of the diversity issue in the school and will address it at their regularly scheduled meeting in January.