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West Jordan Journal

Hawthorn Academy celebrates 10 years

Jul 03, 2019 03:36PM ● By Jet Burnham

Nineteen ninth-grade graduates are the first students to complete their entire K-9 education at Hawthorn Academy. (Halley Miranda/Hawthorn Academy)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Jamie Johnson wanted a part in designing her children’s educational experience.

“I just had a desire for my kids to have a better education than what I felt they had,” said Johnson. “I didn't want to have to send them to school just because it's in the neighborhood. I wanted them someplace that I had a part in molding and shaping.” 

Johnson joined with like-minded parents to create Hawthorn Academy, a K-9 charter school, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

In 2008, Amara Gulsbury was reluctant to send her kindergartener, Kastin, to the overcrowded, transient neighborhood school. Then she heard about the new charter school, Hawthorn Academy, with its smaller class sizes and International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

“We didn't know where it was going to be, but we listened to what their goals were, and we were really impressed,” said Gulsby. “So, we registered him on a whim.”

Ten years later, Kastin is graduating the ninth grade from Hawthorn.

“We just love the community,” said Gulsby. “We are friends, and I think it makes a difference that we're in kindergarten through nine because we continue to grow up together for the 10 years.”

The 19 students who have attended the charter school as a kindergartener in its first year just graduated from ninth grade. They celebrated their decade together at a special luncheon and received gifts and personal letters from their teachers and administrators at their graduation later that night. 

Dedicated Hawthorn employees, who have been at the school since its beginning, received cash bonuses as part of the celebration. Sheri Sorensen, whose four children have attended Hawthorn for the last 10 years, said she has made lifelong friends with their teachers.

“I like the relationship I felt with the teachers,” said Sorensen. “I feel like they’re friends, and I can approach them with any of my concerns.”

The chartering process for Hawthorn Academy began in 2006 with a group of neighbors, family members and co-workers.

“It started in a living room, and here we are today,” said one of the founding parents, Meggen Pettit. She said getting the school off the ground required a lot of work and sacrifice but that it has been worth it.

“It's not just affecting my kids,” said Pettit. “Now it's affected all of the kids that have come through here—we've had now thousands of kids coming through here.”

She said the support of the administration, faculty and parents are what makes the school great. While she believes charter schools provide benefits such as a close community, small class sizes and specialized curriculum, Pettit said parents can create an excellent educational environment for their children in any school.

“If you have active parents, regardless of where you go, then you will have a great education,” said Pettit. “If you're actively involved, talking and communicating with your teachers and with the administration, making that commitment—I don't care if you go to an F-grade school—you will get a great education because you were there and following-up making sure your child's taken care of.”

While choice in education continues to expand to online options and personalized learning frameworks, the trend began in 1999 when the first charter schools opened in Utah. Twenty years later, there are now 134 charter schools in the state. Enrollment in charter schools last year grew 4 percent, while district schools saw only a 1 percent increase. 

Jennifer Lambert, executive director for the Utah State Charter School Board, said families choose charter schools for their specialized emphasis on STEM, dual immersion, arts or classical education, and for alternative educational models such as Montessori, personalized learning and IB.

“This allows parents and students to choose a school that best fits their needs,” she said. “Most charters develop a distinct and strong culture that students enjoy.”

Dr Deborah Swenson has been director of the West Jordan Hawthorn Academy campus from the beginning. This fall, Blackridge Elementary Principal Steve Giles will be filling the position as Swenson has accepted the superintendent position for Hawthorn’s two campuses (West Jordan and South Jordan). 

The board of trustees has also retained all but one of the original members who formed the charter, among them Pettit and Johnson.

“Because we have had that consistency all throughout the years with our administration, with our board, I absolutely see going to weddings and all that in the future for these kids,” said Pettit.

Though her youngest son graduated from Hawthorn this year, Johnson will continue serving on the board.

“I’m proud that we made it this far and how successful the students have been,” said Johnson, who hopes the next 10 years will see the same success. “The values, the mission that everybody buys into what we've created here—we will continue that and then we also evolve and grow and change as education demands.”