Last year, Franklin Arts Academies, which runs three charter schools in Gilbert and Mesa, faced the threat of losing its charter for inaccurately reporting student attendance.
The schools were able to settle their problem with the state and remained in operation through the end of the school year, but, according to DeAnna Rowe of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, they surrendered the charter after that.
The Leona Group has now announced it will be managing the schools still with a goal of providing academic and arts education. Rowe confirmed the group has obtained a charter for the schools.
The Leona group has schools in five states, including Ohio and Michigan, and has 15 high schools and three middle schools in Arizona. This year the group is opening its first elementary schools in the state, four in all, three in the East Valley. The schools will be open to kindergarten to eighth-grade students.
Michele Kaye, the group's chief operating officer, said the company had been looking for a way to break into elementary education in Arizona for at least a year.
"We started with high schools in Arizona and we've had great success," Kaye said. "We believe we can make a great difference in the lives of children if we can catch them when they're young."
Kaye said when she visited the former Franklin schools she saw a philosophy in place of site-based management and a committed student and teacher population.
"They didn't get an opportunity to grow and thrive the way they should have," she said. "We want to go in and support what is there."
One way the group is doing that is by hiring longtime Mesa educator Bob Meko as the principal of the Arts Academy of Mesa and as the regional vice president of the East Valley schools.
"He's got a tremendous arts background and is a well-known education innovator," Kaye said.
Meko taught in Pennsylvania and Colorado before moving to Arizona where he worked as an elementary school principal for about 20 years in the Mesa Unified School District. After leaving Mesa he taught for a couple of years in the Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix and then a couple of more years in Florence.
About nine months ago, he said, the Leona Group approached him about joining its team for some charter schools it would be operating in Gilbert and Mesa.
"People know me and I think I'm known for doing good things for kids," he said.
Meko said he believes that sometimes educators who work for large public school systems, as he did for decades, can get lost in the policies and regulations that are placed on them and are not able to be as creative as they might otherwise be.
"Schools that are mired in procedures, as a person who wants to think outside the box, I just could never see the point of it," he said.
He said working with the arts academies will give him an opportunity to do some of things he's always dreamed of doing. The school will have a full time music, art, movement and drama teacher and each student will see that teacher twice a week.
"At a time when many schools are having to cut back on the arts we will be an alternative," he said. "We are creating a place that integrates the arts into every subject. We're not just teaching them to be the artist but to appreciate art."
Meko said he wants students to take a lot of educational trips and hopes to be able to do enough fundraising and sponsorship to make his teachers wishes possible from a financial standpoint.
So far the school has about 100 children enrolled and has a capacity for 325.
Debra Coleman, a former principal and teacher in Chicago's public and private school systems, will continue to be the school leader for Liberty Arts Academy, and Nanette Allen, a 25 year public educator at the elementary and middle school level, will stay on as the lead at the Gilbert Arts Academy.