"We are on a Quest"

© Joe Couri and Gary Nabors, 2016

The Peoria Public School District 150 (D150) represents a microcosm of the nation. Globally, students in China, India and even Russia are outperforming U.S. students in the areas of math and science. Where our country once led the world in educating the best and brightest, we now watch other countries outperform our academic achievements. Closer to home, District 150 students rank below state averages on math and science tests. Graduation rates are also falling below state averages. Meanwhile, local businesses are reporting that a high percentage of our graduates are simply not prepared in the areas of math, science and technology to meet their workforce demands.  Finally, the significant decrease in enrollment within D150 was an indication that parents were expressing their desire for something more from their school. Peoria Public School District 150 has seen a decline of more than 40 percent during the past four decades. Their student population now encompasses a significant minority enrollment, with more than 70 percent of their students living in poverty. A racial achievement gap persists; test scores are falling; and dropout rates are rising. Clearly, there was a sense of urgency.

The development of Quest Charter Academy was in response to issues identified by the community and the community’s desire to develop a school that would address these issues including:   

  • National and local Workforce Development studies project workforce shortages in health care, engineering, and technology. Local businesses expressed deep concerns regarding the lack of skilled workers locally to meet their workforce needs.
  • Too many high school graduates were not prepared for post-secondary education and work. A study conducted by Illinois Central College (ICC) indicated only 23% of students entering ICC tested into college-level math; 77% need remedial math courses.
  • District 150 students’ math and science scores on standardized tests were below the state average.
  • U.S. math and science scores for 8th and 11th grades were significantly below those of competing countries.
  • As a result of the 12,000+ students who had left Peoria Public School District 150 in the past 30 years, there was an expressed need to offer educational opportunities to retain families within the District.

The Journey Begins

As part of a local effort, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the City of Peoria’s Renaissance Park Commission and Peoria Public Schools to research and develop a report with recommendations for solutions to address the needs identified by the community. In March of 2006, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Bradley University agreed to form a study group to perform the research and report their findings. Through their work came the recommendation to develop a Math, Science and Technology (MST) Charter School and, within their report, they submitted recommendations as to the desired qualities and best practices that should be included within the school design. The report was submitted to both the Peoria City Council and the Peoria Public School District 150 Board of Education, both of which were very supportive of the recommendations and requested continuation of the research to move into the second phase of accomplishing the vision. Peoria Public School District 150 formed the MST Advisory Committee comprised of 30 diverse members representing leaders in business, education, social service, parents, city government, and agencies, all with a vested interest in addressing both student and community needs. Between May and October of 2006, the MST Advisory Committee involved approximately 90 community members – parents, business leaders and educators – who defined the problem, conducted local interviews, explored best practices, evaluated models and options, and developed and refined a set of recommendations, with the final recommendation to the Peoria Public School District 150 Board of Education that a Math, Science and Technology Charter School be formed. The academy these groups envisioned would not only offer parents and students a choice within the public school system, it would provide a higher quality of education by partnering with community resources to infuse new ideas into the curriculum and provide excellent resources for students.

In 2008, the District 150 Board of Education authorized a group of community leaders, school administrators and parents to evaluate bringing a charter school to Peoria. Led by former District 150 Associate Superintendent Dr. Cindy Fischer, an advisory group was established to begin researching, evaluating, and visiting charter schools throughout the country to learn more about this new educational approach. Later, a steering committee was formed with the mission of representing and acting in the interest of the Advisory Committee, giving ongoing oversight to move the Charter School process forward. The members of the Advisory and Steering Committees were:

Ken Hinton - Peoria Public Schools
Dr. David Gorenz - Peoria Board of Ed/OSF
Mary Spangler - Peoria Board of Ed/Parent
Glen Barton - Caterpillar (retired)
Dr. John Erwin - Illinois Central College
Dr. Jeff Nelson - Regional Office of Education
Dr. John Avendano - Illinois Central College
Barbara VanAuken - City of Peoria Councilwoman/Renaissance Park
Mike Dugard - Renaissance Park Commissioner/OLLI, Retired Teacher
Sue Wozniak - OSF
Dr. Cindy Fischer - Peoria Public Schools/Renaissance Park Commissioner
James Richmond - E-Serve
Alice Price - Methodist Medical Center
Dr. Sarah Rush - UNICOMP
Dr. John Halverson - UNICOMP
Jeff Bennington - CGN
Elizabeth Shultz - Caterpillar
Carry Wahlfeld - Parent

Jeff McCombs - Farnsworth Group Mac Pogue - Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University; IBM, retired
Dr. Bob Bolla - Bradley University
Dr. Joan Sattler - Bradley University
McFarland Bragg - PCCEO
Jim Montelongo - Advanced CAD/CAM, City of Peoria - Councilman
Laraine Bryson - Tri-County Urban League
Ginger Johnson - PALM/TRICON
Patrick Roesler - G&D Integrated and Chamber of Commerce Ed. Comm.
Marty Clinch - IBEW and Chamber Education Committee
Rob Parks - Chamber of Commerce
Dr. Vicky Stewart - ICC/Chamber Education Committee
David Henebry - LZT
Ray Lees - PSA Dewberry
Paul Kouri - PSA Dewberry
Ed Berry - Farnsworth Group

Glen Barton - CEO Caterpillar, retired Dr. Vicky Stewart - Vice President, Illinois Central College
McFarland Bragg - CEO, PCCEO
Mac Pogue - Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University; IBM, retired
Jeff McCombs - Marketing and Public Relations Director, Farnsworth Group
Roberta Parks - COO, Chamber of Commerce
Cindy Fischer - Former Associate Superintendent, Peoria Public School Dist. 150; Renaissance Park

Vision to Reality

After tremendous work, the Peoria Public School District 150 Board of Education signed a charter agreement on January 22, 2010 and the Peoria Charter School Initiative (PCSI), a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) entity, was formed and their Board of Directors was essentially the group that comprised the exploratory Steering Committee.  Following approval of the charter, the PCSI immediately enlisted the assistance of a professional public affairs company to assist with creating a comprehensive strategy including image, community engagement, and marketing for the new school. Soon thereafter, the PCSI Board chose the name Quest Charter Academy for the school and the search for a management organization was underway with research, visits and interviews. In February of 2010, the PCSI Board unanimously approved hiring Concept Schools, a not-for-profit charter management organization based in Chicago that manages 27 successful K-12 charter schools in the Midwest. Serving over 8500 students in urban communities, students receive a rigorous college preparatory curriculum with an emphasis on Math, Science, and Technology. Shortly thereafter, the first Quest Charter Academy principal, Engin Blackstone, was hired and immediately began working on the implementation plan which included holding several community informational meetings to provide an overview of the Quest Charter Academy program, the advantages students will have by attending Quest, accepting applications, overseeing improvements to the building, etc.  

The PCSI’s vision became a reality in August of 2010 when Quest Charter Academy officially opened its doors to 225 students in fifth, sixth and seventh grades in the former Loucks school building. A grade is added each year until Quest is at full capacity in the 2015-2016 school year with 600 students in grades 5-12.

The PCSI initially considered opening a school serving only grades 5-8; however, as a result of early conversations with parents and researching charter schools in other communities, it was clear that parents did not want the charter school experience to end and have their children then put into a traditional high school setting. After significant discussion and study, it was decided that Quest Charter Academy would be a 5th-12th grade school to meet the needs and the interests of students and parents.

The mission of Quest Charter Academy High School as was established in 2010 is to provide a diverse student body with an innovative world class education, rich in math, science and technology, focused on preparing students to become bold inquirers, problem solvers and ethical leaders. Quest graduates will be skill-ready for post-secondary education to meet the challenges of a competitive global workforce.

Quest accepts students of all academic abilities and differentiates instructional and learning strategies to ensure success for all students.  If more students apply to Quest Charter Academy than seats available, a public lottery is held for selection.

Why Quest?

Since its inception in 2010, Quest Charter Academy has achieved rapid progress in its mission to prepare graduates for 21st century careers. The academic regimen is grounded in a strong conviction that in order to succeed after graduation students must be prepared for careers in a technology-based future. Quest Charter Academy was designed to address the shift from a manufacturing economic base to a global science and knowledge-based economy.

Quest differs from traditional public schools in several ways, including our rigorous, college-prep, STEM-focused curriculum with 90-minute math and reading/language arts classes (at the middle school level). Each school day is approximately 62 minutes longer and the school year is 13 days longer than the public school day and year. After-school activities such as MathCounts, FTC Robotics, TSA (Technology Student Association) and other competitive pursuits are encouraged. Parental involvement is emphasized. There are four, rather than two, parent-teacher conferences, conducted at progress-report time so issues with grades and behaviors can be addressed prior to report cards being issued. Parent-teacher conferences are always held on an evening during the week and on a Saturday to make it more convenient for parents who work during the week.

The teaching and administrative staff are diverse in terms of demographics and teaching experience, and they play a significant role in differentiating Quest. Teachers are on yearly contracts and contract renewal is based, in large part, on student achievement. A “No Excuses” philosophy among staff ensures that every student receives a high-quality education. Home visits by teacher-advisors are also a requirement. Teachers have flexibility in shaping both the curriculum and the environment for themselves, as well as for the students.

Quest Charter Academy is efficient with our funding, too, in spite of the fact that we only receive 85 percent of the Illinois State Board of Education per-pupil funding.  As a not-for-profit entity of the Peoria Charter School Initiative, Quest Charter Academy must rely on our own fundraising activities to make up the difference for day-to-day operations and then raise even more to remain fiscally sound and ensure we are providing a solid, well-rounded educational experience for our students. This is no easy task considering the multitude of worthy, non-profit organizations in Peoria.

We face significant challenges, however, and must focus on addressing those challenges while maintaining and improving our outcomes. Quest’s demographics mirror those of District 150 so naturally we encounter the same types of behavioral situations and have students at both ends of the academic spectrum. Quest administrators and teachers have high expectations and work hard each and every day to ensure the success of our students. We believe providing a challenging, engaging and integrated environment that utilizes creativity, inquiry, discovery, problem-solving, critical thinking, project-based learning and best practices works for children of all socio-economic and academic backgrounds.  This goes back to our “No Excuses” philosophy.

A New Chapter

On February 9, 2015, the Peoria Public School District 150 Board of Education unanimously approved the renewal of Quest’s charter for a five year period beginning July 15, 2015.

Over the past five years, Quest Charter Academy has grown to currently serve approximately 500 students in 5th -11th grades. In the 2015-2016 school year, a new 5th grade class will be added to complete Quest’s growth at which point Quest will offer 5th-12th grades with approximately 600 students.

With a strong foundation in place, Concept Schools and the PCSI Board mutually agreed to end their contract. The PCSI has assumed full management of the day-to-day operations and has hired Dr. Nicole Couri Wood as its first  Executive Director who has administrative responsibility for Quest Charter Academy Middle and High Schools.

This change is about progress and taking Quest Charter Academy to the next level. Our desire, as it has been from the very beginning, is to make Quest the best school in the District and one of the top schools in the state.

The administration, staff, parents and students are the future of Quest. The PCSI Board of Directors, Quest administrative team and staff are committed to continuing the excellent work with its students, with a continued focus on student achievement and maintaining high expectations.

Academic achievement, leadership development and college acceptance are the cornerstones of Quest Charter Academy’s educational program, as we strive to give every student the tools they need to realize their talents, achieve their goals and fulfill their dreams.

Quest Charter Academy – ON A QUEST TO BE THE BEST!