Expanding excellence: Somerset Academy Skyway

Leadership. Service. Small classes. College prep. 

These are the guiding principles of a new charter school in Goodyear that is Arizona’s first campus of the international Somerset Academy chain that is succeeding with low-income populations. 

“It’s a family-like atmosphere with a private-school feel with uniforms and high expectations,” said Jennifer Carmichael, the founding principal of the newly-opened Somerset Academy Skyway Campus. “We are not traditional in any sense. It’s more about how can we get kids to do something we know is inside them and bring that leadership forth whether its music, arts, sports or academics.”

Somerset schools serve mostly low-income and minority communities. 

The international chain’s philosophy revolves around providing a small, tight-knit community focused on individualized attention. Many of its schools have earned high rankings on national score cards like the annual U.S. News & World Report’s best schools edition.  

Somerset awarded “best of class” funding  

Somerset Academy Skyway Campus is one of five schools selected to receive a grant through a new privately-funded program designed to help high quality district, magnet and charter schools expand, especially those serving low-income students.

The program, the inaugural A for Arizona Expansion Fund, awarded $300,000 this year to the five schools. The first-of-its-kind, statewide grant program is an initiative of the non-profit Arizona Chamber Foundation in partnership with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry. The campaign was jump started by a grant from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation.

Somerset received a $40,000 grant from the initiative for technology. Principal Carmichael used the money to buy 50 chromebooks, 50 ipads and storage wheel carts for the computers.  

“This put us on target for our technical needs,” Carmichael said about the grant. “It’s going to get us off to a great start.”

Reaching out to families 

A longtime educator, Carmichael spent more than four months visiting nearby coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants, outdoor events and going door to door to introduce herself to families and tell them about the school and its philosophy. 

The message appealed to families. A total 104 students showed up the first week. Carmichael’s goal is to enroll 325 students this year. 

Currently, the school is operating as a K-5. Eventually, it will be a K-12 school with a Cambridge International or International Baccalaureate program, Carmichael said. Once fully built out, it will serve 800 students. 

About 50 percent of the current students are on free and reduced lunch programs. More than 50 percent are Latino students. 

“Contrary to the stereotype of charter schools, Somerset does not take just the “cream of the cream,” she said. “We’re going to take any child who comes in the door, wherever they come from.” 

Personalized, collaborative approach   

One of the reasons the Somerset model succeeds is class size, Carmichael said. Kindergarten and first grade are limited to 22 students and all other grades to 25. 

Another is the collaborative model in which students, teachers, parents and staff “establish, achieve and celebrate” individual goals for each child. Partnerships with colleges and other organizations are part of the recipe. 

Started in a two room school in Miramar, Florida, in 1997, Somerset Academy operates 71 schools today in Florida, Nevada, Texas and Spain. The schools are supported by Academica, one of the nation’s longest-serving education service providers for public charter schools. Academica is considered one of the most successful providers with dozens of its schools receiving high rankings on annual report cards.

This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Somerset’s International Studies Charter High School in Miami as the fourth top charter school in the nation. The AP participation rate is 100 percent. Minority enrollment is 76 percent and 96 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

The school was formed by the Spanish, Italian, and French Embassies in association with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Academic-minded students who attend the school learn in English, Spanish, Italian and French. 

First A for Arizona Expansion Fund Grantees

The inaugural A for Arizona grant program provided expansion funding for 2,000 additional students at five schools and districts: 

  • Arizona Charter Academy, Surprise 
  • Academy of Math & Science, Glendale 
  • Mexicayotl Academy and Nogales Unified School District, Nogales
  • Somerset Academy Skyway Campus, Goodyear 
  • Vail School District, Vail

To read more about the schools and how they are using their expansion funds, go to A for Arizona grantees.

Victoria Harker

Nick Serpa

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