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A School That's More Than Just Academics

Raena Janes decided Tucson needed a new kind of educational system. So she founded six tuition-free charter schools where kids, including her own, learn with their hearts as well as their minds.
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Raena Janes
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Ellen Barnes

Every student has a favorite grown-up at school—and for thousands of Arizona kids that amazing adult is Raena Janes. She's the 39-year-old founder, superintendent and powerhouse for a network of popular charter schools. What makes these places special isn't just that they're well managed but that the curriculum balances quality academics with activities that strengthen families and encourage kids to help those in need.

The idea to create charter schools—funded in part by tax dollars and open to the public but run entirely by Raena—has its roots in her early life. "I was adopted and felt blessed to have such caring parents," she explains. "I've always wanted to make sure every child has the same chances I did." Her first big opportunity came when she was a teenager. "My dad was pastor at Grace Chapel church in Tucson, and I worked in the office at the preschool there," she says. Raena was a natural, and over the next several years she took business courses at the University of Phoenix and Pima Community College, researched human development and education, and got the preschool licensed for infant day care.

But the defining moment was in 1999, when a 2-year-old in a wheelchair with a feeding tube enrolled at Grace Chapel. "As we scrambled to meet her needs, something clicked," says Raena. "I made up my mind to raise money so we could accommodate more such children. The logical next step was to generate enough funds to provide the best possible learning environment." She was already over-the-top busy but went ahead and applied for a grant.

Even though that attempt failed, Raena was undaunted. She turned to a professional fundraiser in the congregation, and the tutoring was just what Raena needed. "I worked for a total of about 100 hours over several weeks on a new application, which landed me $2.5 million from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. That's when I knew nothing could stop me," she says. After giving birth to twins Cole and Chloe in 2002, she set her sights on her next goal: turning the private church school into a tuition-free charter institution that would be open to the entire community. As she pulled together a budget to build a new facility, she decided to go all out. "I marched into the Bank of Tucson and said I had a brand-new business and needed $750,000," she says. "I showed them three months' worth of financials and promised to pay back the money in two years."

They quickly approved her application. "It wasn't just that she was well prepared," says Sandi Smithe, chief operating officer at the bank. "What convinced us was her can-do attitude to create something very positive for our community." Raena points out, though, that she came armed with something far more powerful than paperwork or enthusiasm. "I had my faith," she says. "I believed wholeheartedly in my mission." Selling charter school bonds and asking private individuals for donations, she soon secured another $13 million. By April 2005, she had broken ground for the school of her dreams.