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A School That's More Than Just Academics

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Raena kids
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Ellen Barnes

Four months later the 7-acre campus was ready, with 27 classrooms, a state-of-the-art media center, a library, a cafeteria, two basketball courts, a soccer field and playgrounds. Her family—including her sister, Andrea Smith—has backed her efforts. "Raena has been devoted to children and children's education for as long as I can remember," says Andrea. "We've always supported her vision."

Raena christened the school La Paloma. "It's Spanish for 'the dove,' the universal symbol of peace," she explains. But she also chose the name to honor the memory of her most generous donor, a businessman who owned La Paloma resort in Tucson and passed away before the school's opening. "He would have been so proud," Raena says.

The facility quickly filled to capacity with 650 students, none of whom paid tuition. The curriculum stresses citizenship as well as scholarship, and each grade has a different focus: Kindergartners concentrate on family literacy and collect books to send to underserved populations across the country. Fourth-graders take on the environment, participating in a desert restoration program, while sixth-graders support the military by writing letters to troops overseas and their families. La Paloma also offers multiple family services, such as free breakfast and lunch, no-cost childcare and weekly activities like movie night.

Raena eventually opened a second campus in Tucson and took over several more charter schools in other cities, including Phoenix. Her accomplishments did not go unrecognized by Arizona, which honored her with an Excellence in Education Award. "This is what I prayed would happen, but I am still astonished at how far we've come," she says. Raena works 10-hour days and travels to every school twice a month. There are now 3,000 enrollees spread over six campuses, and parents couldn't be more enthusiastic. "Sure, it matters that classes are small and there's lots of individual instruction, but what I really loved was the mission to help others," says Karen Crandall, whose sons graduated from La Paloma. "Kids can't help but pick up on Raena's joy for this kind of work. They learn compassion, and that the world doesn't revolve just around them."

After completing eighth grade, Raena's students attend high schools all over the city. Many keep in touch. "I hear about the great volunteer work they're doing and I know that the lessons of La Paloma are staying with them," Raena says. Her daughter, Chloe, now 10, is a case in point. "Three years ago, her second-grade teacher told the class about Helen Keller International, an organization that helps children and adults around the world get eye care," Raena says. "Chloe and several of her friends started their own campaign and collected $26.14. That may not sound like much, but the kids were very proud. I was too."

Raena, who opened a new campus last fall, hopes to triple her enrollment in the state—and take La Paloma nationwide. "I've never forgotten that brave 2-year-old," she says. "When the days are long and the challenges are great, just thinking about her renews my commitment and faith. As long as there are children who need what I can give, failing isn't an option. My greatest desire is that I will never have to turn a single one of them away."

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.