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.

By Sondra Forsyth

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.

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.

For more information on La Paloma, go to lpatucson.org