SPANISH FORK — Organizers of the American Leadership Academy were warned from the very beginning that including athletics in their charter presented a very difficult challenge.

"We knew it was going to be a pioneering effort," ALA director Robert Muhlestein said.

However, they might have underestimated exactly how challenging, and unwelcome, the task of starting another high school athletic program in Utah County from ground up would be.

As the state's only K-12 charter school that's offering a full-slate of prep sports programs, the school located in southwest Spanish Fork is running into several obstacles as it's gearing up for its first year of competition at the 2A level.

"There's just a whole different umbrella of things that other schools don't have to deal with that are obstacles for us," ALA athletic director Kalin Hall said.

First up, the facilities. Constructing a gymnasium as part of the school itself was not too difficult. But finishing up the football stadium, which will have artificial turf, has not gone as scheduled. The turf is still not installed. The school's first-ever home game had to be held at Timpview High, and it's now hopeful that the field will be ready for the Eagles' Oct. 6 home game. The school still needs to find fields for baseball and softball.

Next need, coaches. Teaching and coaching at a restrictive private school is not appealing to all qualified coaches. Hall has nine of 12 coaches in position but still needs to hire three more. Originally, former Mountain View coach Dave Houle was hired to coach cross country, track and girls basketball, but he's on leave and is not expected to coach this year.

The biggest challenge, promoting the school's athletics while conforming with Utah High School Activities Association transfer and recruiting rules. Most charter schools have no boundaries and market their curriculum to students everywhere. But, according to UHSAA rules, they can't solely promote their athletics. It's a fine line that is proving to be challenging to ALA officials.

"We have to market ourselves somehow," Muhlestein said.

The school included athletics because the trustees feel participation in sports adds to an individual's leadership qualities and makes for a more well-rounded academic institution. It's difficult to tell parents and potential students that, without promoting the school's athletic programs as an asset.

"I tell our coaches not to be out there soliciting athletes," Hall said. "We want to promote our school first as an academic institution."

Still, many coaches, principals and athletic directors in the valley believe the very nature of a charter school creates an environment for recruiting. Evan Excell, executive director of the UHSAA, says it won't happen.

"We've got rules on undue influence and we expect them to keep those rules," Excell said. "We won't deal with them any differently than we do any other school in their same situation."

Most feel the core of ALA's student body will come from Nebo School District. However, Nebo is not taking a defensive position that ALA will rob it of athletes, and the district is not being a watchdog to ensure ALA is following transfer rules. But the district won't allow athletes to change back-and-forth from ALA and one of its schools.

"We need to make sure our schools and programs are strong and viable so that kids won't want to go somewhere else," Nebo superintendent Chris Sorensen said.

Even ALA administrators admit that it would be foolish for students to enroll at the charter school purely for athletics. The school has stringent standards, rules and guidelines, and stresses and enforces discipline. Many athletes, who consider transferring to ALA, have a change of heart once they realize the academic standards to which they would commit. That's just fine with school administrators.

"You have to really believe in our philosophies to come here," Hall said.

ALA is about school choice, and providing opportunities that students can't get elsewhere, Muhlestein said. And Hall said the ultimate goal of the school's athletic program is for the players to be able compete with their peers and other teams in the community.

"It doesn't matter about wins and losses. It's about having the same chances to progress and having the same opportunities everyone else is afforded," he said.

Eventually the transfer issues should go away because of the charter school's cap on enrollment, which is 150 students per secondary grade. Currently there are 285 freshmen and sophomores enrolled. Once enrollment caps, new students are accepted only by lottery.

"After we pave the way a little bit, everyone going's to be a lot less concerned and much more comfortable with the educational choices we're providing," Muhlestein said.


E-mail: jimr@desnews.com