Board renews state charters for schools
Terms OK’d despite calls by member for closer look
The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday accepted a panel’s earlier decisions to renew state-issued charters for three open-enrollment charter school systems in Pulaski County for terms ranging from three to 13 years.
The renewed charter systems are LISA Academy, Little Rock Preparatory Academy and Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School.
LISA Academy’s 13-year charter renewal is the longest in the state’s 17- year history of open-enrollment charter schools. While state law permits the term of a school charter to be as long as 20 years before it is subject to state review for renewal, the longest term among the state’s 24 charter school systems had been 10 years.
Also Thursday, the Education Board unanimously approved the continued operation of five conversion charter schools operated by the Cabot, Beebe, Cross County, Lincoln and Osceola school districts. Similarly, the board approved adjustments to charter language for Fayetteville Virtual Academy and Ozark Montessori Academy in Springdale.
The charters — which are contracts authorizing each of the taxpayer- supported schools or school systems to operate with some waivers of state laws and rules — would have expired at the end of the school year if extensions weren’t approved by the Arkansas Department of Education’s Charter Authorizing Panel or the Education Board.
All of the charter renewal applications were reviewed and approved last month by the authorizing panel, which is made up of top-level Education Department staff. The panel decisions are subject to the Education Board’s review to become final. The Education Board can vote to accept the panel decision or it can — either on its own initiative or at the request of a charter school or traditional school district — conduct its own full hearing on a charter school proposal before voting to approve or disapprove it.
Education Board member Jay Barth of Little Rock was the only one of the eight voting board members Thursday who wanted new hearings on the renewal applications for Little Rock Preparatory Academy and LISA Academy.
“I continue to have deep concerns about the absence of progress,” Barth said about the academically struggling Little Rock Preparatory Academy’s kindergarten-through-fourth-grade campus at 1616 S. Spring St. in Little Rock.
Leaders of the 411-pupil system, which includes a fifth-through-eighth- grade middle school campus, say the schools’ mission is to prepare students from under-served communities for competitive high schools and colleges and for advanced careers. They have also said parents choose their schools because their children aren’t getting what they need at other schools and may be two or more grade levels behind their peers.
“I know how challenging the student population is,” Barth said, “but I do feel a responsibility to do a whole review when there is this kind of lingering academic achievement challenge for the school as a whole.”
In 2016, about 17 percent of Little Rock Preparatory’s elementary pupils scored at desired levels on the state-required English/language arts test, as did 28.68 percent of the pupils on the math section of the test. State averages exceeded 30 percent on the two subject areas for students of similar demographics. For all students, regardless of demographics, state averages topped 40 percent performing at desired achievement levels.
Little Rock Preparatory’s elementary campus is classified as academically distressed under the state’s school accountability system, meaning fewer than half of students scored at proficient levels over three years. The middle school is labeled as a “priority” school under the federal accountability system, meaning it was among the lowest-scoring schools a few years ago when the priority designations were last made under the now defunct No Child Left Behind Act.
Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne said she would oppose a new hearing to review the school system, based on the fact that the elementary campus is working to meet both the developmental and academic needs of the pupils, and the middle school is showing academic gains.
It’s very rare, she said, for any school serving young children with great social, emotional, psychological and physical needs to get a year’s worth of academic growth in an academic year. If children have to receive a variety of “wrap-around services” to meet developmental needs in addition to academic instruction, it would be “highly unusual” for children to make a year’s worth of progress and achieve appropriate grade level, she said.
Barth said he’s seen the school in various locations and incarnations over the years and it isn’t reaching the potential he would like.
“When we have such persistent challenges for a school, no matter the student population it is serving, we have some responsibility if we take our accountability system seriously to do a review,” he said.