Board re­news state char­ters for three

Terms ap­proved for schools de­spite calls by mem­ber for closer look

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - CYN­THIA HOW­ELL

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.

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