EStem high school on UALR campus set to open Aug. 15
The new eStem Public Charter High School on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is a merger of 1940s pumpkin-orange brick and 21st Century sleek black metal and tinted glass.
The new 10th-through-12th grade school, set to open Aug. 15 to 475 students, is distinctive in Arkansas and in the nation in both its construction and its partnership with higher education.
“To us it’s very unusual. When we started talking about this, we couldn’t find anybody that had this — particularly this setup,” eStem Chief Executive Officer John Bacon said about the location of a taxpayer-supported, open-enrollment charter high school on an urban public university campus.
Next month’s opening of the new campus, which was approved by the state in 2016 over the objections of the Little Rock School District, begins an era of expansion away from downtown Little Rock for the 11-year-old eStem system. (The name stands for economics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
Where there were once three eStem campuses in two buildings for 1,462 students, by July 2018 there will be five campuses — two elementaries, two junior highs and one high school — with an overall state-set enrollment cap of 3,844 students. Of that, the cap for the high school is 1,125 to be reached by 2026-27.
The high school is one of two new open-enrollment charter high school buildings opening next month. Academics Plus charter system, once a campus comprised of prefabricated buildings and a former strip mall, is putting the finishing touches on its own newly constructed Maumelle Charter High.
EStem High’s blending of old and new construction is evident both inside and out of the new building, which is easily visible to north-bound passers-by on University Avenue.
The school’s south-side entrance, office space and classrooms are newly built and encased in black metal, gray brick and tinted glass. Long white pendant lights — think elegant stalactites — glow through the dark glass to showcase the main entrance.
In contrast, classrooms on the north side of the first- and second-floor hallways are the reincarnation of the university’s Larson Hall, one of the university campus’ original buildings.
While the mid-century Larson classrooms have been made new, the exterior brick walls of Larson Hall still stand.
The older building’s south exterior wall and windows are now interior walls and windows — adding texture and an expanse of orange brick to the school’s east-west passageways. On the second floor, a long row of clear-story windows top the orange brick, creating an airy, light high-ceiling walkway.
Bacon said the black metal and gray brick were selected for the new construction because the school planners were unable to find a satisfactory shade of orange brick to add to Larson Hall.
“It was impossible to match,” Bacon said. “Pumpkin-brick has changed over the years, apparently. I said I didn’t want it to look like we tried to match it and didn’t.”
The new campus was recently teeming with hard-hatted workers who were adjusting fixtures, installing carpet and assembling furniture in preparation for turning the building over to school operators by the end of the month.
“We’re on pace to get there. It’s moving fast,” Bacon said over the roar of power tools.
One of Bacon’s favorite features of the new campus is spaciousness of the classrooms and laboratories as compared to spaces at eStem’s other campuses — a former federal reserve bank and a former newspaper headquarters.
“The Arkansas Gazette building and federal reserve building were never meant to house classrooms in schools,” he said. “We made them into schools. In the Gazette building, we have tons of columns that are randomly placed in classrooms. The federal reserve building was a little easier to make it into classrooms, but some of the rooms feel a little tight.
“You walk into these classrooms, they are huge,” he said.
Plans drawn by WER Architects/Planners call for 31 classrooms and laboratories in the high school building with the eventual use of as many as 15 more rooms in the university’s adjoining Ross Hall.
The new campus — built by Eco Construction Inc.— is coming together at a cost of about $13.5 million, Bacon said.
The money, Bacon said, is a no-interest loan from the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville that will be repaid over 20 years.
The cost of new high schools elsewhere in Pulaski County are greater.
A new Jacksonville High is being built for about $63 million and 1,400 students, for example. The Pulaski County Special District is building a new $50 million Mills High School for 750. The Little Rock District is seeking ways to finance a $90 million high school with a capacity for 2,250 students. The North Little Rock district is operating a largely new school for 3,000 that cost about $109 million, including furnishings.
The difference in large part is that the new eStem High construction does not include a cafeteria and kitchen, a library, an auditorium, or very much in career-education space, which are features in the other schools. Nor does the eStem construction include an arena, a practice gym, football stadium, track, or fields for soccer, baseball and softball, and new parking spaces.
Bacon said the eStem athletic teams — basketball, soccer, baseball and softball — have typically used courts and fields wherever they could find them, including some of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock facilities.
That will continue, he said, but with the location of the high school on the university campus, access to a range the university resources — athletic and otherwise — is expected to increase, Bacon said.
Presten Slayden, the university’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs since Feb. 1, spearheaded the university’s work with eStem.
Slayden called the prospect of the university engaging with on-campus high school students new and exciting.
“Our hope is that they would see us as that opportunity for a continuation in their college experience,” Slayden said.
The university has long partnered with eStem in providing concurrent high school/college credit courses to the high school students, he said. Those classes are taught in the high school by university staff or by eStem teachers who have met requirements for teaching a college-level course.
That opportunity for concurrent high school and college credit will be expanded this year with an increased number of available courses and additional sections or class periods taught, Slayden and Bacon both said.
Tuition will be $50 per course per semester, Bacon said. Coming later will be dual enrollment opportunities in which eStem students can take courses elsewhere on the university campus at a one half the regular tuition for a college course, Bacon said.
High school class schedules have been adjusted to accommodate the new location and the new opportunities for students to earn college credits while still in high school, Bacon said. And, while the eStem system has traditionally started the new school year in July, the high school is moving this year to a more traditional mid-August opening date to better mesh with the start of the college semester.
A further nod to the university partnership, the high school will now feature a college-style class schedule, with some classes meeting for 90 minutes each on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and other courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, also 90 minutes each in duration . At the beginning of the second semester, the courses will flip, with the Monday, Wednesday and Friday courses becoming Tuesday and Thursday classes, and vice versa, Bacon said, to provide equal time for each subject.
Slayden helped represent the university in the development of policies and procedures that define the university-school partnership that deal not only for the concurrent and dual credits but also with student conduct requirements, identification cards, food service, and parking plus access to the university’s bookstore and library.
An 11-page memorandum of understanding from last December enables eStem students to purchase food from campus vendors or participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s subsidized free- and reduced-price meal program in a room of the Donaghey Student Center.
Much of the employee and student parking will be in the lot in front of University Plaza to the south of the university campus where the Big Lots store is, Bacon said. A student pick-up and dropoff car line will be behind the University Plaza offices and stores, requiring students to walk across a parking lot and University Drive to reach the school’s front door.
While the eStem and University of Arkansas at Little Rock partnership has some unique features, there are other school-university partnerships, Bacon said.
Arkansas Baptist College, a small private college near downtown Little Rock hosts the Premier High School of Little Rock, a small charter school for students who have been unsuccessful in graduating from traditional schools. Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge operates its own University Laboratory School for kindergarten through 12th grades, Bacon said. Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green is host to The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Sciences, a residential school for high school juniors and seniors on its campus.
Until this year, all of the eStem campuses — the high school, middle and elementary schools — were in two buildings at Third and Louisiana in downtown Little Rock. An elementary school will remain in the former Arkansas Gazette building and a junior high will have the Federal Reserve Bank building to itself now that the high school is moved out.
Now that the new high school is open, eStem leaders will turn some of their attention to the construction of a second elementary and a second junior high school on Shall Street, east of Interstate 30. Those are scheduled to open for the 2018-19 school year.
John Bacon, CEO of eStem Public Charter Schools, talks July 6 about the new eStem High School on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus in advance of its August opening.
Work continues July 6 on the school.