Leader Blues

Monday, August 20, 2007

TOP STORY >>Charter school backed by many parents

By HEATHER HARTSELL
AND GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader staff

About 40 concerned Jacksonville parents, business people and Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce members joined forces Friday night at city hall and agreed they want Mayor Tommy Swaim and the city council to support a broadly based steering committee to go further with the process of starting open-enrollment charter schools.

To open a charter school, a petition must first be filed with the state Board of Education a year in advance before classes can start. That means a possible Jacksonville charter school — it would be tax-supported with private funds — could be open as early as August 2009.

The public was urged to complete an online community-needs assessment to establish local support, interest and needs for the area.

Several parents at the meeting were enthusiastic about the proposed charter school.
“How do we get the ball rolling?” asked a parent in the audience.

Former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who is spearheading the charter school initiative, told her the city should get behind the project and get local officials to promote it.

“We taxed ourselves to build a new library and an education center,” said Wilson, who predicted that the charter school would not only get off the ground but would complement an independent Jacksonville school district when it separates from the Pulaski County Special School District.

According to Dr. Caroline Proctor, executive director of Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, she has received about 40-50 of the eight-page surveys throughout the week and was quite impressed with them.

“Everybody seems to be for a middle school and high school — half of them are for an elementary school,” Proctor said.
“All of them wanted teachers to be paid for performance, and it was 50/50 on going an extended school day (7 a.m.–5 p.m.) and 50/50 on going year-round,” she added.

Proctor said charter schools were a way to give all parents the same choice of where and what type of school they want their children to go to. “The communities (with charter schools) have crafted schools that bring something in they see they need or want in the community,” Proctor said.

“The surveys help when you form committees and you begin to talk. Having kids and being business people, you’ll all have an idea of how you want a charter school to look,” she said.

Charter schools are publicly funded and are not private or religious schools.

Mike Scoles, a consultant to Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at UA who teaches statistics at the University of Central Arkansas, said test results in Pulaski County are below the state average and continue to drop as students get older.
“Those who can afford it have always had a choice,” he said. “With charters, the rest of us have a choice.”
Wilson said, “It is a type of school that promotes and should promote better learning for our kids, a more rigorous curriculum with goals and accountability and discipline in those schools that we all expect and would like to have.

“It would be open to any child in the community or outside the community and even across county lines,” Wilson added.
“At this point, none of us know what the community would like in the way of a charter school – elementary, middle school, high school, or some kind of combination of all those – but they are all possibilities we should and will explore,” Wilson said.
“The community is strong and deep in education and we can keep on doing it,” he added.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they had 3,000 applicants,” said Chuck Baclawski after the meeting.

Mark Perry said, “It’s not going to be for everybody. But if you think it’s going to be for your kids, it would give them an option. It’s going to be a neat project. It’s going to happen.”

Perry thought the meeting clarified some misconceptions about charter schools.

“A lot of people think it’s a private school,” he said. “It’s not. It’s a public school.”

He predicted that students would “come from all over,” including Cabot, Sherwood and other communities.
Pat Griggs wondered about athletic programs, which are modest when compared with large public schools.
Proctor said charter schools usually field soccer teams, since they’re the easiest to organize.