Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TOP STORY > >Facilities key for charter school plans

Leader staff writer

Two independent efforts are underway to open a charter school in Jacksonville in the fall of 2009. Both parties filed letters of intent with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) in June and hope to complete the application process by the August 31 deadline.

A group of Jacksonville citizens have been working for more than a year towards opening a charter school. Mike Wilson, one of the organizers, told Rotarians on Monday that the biggest challenge in completing the application by the deadline is finding a suitable facility. The group has aligned with Lighthouse Academies, a Massachusetts-based organization that assists communities wishing to launch a charter school.

The other letter of intent was filed by Buster Lackey of Sherwood and Dave Sanders of Maumelle. The two independent educational consultants plan to open a charter school in 2009 that would initially serve kindergarten through grade 6, with expansion of two grades each subsequent year.

The approval process for securing ADE approval for a charter school is competitive because the number of applicants likely will exceed the number of charter schools allowed by state law. The Arkansas Board of Education will make its decision by the end of the year.

According to Wilson, the Lighthouse Academy would initially serve kindergarten through fifth grade and then add a grade each year. Enrollment would top at 250 the first year and would be open to Jacksonville families as well as those from surrounding geographic areas. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of spaces, students would be selected randomly.

The school’s focus would be college preparation, “heavy, heavy, heavy on academics with strong expectations on discipline – what every parent would want,” Wilson said. “Some thought is that our middle schools are the greatest need, but it is hard to work backwards and add grades. It is easier to deal with little kids and get them on the right track,” than try to bring older students into a highly rigorous program.

Rotarians gathered at their monthly luncheon meeting got a quick lesson on charter school basics from Scott Smith, former legal counsel for the ADE and state Board of Education. Smith recently resigned from his state post to become executive director of the newly formed Arkansas Public Schools Resource Center. According to Smith, the organization, an affiliate of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and the Walton Family Foundation, was founded to help charter-school applicants navigate the legal and financial complexities of the process. A school district, community leaders, a group of parents or teachers, or private entity may apply.

As Smith explained, one of the key things to understand about charter schools is that they are not private, but part of the public school system. They are supported by taxpayer dollars, at the current rate of $5,789 for each student enrolled at the school. But none of that money can be used for a facility or other capital expenses, so it is up to the group spearheading the effort to come up with building funds. Smith said that the purpose of charter schools is not to replace public schools, but to promote innovation and educational options, while challenging other local schools to improve.

Wilson said that the Jacksonville group will apply for foundation funding once a site is chosen. He asked that anyone who knows of a suitable space to let him know.

“There are several possibilities in town that might be useful and some away from town,” Wilson said after the meeting.

Charter schools first started in New England in the 1970s as a way to improve educational opportunities and try innovative approaches. The concept filtered down to Arkansas in the 1990s, with the first four charter schools opening in 2001. State law grants charter schools with greater flexibility in some aspects of program administration, but are expected to be held to a higher academic standard than other public schools, Smith said. The fact that a charter school’s fate is always in the hands of the state board of education is incentive to succeed.

“All academic performance laws apply – the same as all public schools, but with a charter school, its charter is with the state board and it can be removed at any time,” Smith said.

Critics of charter schools have pointed out that they don’t always deliver on promises of academic excellence.
A 2006 report to the ADE by an independent evaluator found wide variability among Arkansas charter schools on performance on standardized-achievement tests.
One undeniable success story is the KIPP Charter School in Helena, which in its first three years moved its overall score on standardized tests from the 18th percentile to the 80th percentile.

Arkansas state law restricts the number of charter schools allowed to 24. Currently, there are seven vacancies. Smith said he knows of 11 entities working on meeting the end-of-August deadline.

One concern raised at the meeting Monday was a charter school’s impact on existing Jacksonville schools, when the $5,789 per student would shift to the new school away from those already struggling with aging facilities and limited resources.

Others argue that a charter school would be a way to draw students currently in private, parochial or home schools back into the public system.

“The real beauty of a community that is successful in making (a charter school) go is that you are the master of your own fate, with your own school board,” Wilson said. “The result is better-educated kids.”