Leader Blues

Friday, August 22, 2008

TOP STORY > >Charter school moves forward in Jacksonville

Leader staff writer

The prospect of a local charter school drew more than 100 people to the Jacksonville Community Center on Wednesday night. The diverse crowd included blacks and whites, the young and old. Some were parents, some not yet, some clearly too old to have school-age children.

By and large, it was a unified group of folks wanting something better for public education in Jacksonville. They are counting on a charter school to deliver that change.

Michael Ronan, president and CEO of Lighthouse Academies, Inc., the organization providing the educational model for the proposed school, promised that he and his team of educators would not disappoint. He described a learning environment “infused with the arts in which children learn with all their senses so that they retain more quickly and longer,” where failure and dropping out are never an option, and all would graduate fully prepared to go to college, not needing freshman remedial courses.

Ronan founded the nonprofit organization Lighthouse Academies 10 years ago, after a 30-year career as a school teacher and administrator, to provide leadership to individuals and groups wanting to start a charter school, primarily in underserved urban areas. The first school opened in the South Bronx in New York City. Now there are nine others in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia.

Jacksonville organizers for a Lighthouse Academy plan to file an application with the Arkansas Board of Education (ADE) by the end of this month, requesting a charter to open the school in fall 2009. They will know the ADE’s decision by the end of the year. The school would be supported by public funds as part of the Pulaski County Special School District.
Students attending the school, however, could live in a school district, city or county other than where the school is located.

The first year, the school would be kindergarten through sixth grade with a total of 344 students. Kindergarten would have two classes of 22 students each. All other grades would have two classes of 25 students each. A grade would be added each year through high school for a total eventually of 644 students. Ronan emphasized that high academic achievement will require everyone –students, their parents and teachers – to be fully engaged and “focused on excellence, every day.”

“You won’t see the dropout rate you see in Jacksonville schools today,” he said. “You have to say no to that – can’t even think about it.”

So how does Ronan plan to engage the underprivileged kids, who often struggle in school, but stand to benefit the most from the kind of learning environment he described? All backgrounds and levels of academic achievement are encouraged to apply.

“We want to make sure everyone in the community knows about the school – go door to door, hang flyers on door knobs,” he encouraged.

Failures and dropouts at Lighthouse Academies are unheard of, he maintained, because the staff is “relentless” about engaging parents in their children’s education and helping students overcome deficiencies and excel.

Ronan described what is in place at other Lighthouse Academies that have helped pull up lagging test scores and make sure kids are ready for college. All students take the same courses, which are considered essential for college success. The arts, primarily visual but also music, movement and drama, are an integral part of learning, whether it be in geography, literature, history or science. Art could take the form of an illustrated book, collage or finger puppet to help reinforce a phonics lesson.

“Art engages students in a different way, so what they see and hear makes more sense to them and sticks with them,” Ronan said.

Student assessment includes the Stanford series national achievement tests, state testing, and additional tests every nine-week period to give teachers “real time data” to zero in how a student is doing and where extra help is needed, Ronan said. A full-time instructional coach at every school analyzes data and advises teachers. Parents get report cards too on how well they are engaged in their child’s education. Students who are failing generally have parents “who don’t take that much interest in them,” Ronan said. Parents are expected to attend conferences each grading period, and at the start of each school year to discuss goals with the child’s teacher.

Parents may also participate as volunteers, as elected representatives on a school’s board of directors, or may form a parent organization.

“We are relentless in engaging parents in their child’s education, because that is the key thing – for the parent to believe the child can be successful, to be involved,” Ronan said.

Many students entering a charter school have some catching up to do. Deficiencies are addressed by after-school tutoring, Saturday school, and summer enrichment camp, as well as a school day and school year longer than what is customary in public schools. The school day for all grades, including kindergarten, is eight hours long, and the school year is 190 days.

Teachers stay with the same group of students for two years, from first grade on, to maximize learning and avoid “a lot of time lost at the first of the school year when teachers are learning where students left off,” Ronan said.

The emphasis is on “art-infused” academics, Ronan said, so a formal physical education program is a lesser budgetary priority. “But we do get the students moving during the day,” he promised.
Another lesser budgetary priority is school buses. The school will have one bus, but the school is “not likely to create an elaborate transportation system,” Ronan said. As for extracurricular activities, a lot is going on at other Lighthouse Academies – from tennis to chess club. It is all according to the interests of the students, community resources, and the energy that parents, teachers, and volunteers want to put into it.
Expectations are high for students’ behavior. Suspensions and expulsions do occur at Lighthouse Academies. All students wear uniforms, which parents are expected to purchase.

“A clear code of conduct with logical consequences, not just a punitive system” is the order of the day, Ronan said. “We teach them how they should have responded so that they can learn from their mistakes.”

Assistance is provided to students with special needs – including physical challenges, autism, and attention deficit disorder or other learning difficulties. These students are welcome and “participate in the program as they can,” Ronan said.

Teachers are recruited through a national search; all candidates are evaluated on a demonstration lesson and their response to the critique. The school principal hires and sets salary according to a teacher’s qualifications. Salaries are “competitive with the local teacher salary structure,” and benefits include retirement and health insurance, Ronan said. Union representation is a choice to be made by the teachers.

The principal also has the authority to give – and withdraw – incentive pay, based upon that teacher’s students’ progress.

“Performance determines whether (a teacher) stays at a school or not,” Ronan said.

Because enrollment is limited, and interest likely will exceed available space, a lottery is planned for next May, if the charter is awarded. Children of all founding board members and teachers, however, will be guaranteed a spot, and any sibling of a child whose name is drawn also will be able to attend the school.

Jacksonville native Charla Gutte decided to come to the meeting Wednesday night when she heard that Ronan was to speak.

Years ago, as a new teacher in Massachusetts, he was her superintendent for 12 years.

“He was wonderful; I can’t say enough good things about him,” Gutte said. “I know what this guy is all about. He’s good.

They’ve got a good resource in him.”

Rebel Wilson, who has a 1-year-old son and serves on the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy board, said she is looking forward to the day that Jacksonville will have its own school district, with schools that will provide a clean, safe, happy environment and will prepare students for college. Right now, because the “Pulaski County Special School District is not doing an adequate job of taking care of our children, the community is losing good families” who choose to live elsewhere, she said. ”A charter school is a step in the right direction, though it isn’t going to be able to help every child.”
Karen Carlisle of Jacksonville observed that the art-infused approach was a lot like the instruction her now-grown daughter received in a Montessori school.

“It was very effective, I know from experience,” she said. “If I had school-age children, I definitely would be interested. We need to have more educational opportunities in Jacksonville, so we can keep kids in public schools.”

Basing his comments on his daughter’s experience at a Little Rock charter school, Warren Dupree favors a charter school for Jacksonville.

“LISA Academy has a very similar program,” he said. “The experience has been very positive – solid grounding in the basics and college prep. There is no doubt it would be a great thing for Jacksonville.”

Leslie Ivy plans to apply for her son to attend the charter school. Her only regret is that space is limited. She is not satisfied with how things have gone so far in the public schools for her son, who is “advanced, but needs a special learning environment.”
George Biggs, president of the Jackson-ville Lighthouse Academy board of trustees and director of parks and recreation for the city of Jacksonville, got involved in the initiative once he learned a little about the organization’s guiding principles.

“I have always been an advocate for education for all children, and I found everything to be sound. It has a good logical foundation,” he said.