Leader Blues

Friday, September 05, 2008

TOP STORY > >Second charter school applies on time

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville school patrons will have two charter school prospects after all to pin their hopes on for an alternative to local public schools, come fall 2009.

An hour after the state deadline Tuesday afternoon, one of the two applications expected for a charter school in Jacksonville was not in the hands of officials at the Arkansas Department of Education. It looked like the Jacksonville Charter Academy had missed the deadline and would be out of the running.

But word from the ADE Wednesday morning was that the application actually had arrived on time.

“It came by certified mail and was somewhere in the building,” explained Julie Thompson, director of communications for the ADE.

That puts the total number of applicants for an open-enrollment charter school at five from around the state.

Arkansas state law limits the number of open-enrollment charter schools statewide to 24. Currently, there are seven openings remaining. The fact that there are fewer applicants than spaces will simplify matters for the state board of education when it decides in early November which ones deserve a school charter, Thompson said.

If there were 11 applicants competing for seven openings, as had been expected, that might have meant calling a special meeting. But, with only five, Thompson predicts that the application review process will be part of the regular board meeting Nov. 3, which will be open to the public.

The academy is looking at the old Wal-Mart to hold its classes.

A charter school is a state-regulated, publicly funded school, the purpose of which is to provide educational alternatives to existing schools. Students attending an open-enrollment charter school may live in a school district, city, or county other than where the school is located.

Another type of charter school, a conversion school, is one that is established by a school district from an existing school.

The strong interest for an alternative to Jacksonville public education has been evident in the large turnouts to recent meetings convened by the charter school organizers. A hundred-plus folks showed up two weeks ago to learn about Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy. On a Sunday morning in early July, a presentation about Jacksonville Charter Academy packed the sanctuary at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, with the crowd spilling out the doors, according to educational consultant Buster Lackey, who is overseeing the application and planning process for that school.

JACKSONVILLE CHARTER ACADEMY

A week ago, Lackey made a second public presentation at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, “to fulfill the state application requirement,” he said. The church’s pastor, Rev. Craig Collier, is also president of the board of trustees for the nonprofit organization Win One, Reach One, which spearheaded the Jacksonville Charter Academy initiative.

Lackey currently serves as the principal of Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle. Assisting him with the Jacksonville Charter Academy application is Dave Sanders, the assistant principal at the same Maumelle school. Lackey and Sanders are currently working pro bono, but say they wouldn’t rule out a job offer from the Jacksonville Charter Academy board of trustees, if a charter is granted.

Jacksonville residents who asked Lackey to help them put together a charter school proposal became acquainted with him a few years ago when he was a teacher and the headmaster for Victory Bible School in Sherwood.

“I’ve seen Dr. Lackey’s leadership as a principal and community leader,” said Nancy Meador, who is a parent and serves on the board of trustees for Jacksonville Charter Academy. “This is a great opportunity for this community. Jacksonville really needs a good school like this, one with a positive atmosphere that will challenge children to do their best in a positive way, building skills early that they will be able to use their entire lives.”

Jacksonville resident Matt Caton believes a charter school would provide a quality education for his two children, who currently attend Victory Bible School, and particularly liked the idea of their someday being able to take college courses while in high school.

“The school would be academically challenging enough to actually stretch them,” Caton said. “That you can start getting a college education while in high school, that would make the transition to college easier, and it makes students more competitive internationally.”

The first year, the school would be kindergarten through sixth grade, with 25 students per class and two classes per grade.

Each year following, two grades would be added through 12th grade.

If the proposed school is granted a charter, then the student application process will commence spring 2009. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of available spaces, then a lottery will be held in late spring. All those who do not get a place may put their names on a waiting list.

Planners for the school have signed an agreement to lease the 100,000-square-foot building in Jacksonville once occupied by Wal-Mart. Architectural drawings for renovating the structure show plans for classrooms, a large covered playground, a cafetorium for meals and meetings, and a spacious workshop for hands-on learning, converted from the existing automotive repair center.

Jacksonville Charter Academy educators would expect kids to excel academically while fostering their self-esteem and confidence, says Lackey. “I Can Do It” would be emblazoned on the back of every school uniform shirt so the message would constantly be before every child’s eyes.

During the first month of school, parents would meet with teachers to review an individualized learning plan for their child, based up past grades and achievement test scores. All kindergarteners would be evaluated for “readiness” to see what basic skills they have, such as counting, recognizing colors, reciting the alphabet, and ability to spell their names.

Different teaching styles would be employed because children don’t all learn the same way, Lackey said. Math and science would have lots of hands-on instruction, and science lab would start in kindergarten, where children would get to watch their teacher dissect a shark. In the multi-purpose workshop, students could get elbow deep in subjects like pottery, welding and mechanics.

“They’ll get to see it, hear it, taste it and feel it, because everyone learns differently,” Lackey said.

For the kid who can’t quite grasp an elusive concept in math or science, sometimes it is a fellow student who hits upon the way to make it all come clear. Older students who have some mastery in a subject likely will have the chance to mentor the younger ones after-school, Lackey said.

“A student may learn faster from a peer than from me standing at their back watching them.”

All grades would have homework, and that includes kindergarten. The little ones would learn quickly that they are expected to have their work completed. If not, after-school “homework club hour” might be where they would wind up, Lackey said.

Students who fall behind in their work might also be tagged for Saturday school twice a month or a summer program to help them catch up.

Teachers would be on the job until 5 p.m. every day to be available to students. The school year would be 190 days.

Business and community members would be invited to share their expertise as instructors of mini-courses tailored to student interests and needs and acquaint them with various career paths, such as finance, emergency medical technician (EMT) training or journalism.

Beginning in 10th grade, students would have the opportunity to take college courses – and earn up to 62 transferable college credits – free of charge through a program offered by the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Adjunct instructors would come to the charter school to teach. Students potentially could earn enough credits so that they could enter college as a junior and graduate two years early.

If behavior problems are standing in the way of academic success, school personnel would endeavor to determine what is going on with the child, and if necessary refer the family to professional counseling services to make it possible “to truly educate their child,” Lackey said.

“The thing you have got to find first is why,” said Lackey, who holds a master’s degree in counseling and a doctoral degree in psychology.

But chronic misbehavior would not be tolerated. Children would be expected to own up to misdeeds and when a phone call from school to home is necessary, it would be the child, not the principal, who did the explaining.

“The child has to call the parent to admit to the misbehavior; that way, it’s between the child and the parents, not between me and the parents,” Lackey said.

Expulsion is a “last resort” that will be employed if necessary. But, Lackey said that with a “student-centered” approach to education, expulsion is rare.

“Very few students are asked to leave because their parents want their child there,” Lackey said.

To ensure school safety, the school would have a security officer, provided by Jacksonville police.

“I have met with Chief Sipes, and he has committed to a school resource officer on the property, at the building’s controlled access,” Lackey said.

Lackey envisions a school that would function as a hub of community activities, where organizations would be welcome to hold events.

“After 5 o’clock at night and three months out of the year in the summer, it’s empty; I can’t foresee saying that they can’t use it,” Lackey said. “It is a community school. It is a really important root of the charter school movement – that the doors are open to the community to provide a safe place.”

Rev. Collier, of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, likes what Lackey envisions for the charter school.

“The school would be a great thing for Jacksonville,” Collier said.

“My kids went through public school, and they didn’t get all that,” he added.