Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

TOP STORY > >Charter school for Jacksonville moves forward

Leader staff writer

The planned August opening of Jacksonville’s first charter school moved closer to fruition Monday night as the city’s planning commission approved the preliminary site plan for the Lighthouse Charter School.

Plans call for a 28,425-square-foot, single-story building to be constructed on 4.26 acres of land off of North First Street in the open area behind Dr. Joe Collins’ eye clinic. The building will eventually become home to 600 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Planning commissioner Chad Young excused himself from the vote Monday night as he is involved in the design of the new school. He said the school is geared toward an August 2009 opening.

Bond Engineering, which represented the charter school at the commission meeting, will be back at the next commission meeting in January with a more detailed plan prepared for final approval.

If all goes according to plan when the charter school opens in August 2009, it will have about 340 students, including two sections of students in grades kindergarten through sixth. One grade will be added each year until the school includes all the junior high and high school grades.

A charter school is a state-regulated public school, the purpose of which is to provide educational alternatives for communities. The state grants a charter for five years, after which renewal is based upon how well the school has met state accountability mandates. An open-enrollment charter school can be established by a government entity, community, institution of higher learning or non-sectarian group.

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.

At a city council meeting earlier this year where the council approved a resolution backing the efforts to get a charter school in Jacksonville, Alderman Bob Stroud said the charter school was a good thing. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” he said. “This charter school will help our city improve, and when we get our own district it won’t hamper our growth.”

The resolution stated that the “creation of a charter school within Jacksonville can be achieved and serve as an additional source for quality education for students and additional employment opportunities for teachers of our community.”

The charter school will be operated by Lighthouse Academies, a nonprofit group out of New York. The group opened its first charter school in 2003 in the Bronx with just 123 students. Since then it has expanded to ten different locations in four states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 3,600 students.

Michael Ronan, president and CEO of Lighthouse Academies, says the group exists “because there is a staggering achievement gap in education today. We overcome the achievement gap by providing a rigorous arts-infused program, organizationally and financially viable schools, high quality teachers, relentless school leaders and a pervasive culture of achievement and respect among students and staff.”

What makes the Lighthouse Charter Academy different than the local PCSSD schools? The school proposes more instructional days and longer days. The charter school year has about 10 more instructional days built into its schedule, plus the school day is eight hours long compared to the 6.5 hours for most other area schools. Teachers also loop with their students, meaning each teacher spends two years with their students. For example, the first-year teacher will move up to second grade with his or her class, the second grade teacher will move up to third grade with his or her class, and so on. At the end of the two-year cycle, the teachers return to their starting grade and begin again.

The local president of the board of trustees is George Biggs, Jacksonville’s parks and recreation director.

Other local residents on the board include, Dr. Bobby Altom, a former assistant superintendent with PCSSD; Curtis Green, a deacon with Mount Pisgah Baptist Church; Keri Urquhart, an active member of the Parent Teacher Organization at Pinewood Ele-mentary who also heads the rehabilitation department at Woodland Hills Nursing and Rehab, and Rebel Flynn Wilson with First United Methodist Church of Jacksonville. She has extensive nonprofit leadership experience.

In other planning commission business:

Commissioners approved the final plat for the first three lots of Calvin Estates of S. Hwy. 161 on land formerly occupied by a trailer park.

The commission also ap-proved the preliminary plans for Penn Cottage Development, a 21-unit complex and clubhouse for senior citizens to be built off North James and Jeff Davis streets. The homes will be designed for seniors and run between 800 and 900 square feet.

Before work can begin, developer Dickie Penn will have to come back to the commission for a rezoning hearing. The 3-acre parcel is currently zoned R-0 for single-family homes and will have to be rezoned R-2 or R-3 for the complex even though each unit will be separate and detached from the others.