Leader Blues

Friday, April 17, 2009

TOP STORY >> Two women to lead new charter school

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School board at a special meeting on Thursday elected Keri Urquhart, wife of mayoral candidate Jody Urquhart, its new president.

She was elected after former parks director George Biggs resigned following public disclosure of his felony conviction in the shooting death of a man in 1990, as well as his involvement in an extramarital affair, sometimes during work hours, from 2007 to January of this year.

The news was a blow to those who had worked with Biggs over the many months of planning for the charter school, which is slated to open in August. On recommendations from the community, Biggs, who was active in civic affairs and worked as the director of parks and recreation for Jacksonville, was elected to the school’s board of directors last June and soon after was elected president.

The board learned of Biggs’ resignation after its regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening, which Biggs did not attend.

Lighthouse Academies Inc. chief executive officer Michael Ronan said that board members and employees of the organization’s local and national offices that knew Biggs “felt sadness over the turn of events, for George as a human being, and also felt that it was appropriate for him to step down from the board.”

Lighthouse Academies is a national organization that assists in the establishment of charter schools and has been instrumental in formation of the one in Jacksonville.

Ronan had only praise for Biggs’s performance as the school’s board chair.

“His work as board chair was everything it should be and represented a significant time commitment,” Ronan said. “He did (it) on time and willingly, reflecting his commitment to the school.”

Ronan said that Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School complies with state law governing background checks for teachers and others employed at public schools. All must submit to state and national criminal background checks through the state police and FBI.


The board accepted the resignation of not only Biggs but also board member Robert Alton, who cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for stepping down. The board voted in Jacksonville Alderman Kevin McCreary and businessman Roger Sundermeier as new members.


The board voted to hire Nigena Livingston. She is the current principal of a Cleveland Lighthouse community school in Cleveland, Ohio, which opened in 2005.

Livingston’s educational career began in Detroit, where she taught middle school science for two years, then one year at Rochester Leadership Academy, in Rochester, N.Y.

After that, she served one year with Teach for America, a national teacher corps, as a program director and team leader. She holds a bachelor’s degree in health and human services from State University of New York, Buffalo.


At the regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Ronan reported that work on the school building is now just a week behind schedule and for now, the school is slated to open on Aug. 17 – or “very close to that date.” Construction was delayed a month due to complications in arranging funding, a result of havoc in the financial markets. The groundbreaking took place March 24.

“This is spectacular, given the fact that (the project) was four weeks behind,” Ronan said. “This is a great testament to (the general contractor James Green) and his organizational skills and all other contractors working on this project.”


At the meeting Thursday, the board approved the hire of the school’s first teacher, J. Evan McGrew of Mountain Pine to teach fifth- and sixth-grade math and science. McGrew currently teaches fifth, seventh and eighth grades in the Magnet Cove School District in Malvern. He has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s degree in sports administration from Henderson State University. He is middle school certified in all core disciplines.

This Saturday, 20 teaching applicant finalists will demonstrate their teaching skills before groups of children volunteers and a panel of reviewers and board members. Each teacher must conduct a 20-minute lesson, which will be followed up by a briefing with reviewers. The applicant pool for the school’s 14 teaching slots – two per grade – numbered around 50.The charter school organization continues to seek applicants from staff at other Lighthouse schools around the country, so as “to help build the culture of the school and get the school off to a quick start,” Ronan said.


The last day to submit an application for the 2009-10 school year is Monday. So far, 594 applications have been submitted for 344 available seats at the school.

The number of applications for every grade – kindergarten through sixth – has exceeded the number of seats, so all students will be selected by lottery. The lottery will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 23, at the Jacksonville Community Center. The name of every child who has applied will be drawn to compile each grade’s roster. Names of children not selected will go on the waiting list in the order they are drawn. Applicants are not required to attend the lottery, but the public is invited.

“You are all welcome to attend and be part of this historic event for Jacksonville,” Ronan told the roomful of parents, many with children in tow, who attended the meeting Tuesday night.

Ronan told the group that in more than a decade in helping organize charter schools around the country, he found Jacksonville to be “the most supportive community I have been a part of. I am very impressed with the civic officials and trades people who have made this happen in so short a time.”