Leader Blues

Friday, September 18, 2009

TOP STORY >> Parents prefer charter schools

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Enthusiastic but very different community meetings were held Tuesday evening when residents and officials discussed changing Jacksonville Star Academy and Harris Elementary School into conversion charter schools.

The schools will still be part of the Pulaski County Special School District. But they will be eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up money and also special waivers from the state Education Board.

Two parents, each with a child, attended the Star Academy meeting and other interested Jacksonville residents visited with district officials at the old Jacksonville Girls Middle School. But an hour later, about 45 people filled all the available seats in a Harris Elementary computer lab.

The Star Academy is a special credit-recovery, dropout-prevention program that helps students get back on track for timely graduation. This year 61 students from Jacksonville High School students are involved.

Classes are small and instruction concentrated. The students take all ninth-grade classes in the first semester, all 10th-grade classes in the second semester and return to high school for 11th grade, if successful. They also have to take a math class in the summer.

Deborah McAfee, the district’s grants administrator, told the Star Academy group that district officials would like to expand the program to include students from other high schools and eventually to home-schooled students.

Cassandra Steed told McAfee that her daughter Kaiesha loves the Star Academy.

“I had a sister who died last week and (Kaiesha) didn’t want to go to the funeral — didn’t want to miss even a day of school,” Steed said.

“I’m more focused than I was in regular school,” Kaiesha Steed said.

“She’s interested and that’s the important part,” her mother said. “This is the most interest she’s shown in the last five years.”

Several administrators and board members Bill Vasquez and Danny Gilliland attended both meetings. Board member Gwen Williams attended the Harris meeting. Harris is in Williams’ zone.

This was not the first rodeo for most of the parents attending the Harris meeting. The school, where a large percentage of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, is climbing out from academic distress and parental involvement has been good.

It already has a health and science focus. Some of the people at the meeting were on the steering committee that helped the school make that transition.

At least two people volunteered to help if the school and district redouble efforts at science-based elementary education.

NASA already partners with the school. Several community tutors were working in the multimedia center Tuesday.

McAfee said the district wants to get the money and leeway from the state to equip the rooms with microscopes, smart boards and more computers when needed.

The school can use the money — $150,000 a year for three years — to set up science labs for chemistry and biology.

There is a “PE for Life” program that teaches children about nutrition and exercise and taking care of themselves throughout their lives to help them stay healthy, McAfee said.

Principal Lou Jackson, formerly at Sylvan Hills, seemed very enthusiastic about the opportunity. She had already invited an University of Arkansas at Little Rock public school liaison who specializes in science to help implement the new program.

“I started the science lab at Carver Elementary School,” said Lola Perritt, the UALR director of the Central Education Renewal Zone. “We equipped my science lab like a high school science lab,” she said. “I want to allay some of your fears. Kids absolutely love science. It looks great to me.”

Perritt said she also helped write the state benchmarks for science.

“It’s a different strategy for engaging the child,” McAfee said. “Harris plans this, not Deborah McAfee,” she said.

“We hope the enrollment will increase and hope the teachers will stay,” she said. The teachers will get professional development help geared toward the new programs.

She said she hopes the teachers will be excited and commit to stay for three years.

“What’s going to change is the excitement about learning,” McAfee said.