Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

TOP STORY >> Charter academy moves into new building

Principal Nigena Livingston welcomes students for their first day of classes at the new school. Livingston led them in a couple of rousing chants, then talked with them about self-discipline and humility.

Leader staff writer

After more than two months holding classes at a temporary location, the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy opened at its permanent North First Street location Tuesday morning.

Wet weather marked the first day at the gleaming new facility as it had for many weeks throughout construction, from a delayed groundbreaking in March to now preventing completion of the school’s parking lot, driveway and playground. All that must wait for drier weather.

But, on this day, what mattered to staff, board members, students and parents gathered for a school assembly was that they were finally at their “home,” as several called it.

Keri Urquhart, president of the school’s board of trustees, told students (called “scholars” at the school) that it had only been a year and a half since charter school organizer Mike Ronan had offered his assistance to Jacksonville residents.

“In that short time, we have enrolled 340 bright young scholars, built a brand-new school, and hired wonderful, hardworking teachers,” Urquhart said. “This school is going to do great things.”

Assemblies at the school are a venue for character education. This morning was no different. Principal Nigena Livingston led students in a couple of rousing chants, then talked with them about self-discipline and humility.

Humility, she explained, is about “being humble, letting your actions speak louder than your words, not bragging, doing something not for a reward, but because it is the right thing to do.”

After the assembly, board member and city council member Kevin McCleary expressed elation about the new school and its new building.

“This is one way to get a new school in Jacksonville, the first one in 30 years,” he said. “I think the whole community is excited. I am excited, and I don’t even have any children here.”

A grand opening celebration at the school, to which the entire community will be invited, is set for Nov. 5.

Parent Lisa McCranie said that despite the delay in getting into the new building, she is pleased so far with the education her son, first-grader William McCranie, is receiving.

At home, he recites the rhymes and songs utilized for memory work in the classroom. “He is always singing, and he loves his teacher. I feel good for the kids – they’ve done lots of good stuff for them, but feel it can be even better now that we’re home.”

Patricia Castellano is pleased with “the discipline, how they are serious about the uniforms and don’t say one thing and do another. That will help the children in the future stick to rules.” Her 11-year-old son, Giovanni, tells her, “‘I can’t wait for tomorrow to go to school.”

“He says that he thought he wouldn’t like it. He didn’t want to leave his friends. But now he loves it.”

Beth Barlow wanted her son, Trinten, to attend the new school because of its emphasis on college preparation. She attended Mount St. Mary in Little Rock, a parochial high school with a similar academic focus. “It made the transition to college very easy,” she said.

Other than that, she looks forward to some smoothing out of the morning and afternoon “picking up and dropping off process, but that will come in time.”

Nicholas Kann is pleased so far, as a parent – his daughter, Cailey, attends fourth grade there – and as a college student with aspirations of becoming a primary school teacher.

Based on classroom observations at the school, Kann says he appreciates its “higher standard of education and emphasis on core areas – math, science and the arts – what the students will actually need and use.”

Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy was founded in November 2008 with the granting of a five-year charter by the state Board of Education. As an open-enrollment charter school, it is a public school open to Arkansans regardless of place of residence. Although required to meet state educational mandates, an open-enrollment charter school is governed by a local, independent board of trustees.

The school is part of the Lighthouse Academies school system, which has 10 other schools – two in Chicago, one in New York City, three in Gary, Ind., and three in Indianapolis. Lighthouse Academies is a national nonprofit, charter-school-management organization whose mission is opening and operating of schools in urban areas that have been underserved historically.

Construction of the 28,425-square-foot building got off to a late start in March, in part due to spring rains. Frequent bouts of wet weather ever since have plagued the project.

Even after the building interior was finished, the weather twice delayed the move. There haven’t been enough sunny days to dry out the ground so that the parking lot could be built or the driveway finished.

Project planners finally gave up on waiting for enough dry weather to lay asphalt and instead put in a temporary gravel surface to make driving and parking possible.

“We scraped away as much mud as we could and will have to wait ‘til it dries out to get asphalt down,” said Jim Green, general contractor for the project.

“We’re still looking forward to getting the parking lot paved and landscaped and a playground built so the kids will have a place outside to play,” said Livingston, adding, “The inside looks great.”