Leader Blues

Friday, November 06, 2009

TOP STORY >> First charter school dedicated

Lighthouse Academy principal Nigena Livingston addresses students, staff and guests at Thursday’s dedication.

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader executive editor

Parents, students, teachers and staff, along with community leaders, helped dedicate Jacksonville’s new charter school Thursday — the first new school built in the city in almost three decades.

“Thank you, Jacksonville, for letting us move into our new home,” principal Nigena Livingston said during the dedication ceremony. “This is the school that was built for a better tomorrow.”

Some 340 students moved into the Lighthouse Academy, 251 N. First St., last week from temporary quarters at Second Baptist Church. Construction of the $4 million school got off to a late start in March, in part due to spring rains, followed by frequent torrential downpours through October.

The 28,425-square-foot building has classes from kindergarten through sixth grade. It is the city’s first new school since Murrell Taylor Elementary was built in 1981.

During a ceremony inside the school following a ribbon-cutting, pupils walked up to the microphone and discussed their hopes and goals for the school year.

“I want to get straight A’s,” one student said.

Said another, “I want everyone to pass and keep the school clean.”

“I want to live up to high expectations,” said a third.

“Today is a new beginning for the city of Jacksonville,” said Mayor Gary Fletcher. “You truly are chartering the course of our community for years to come.”

Fletcher compared the innovative school to the space program, when astronauts reached for the moon when he was still in school.

“Today is the beginning of a new frontier for Jacksonville,” the mayor said. He said the new school was another step toward “establishing our own school district.”

“You never took your eyes off the stars,” Fletcher said.

Mike Ronan, president and chief executive officer of Lighthouse Academies, based in Farmingham, Mass., called the school “a tremendous accomplishment, made possible by the individuals in this room.”

“Nov. 5 is a special day,” he continued. “One year ago, a charter was granted.

“The hard part is really in front of us,” Ronan said. “To fulfill the mission of this school. For Jacksonville, this really is a historic day.

“Someone else doesn’t make things happen,” Ronan said. “Someone else doesn’t solve our problems.

“We’re expecting nothing but the best,” he said. “Jacksonville has a bright future.

“All children must have access to free, high-quality education,” Ronan said. “I look forward to the day when this first group of scholars graduates from college and comes back to Jacksonville.”

“What a happy day for Jacksonville,” Alderman Kevin McCleary, a school board member, told The Leader.

“One thing I know for sure is that inside these walls, great things will happen,” said Phillip Carlisle, Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce president.

He praised the efforts of city fathers and leaders who worked for the creation of the charter school.

Among those who were thanked for making the school possible were former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who helped organize the effort to bring a charter school to Jacksonville; the architect Chad Young and builder Jim Green.

Plans are to add classes through high school. There is undeveloped land nearby, as well as empty buildings across the street.

One organizer said the opening of the Lighthouse Academy was historic because for the first time in 80 years, Jacksonville residents have made their own decision about the future of the children’s education.

The Pulaski County Special School District, which includes Jacksonville, is headquartered in south Little Rock.

Trinity Mize, 8, of Cabot is a scholar in Nerinda Elliott’s third-grade class. “It was good,” she said after the dedication. “I liked the people that spoke. The song that the older scholars sang was good.”

Mize says of the school, “there’s a lot more stuff we do” than at her previous school. “It’s fun,” she said. “It’s more fun because you get to do a lot more fun stuff.”

Trinity wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She is the daughter of Craig and Kelly Mize of Cabot.

The school day lasts from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Although recess is longer, “there’s a lot more work. I like doing it (class work) because it’s fun and I usually help people learn how to do what we’re doing if I know how. Like homophones and homographs and sometimes reading,” she said.

Her classmates use instruments in music class, she said. “We’re going to start painting in art,” Trinity added.

“Now that we’re in our big school, we get a lot more fun coloring work,” she said. “Like in math work, a number is a certain color.”

Leader staff writer Christy Hendricks contributed to this report.