Leader Blues

Saturday, January 23, 2010

TOP STORY >> Lighthouse principal sees potential for growth here

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

After just five months in Jacksonville, Lighthouse Academy may build another school.

“We are looking at expanding at a site nearby,” Lighthouse principal Nigena Livingston told the Jacksonville Lions Club this week.

The new building on North First Street is not big enough to add middle school or high school grades. Now, the school is for kindergarten through sixth-grade students. It must add a grade each year just to keep up as its students progress.

Principal Livingston said that the school is looking at a site near Little Rock Air Force Base, but there are other sites under consideration.

She estimates that about a quarter of her school’s students live on the air base.

The new school would be for kindergarten through eighth grades.

The school has “344 students, so we are fully enrolled today. We have a long waiting list,” she said.

Parents as far away as Beebe are anxious to enroll their children in the charter school. Even children from Cabot commute to the school. But without a new building, there will be no more room to accommodate additional students, she said.

“It’s for people who want a different option for their child,” Livingston said.

The school’s emphasis on small classes, frequent professional development for teachers and eight-hour school days is attractive to parents. But the draw is surely not the playground, which the school still lacks.

She wants to build a playground and develop a full athletics program.

Lighthouse is conducting a fundraiser to help build the playground. So far, it has raised about $3,000 out of the required $25,000 needed to build it.

“Teachers do an extensive amount of professional development. They get frequent coaching with our director of instruction, and I also pop into classes and give them feedback,” she said.

Livingston said she is striving to shape her students into “self-disciplined scholars.”

“We want them to get the habits for what it takes to be a scholar. We believe that if we talk to them about college now, they will have that instilled in them” and ultimately lead them into college, she said.

“One of the reasons that Lighthouse exists is the achievement gap between students in affluent communities and those in less affluent areas,” she said.

Livingston said that it was important for the school not to start too big. “Our charter mandated that we start out at this size, but also we want to make sure that it’s working,” she said.

Lighthouse’s popularity seems to have gotten the attention of the Pulaski County Special School District, which has had a monopoly on public education in Jacksonville for decades.

PCSSD now wants to enter the charter school business. It recently asked the state board of education to allow Harris Elementary and Star Academy to be converted into charter schools.

If approved, the schools would remain part of PCSSD.

The state Board of Education “likes the concept,” according to Deborah McAfee, grants coordinator for PCSSD.

She said the board this week asked the district for revisions in the applications, with the Star Academy revision due for the Feb. 8 meeting and the Harris Elementary School revision will be presented in March.

“Once they are passed, then I can write grant applications for three annual increments of $150,000 each for each of the two schools,” she said Friday.

“I welcome the competition. If someone else wants to come in, I think that’s great. (Lighthouse) can only service so many children,” Livingston said.

Lighthouse operates independently of PCSSD, and is not subject to that school board’s policies. However, it is a public school and receives state funding. Additional funding comes from private donors and sponsors, she said.

But Livingston sees the school as one day having all the features of a regular public school but without the many problems.

Recently, the school built a second entrance to its driveway and paved another driveway, where twice a day approximately 200 cars pick up children at once. The new entrance and pavement have helped ease some of that congestion.

The Lions Club meeting also included a discussion of Lions Club International’s efforts to help victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The international group has raised $650,000 for relief aid.

The Jacksonville chapter donated $500 to the cause.

“Two Haitian Lions lost their lives,” president Bob Williams reminded members.

Leader staff writer John Hofheimer contributed to this report.