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story.lead_photo.caption Founder Phillis Nichols Anderson sits in a classroom Wednesday of the ScholarMade Achievement Place charter school in Little Rock. “My hope and dream is that this school will be loved by the community,” she said. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Oh, the tales the trees could tell, there on the lot at Roosevelt Road and Battery Street in Little Rock.

For better than a dozen years those towering hardwoods have shaded and sheltered -- maybe even tried to hide -- a decayed three-story school building that was vacated in 2003 and sold in 2008 by the Little Rock School District to buyers whose aspirations for it could not be fulfilled.

Now, ScholarMade Achievement Place, a public charter school, will open next month in what school leaders refer to as the historic James Mitchell School. The campus has undergone an $8.6 million renovation to not only restore its exterior to its early-20th century terra cotta-columned grandeur but also modernize the interior to 21st- century standards.

"My hope and dream is that this school will be loved by the community, that we'll be accepted as a part of the city of Little Rock's portfolio schools," Phillis Nichols Anderson, a 30-year central Arkansas educator and founder of the school, said last week. "I hope it will unite people around a common cause that places children first."

Some 290 children in kindergarten through fifth grades are registered for the Aug. 13 start of school. The open-enrollment charter school that was approved by the state Board of Education in 2017 over the objections of the Little Rock School District is authorized to serve as many as 520 students in kindergarten through ninth grades.

Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore argued at the time of the school's approval that there is a surplus of elementary school seats in the city's east and south-central areas.

Anderson and her staff said last week that the children in this first year of operation are coming from about 35 different schools or school attendance zones. Some are coming from as far as Jacksonville, Benton and the Sweet Home community in southeast Pulaski County, but about three-quarters of them are from the school's south-central Little Rock neighborhood.

The youngest pupils will enter a new glass-walled, light-filled vestibule on the school's Battery Street side, a former loading-dock area. Glass walls become red brick as children move to their classrooms, which are equipped with easy-to-rearrange desks and chairs in lime green and purple. Brightly colored stools known as Oodles will give children the opportunity to simultaneously sit and expend energy as they balance themselves on the wobbly seats. Projectors cling to the ceilings. Carts of Chromebook laptop computers stand at the ready for pupil use.

Anderson recalled last week how a year ago she feared that the building -- originally designed by renowned architect Charles Thompson for its 1908 opening -- could not be salvaged.

Bats, bees, water and vandals had all left their marks. Buckled floors, fallen ceilings, rotted stairway spindles, peeled wall coverings, and lead paint on pressed tin ceilings all had to be addressed, as did the lack of handicapped accessibility in the three-story building that is now owned by KLS Leasing LLC, which is an affiliate of the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville.

The foundation is a national proponent and funder of public charter schools. ScholarMade is leasing the building under a rent-to-own agreement, Anderson said.

Earnest Duckery of Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson Architects said last week that much had to be done, including the addition of interiors ramps and an elevator, as well as the installation of glass walls and doorways in the building's formerly open central rotunda. There's upgraded flooring, plumbing, electrical heating and cooling.

"We had three buildings -- the historical building and the 1987 and the 1992 buildings," Duckery said, also noting structural work and additions done to the building in 1910, 1915 and in 1952 with the addition of a cafeteria.

The Mitchell School property is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"What we wanted to do was create a link between the buildings and make everything safe and secure. One of the things with historic preservation is that if you add something new, you don't want it to look historical. That gave us the chance to create this entry with a lot of light and a lot of glass," he said.

Wide hallways and open common spaces provide room for benches as well couches and chairs of cushioned geometric shapes. A teacher workroom resembles passenger work spaces at airport terminals with tall bright yellow chairs pulled up to a bar table.

The school's multipurpose room with a stage will transform daily into a cafeteria by folding over the backs of benches to create tables and benches.

On the Summit Street side of the property, there is new playground equipment and space for an outdoor classroom that will be floored with turf and topped with a canopy, Anderson said.

The parking/student drop-off and pickup space took into account as many of the the campus's long-standing trees as possible, Duckery said.

"We were concerned about saving the trees. So they were incorporated into the design to help us with the flow of the traffic in the drop-off area," he said.

The trees are also a component of at least some of the upper-story classrooms -- including one actually tagged the treehouse -- with their walls of windows that allow for expansive viewing through tree branches into the surrounding neighborhood. Those rooms also feature colorful, modern furnishings, including desks with round, wheeled bases that make them look like they could hover.

Transformation is a theme at the school, where the mascot is the lioness*.

"Everything is very symbolic for us," said Anderson, who began her career as a 14-year teacher in Little Rock's Henderson Junior High and Hall High schools and later led the opening of Lighthouse Academy charter schools in Jacksonville, Pine Bluff and North Little Rock.

ScholarMade students will be known as kings and queens, she said.

The school's ScholarMade name is based on the idea that while children may not be scholars when they initially enroll in the school, they will have the opportunity to be scholars in their time at the campus, said Anderson. One of the purposes of the school is to prepare students -- particularly ninth-graders -- ready for high school and ultimately college and careers.

"If you look at the data, some of the lowest scores are in ninth grade," Anderson said about students. "That's what drove our going back to the junior high model of grades seven, eight and nine, and keeping the ninth-graders one more year.

"It seems like we don't know what to do with ninth-graders," she said. "We have had them in high school and had them in freshmen academies. We are focusing on students coming out of ninth grade with sound ACT scores and credits and on the pathway to graduate from high school, college-ready."

ScholarMade Achievement Place is made up of three smaller schools: Ivy Hill Academy of Scholarship under the direction of Derrick Rainey, Nichols Intermediate Academy of Leadership under the direction of Terri Guy and the Prodigy Preparatory Academy for grades seven through nine.

Conscious Discipline, Playworks, and the Ruler Program of Yale University are among the initiatives to be used at the campus to aid students in their emotional and social growth as well as in academics, Anderson said. Academic parent teacher teams is another component of the school, which will result in teachers meeting with parent groups on a quarterly basis as a way to promote student learning.

Metro on 07/29/2018

*CORRECTION: The Monarch mascot for the ScholarMade Achievement Place, a new charter school in Little Rock, is represented by a lioness. The school’s monarch mascot was inaccurately described in a previous version of this article.

Print Headline: Old school building turns into 'butterfly'

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