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4 schools’ charters renewed

State set to decide on 4 more today by Cynthia Howell, Evie Blad | April 10, 2012 at 4:27 a.m.

— The Arkansas Board of Education on Monday renewed charter agreements for four schools, including Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle and the Benton County School of the Arts in Rogers.

But it denied requests by those two schools for 20-year agreements and for enrollment increases.

The board agreed to a three-year renewal of the Maumelle and Rogers schools, with yearly reviews.

State board members also renewed for three years the charter for the Arkansas Virtual Academy, which is based in Little Rock but serves up to 500 students throughout the state.

The board approved a five-year renewal for the Cabot School District’s Academic Center of Excellence, a district-run conversion charter school that can serve up to 500 seventh through-12th-graders in jeopardy of failing or dropping out of a regular school program.

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The Education Board is to act on charter renewal requests from four more schools, including Lisa Academy in Little Rock and Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, when its meeting resumes at 9 a.m. today.

This week’s decisions on renewing the charters come at a time when a federal judge is weighing whether the state board properly approved open-enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County.

The Little Rock School District has accused the Education Board of approving charters without regard to the effect the schools would have on desegregation efforts by the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts.

The Little Rock district has asked U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. to prohibit the state from approving any new or expanded charter schools in Pulaski County. The district also wants state compensation for students who attend the charter schools.

Attorneys for the state have argued in court that the charter schools have had a minimal effect on desegregation programs.

Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock district, told the Education Board at Monday’s meeting that unconditional approval of charters in Pulaski County violates a 1989 agreement between the state and the districts to support desegregation efforts, including magnet schools and interdistrict student transfer programs.

“I don’t think, given the situation in federal court, that you can seriously consider a 20-year or even a 10- year renewal,” he said. “I would say if you consider renewing this charter, you probably shouldn’t promise anything for more than a year. Within a year, what is going to happen to charter schools will be decided by federal court decisions.”

Jess Askew III, an attorney for charter schools in the court case, said charter schools offer choices to families who want a public education and that the charter schools didn’t exist at the time of the 1989 settlement. He also said it is unlikely state board action on charter schools violates the settlement.

The shorter renewal periods for the independently run open-enrollment charter schools were recommended to the state board by the Arkansas Department of Education’s Charter Review Council, which is made up of agency leaders who interview each charter school organization.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell told the board that in regard to Academics Plus - which sought a 20-year extension and doubling of its enrollment cap to 1,300 - the council wanted to see more improvement in student achievement.

“We think they have some growth that still needs to be developed,” Kimbrell said.

“They need to make greater gains with the kids that they have. We have a sense that new leadership on the [school’s] board [of directors] and at the administrative level has had some positive impact.”

Kimbrell said the council compared student achievement with school districts with similar demographics such as Bryant, Bauxite and Parkers Chapel.

“They [Academics Plus] aren’t where they need to be but we see some pretty good growth in those scores,” he said, adding that a three-year extension of the charter with annual reviews would give the state agency an opportunity to monitor progress.He said school leaders can return to the board to ask for changes in its charter.

Rob McGill, executive director of Academics Plus, urged the state board to approve the 20-year extension and larger enrollment, saying that the college-preparatory campus, with its slate of concurrent college courses and longer school day, has 650 students enrolled for next year and a waiting list of more than 120.

McGill said the school has worked to attract a diverse enrollment. The number of black students has increased since 2006 from 27 to 121 or from 8 percent to 20 percent.

And the percentage of students eligible for subsidized school meals has increase from 7.5 percent to 34 percent. School leaders have recruited students from parts of Maumelle and North Little Rock that have higher concentrations of black school aged children, and have provided transportation for students through the Central Arkansas Transit Authority bus system, McGill said.

McGill and Gary Ritter, director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, highlighted data showing that longtime Academics Plus students outperformed students in the surrounding Pulaski County Special School District on national standardized tests in literacy and on the state biology exam but score on par in math.

Board Chairman Ben Mays of Clinton called the scores “a wash.” Board member Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville said the academic scores were “not impressive” for a 10-year old charter school that was supposed to be a laboratory for academic innovation.

Board members questioned what the original 2001 goals for Academics Plus were - including goals for achievement and racial composition - and whether they should be evaluating the school on goals that changed when the state renewed the charter in 2003 and 2006.

The board voted 7-1 for the three-year extension for Academics Plus, with board member Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock casting the sole negative vote.

Ledbetter also was the only “no” in the 7-1 vote for a three-year extension of the charter for the Arkansas Virtual Academy, which provides online courses and guided instruction for students in their homes. That extension was less than the five-year renewal the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school sought, and it did not expand the existing enrollment cap of 500 students.

In June, the state board turned down a previous application by the Virtual Academy to expand its enrollment cap to 1,500 students.

Ledbetter questioned school leaders about why they needed the full per-student state funding provided to all state school districts when the school does not teach students in “brick and mortar buildings” or provide transportation, which are both factors in the state’s formula for determining constitutionally adequate funding.

“There may be some areas where perhaps we could argue the funding may be out of line, but there are also some areas that may be underfunded,” said Jerry Jones, president of the Virtual Academy’s board.

The school’s funding is used to buy technology, to pay fees for curriculum use, to pay teachers who guide students remotely and to buy materials that are shipped to student’s homes, he said.

In June, board members had criticized relatively high administrative costs, which take up 15 percent of the school’s budget; student test scores that sit near the state average; and a waiver that allows the school’s board to approve contracts with its curriculum provider without going through a public bidding process.

Jones said the school has since put its technology contract out for bid. After six firms responded, only the current provider chose to continue and negotiate a contract, he said.

The board unanimously approved renewal of its agreement with Benton County School of the Arts for three years, rejecting a 15-to-20 year extension and an increase in the 825-student enrollment cap to 900.

Superintendent Paul Hines said after the meeting that he was satisfied with the board’s decision, and that he hoped to win a longer renewal in the future.

“The alternative is to not be renewed at all,” he said.

Hines said the school’s high school campus is starting to generate a waiting list for its ninth-grade class as interest in its programs grows.

The school has about 220 high school students and 555 students in the lower grades, he said.

Board member Mireya Reith of Fayetteville asked if the school had made any effort to increase its enrollment of Hispanic and students of other minority groups. She noted that those students made up a lower percentage of the charter school’s enrollment than of the Rogers School District’s enrollment.

Hines said the school was working on a marketing plan and that its leaders had worked to speak in Spanish-speaking churches and grant interviews to the region’s Spanish-language newspaper.

“But there’s still a misconception - even after 11 years - that we are a private school and that we charge tuition,” which keeps some potential students away, he said.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/10/2012

Print Headline: 4 schools’ charters renewed

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