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The Arkansas Board of Education voted Thursday to hold hearings next month on a three-school expansion of the eSTEM Public Charter School system and a new LISA Academy elementary school that together would create 3,000 more charter-school seats within the Little Rock School District.

The Education Board also will hold hearings on Covenant Keepers Charter School's request for renewal of its charter to operate in southwest Little Rock and on the renewal of the charter for the tiny Imboden Area Charter School that is located within the Sloan-Hendrix School District.

The board voted not to review or hold hearings on the decisions made last month by the Arkansas Department of Education's Charter Authorizing Panel regarding nine other charter schools in the state.

The board has the legal authority to either accept the Charter Authorizing Panel's decision on a charter school or hold its own hearing a month later on a proposed charter school, charter renewal or charter amendment.

Proposals made by the eSTEM and LISA charter systems, which were approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, have generated debate in the city in recent days and at Thursday's meeting.

The debate has been largely between those who favor the expansions as a way to relieve long waiting lists of students who want to attend the schools and Little Rock School District supporters who say the new charter campuses will draw high-achieving, more affluent students and leave the traditional district with a greater concentration of students with special needs and fewer resources to educate them.

Bill Kopsky, director of the Arkansas Public Policy Foundation, asked the board to conduct full hearings on the two schools, saying that "too much is riding on this to defer to a staff committee."

"You assumed responsibility for this district when you disbanded our School Board," Kopsky said about the January 2015 state takeover of the district because six schools were labeled as academically distressed. "You are now the Little Rock residents' representatives on school policy. There is no one else accountable to us except you."

He told the board that the timing was wrong to approve the expansion of charter schools within the district because the district's superintendent is making changes after just 10 months on the job, and that reforms are occurring in the district that are engaging parents and building public trust.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, also urged the board to hold hearings on the proposals, saying they will have far-reaching effects.

"If we don't fully vet what the ramifications would be, we leave the Little Rock School District as it is right now, not knowing how to plan," Elliott said. "It is difficult to put a plan in place ... when we are actually building it on quicksand. We don't know if we are going to have all the pillars or not."

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, didn't take a position on whether the board should hold a hearing, but she urged the board to support the new schools. English said the charter schools are attracting more families to public education and that it is important for families to have school choices.

"I don't know any place else, in any part of our society where you only have one choice and people tell you that you can have one choice," English said.

Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne moved not to review the Charter Authorizing Panel's approval of the eSTEM schools. Jay Barth of Little Rock told his board colleagues that the issues are complicated with lots of moving parts.

"I think this board has a special responsibility to get it right because of the unique situation we are in with the state takeover. We ultimately have to take ownership of this decision, and we can only take full ownership with a full hearing," Barth said.

Board member Charisse Dean of Little Rock said the charter school decisions must be based on whether a charter school can handle the expansion and what is best for students. She said giving parents and students an opportunity to be heard on the topic was wise and prudent, and that a month's delay to allow for the hearings would not harm the school planners.

The board voted 6-1 to hold the eSTEM hearing, with board member Brett Williamson of El Dorado casting the sole no vote. Board member Vicki Saviers of Little Rock, who previously served on the eSTEM's board of directors, recused from the decision on eSTEM.

But Saviers read from a prepared statement when the LISA Academy plan came up, saying that she desperately wants Little Rock School District to be successful but she has been disheartened and frustrated by the charter versus district conversations.

"We have created a zero sum game of winners and losers in these decisions," she said. "If we are unable to work together to effectively educate our students, I believe that the only losers will be the students and families in Little Rock."

She cited the Indianapolis school system as one where the district has developed partnerships with charter school leaders to repair the district's ailing schools. She urged that the Little Rock district apply for the same waivers that are granted to the area's charter schools as a means to improve its chronically underperforming schools, a tactic that will also create a level playing field for innovation.

The board voted 7-1 to hold a hearing on the LISA Academy proposal. Williamson was again the sole no vote.

Leaders of the eSTEM charter system are seeking to amend their charter to move eSTEM's downtown high school to Larson Hall at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, reorganize its downtown campuses into a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade elementary school and a seventh-through-ninth-grade junior high, and open a new elementary school and a new junior high at 400 Shall Ave., near Heifer International, all by 2018-19.

John Bacon, chief executive officer of eSTEM Public Charter Schools Inc., has said the proposal was motivated by the demand for the schools. He said 6,410 students submitted applications earlier this year to enroll in 2016-17, in what is now a 1,462-student eSTEM system.

The state-authorized enrollment cap for the eSTEM system would grow over the course of a few years from the current 1,462 to 3,844 in kindergarten through 12th grades.

"The Board of Education's decision to review the eSTEM waiver proposals provides another opportunity to share the eSTEM plan for educational success in Little Rock. ESTEM is proud of its proven track record of providing the highest-quality education for students of all backgrounds in our community," Bacon said Thursday.

The LISA Academy system wants to open its second kindergarten-through-sixth-grade elementary school in a nearly 32,000-square-foot building at 12200 Westhaven Drive. The building is part of ongoing federal litigation between its owner, AP Consolidated Theaters II Limited Partnership, and its current tenant, ITT Technical Institute.

The Charter Authorizing Panel conditionally approved all of LISA Academy's waivers last month, hinging on whether it can get the building. LISA Academy officials have said they are confident they will.

LISA Academy's current west campus on 21 Corporate Hill Drive serves 800 students in grades six through 12. It also has a campus spanning kindergarten through 12th grades in Sherwood.

If the Education Board accepts LISA Academy's proposal next month, the charter school system will reconfigure the grade levels, moving sixth-graders to the new west Little Rock campus. LISA is hoping to start a sixth-grade academy, allowing those students to transition to moving from class to class, lockers and college preparatory academics.

The reconfiguration would also allow the charter school system to offer a broader high school experience, including sports and more Advanced Placement courses.

Board approval would mean LISA Academy can enroll up to 2,100 students, 600 more than it is currently allowed. Most of the growth would take place on the west campus and would affect about 100 students in the Little Rock School District, said LISA Academy-West Middle School Principal LuAnne Baroni.

Atnan Ekin, the superintendent of the LISA Academy system, said he was frustrated with "doing the same things again and again," but said he is open to hearing public comments from the community.

"We respect their decision," he said. "We are still confident with our projects. Hopefully, we'll get the approval in April."

The Education Board accepted and made final the following Charter Authorizing Panel's decisions:

• The five-year renewal for the Cross County High School, A New Tech School.

• No action on Blytheville High School, A New Tech School that is a conversion charter school, for its status as a state-labeled priority school because it scored among the lowest 5 percent of schools on state math and literacy tests.

• Amend the charter for the new Future School of Fort Smith to allow for a change in the location of the school.

• Amend the KIPP Delta Charter Schools, Blytheville, charter to accommodate expansion to a second campus in Blytheville and the rearranging of school grades among the two campuses.

• No action on the Little Rock Preparatory Academy's fifth-through-eighth-grade campus for its state-labeled priority school status.

• No action on the Osceola School District's Science Technology Engineering and Math or STEM Academy for its status as a state-labeled priority school.

• No action on the Quest Middle School of Pine Bluff, for its status as a state-labeled priority school, but denied an amendment request for the addition of kindergarten through fourth grades to the school.

• Approved a three-year renewal of the charter for the School for Integration of Academic Technologies, or SIA Tech, in Little Rock but took no action in regard to the school's priority status for scoring among the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state.

• Approved a three-year renewal of the open-enrollment charter for Pine Bluff Lighthouse Charter School contingent on an annual internal review and annual appearance before the Charter Authorizing Panel.

Metro on 03/11/2016

Print Headline: Charter expansions get 2nd look

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