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Third charter school asks to grow Little Rock rolls

Preparatory Academy seeks 120 pupils by Cynthia Howell | May 7, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

Another open-enrollment charter school system in the Little Rock School District is asking for state approval to expand.

The Little Rock Preparatory Academy charter school has applied for a 120-student increase in its current 432-student enrollment cap and permission to move its middle school at 4520 S. University Ave. to more expansive quarters in the former Lutheran High School at 6711 W. Markham St.

The Arkansas Department of Education's Charter Authorizing Panel will take up the Preparatory Academy's proposed amendment to its state-issued charter on May 18, at which time the panel will also consider approval of four other charter amendments.

Those other proposals include a new, third Haas Hall Academy campus -- this one at the Jones Center in Springdale -- and a new headquarters for Arkansas Connections Academy, which is a virtual academy that will begin operations later this summer.

The proposed amendments are going to the Charter Authorizing Panel and ultimately to the Arkansas Board of Education just weeks after the Education Board approved the hotly disputed expansions of both the LISA Academy and eSTEM charter school systems within the boundaries of the Little Rock School District. Those newly approved plans include a total of four new charter-school campuses -- only one of which will open this August -- and nearly 3,000 new charter school seats.

Baker Kurrus, the state-appointed superintendent of the state-controlled Little Rock School District, earlier this year argued against those expansions to the panel and Education Board in a move that many speculate cost him his job.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who as a legislator sponsored school-choice and charter-school legislation, last month notified Kurrus that his contract to head the district will not be renewed when it expires June 30. Key has said the change is intended to put an academician at the helm of the district, and he has denied that Kurrus' opposition was behind the dismissal.

Tina Long, superintendent of the two-campus Little Rock Preparatory Academy, said Friday that the proposed middle school move from a former ITT Tech building on South University to the former Lutheran High for next school year would give students and staff the space and amenities students need to best prepare for college.

"The facility is beautiful," Long said. "The current facility is a shared space, and although the children are growing and doing really well academically, we would like to provide them with a state-of-the-art facility that they can be really proud of."

The former high school has a gymnasium, science laboratories, spacious classrooms and outdoor green space, she said, all of which are features lacking at the current school.

Long said the proposal is to move grades six through eight from the current site and grade five from the system's 1616 Spring St. primary school to the new site. She envisions serving about 250 kindergartners through fourth graders at the downtown campus and about 300 at the middle school.

The existing middle school has about 120 pupils now.

The former Lutheran High School site has the capacity for more than 500 students, Long said, but the school operators aren't asking for a corresponding increase in the enrollment cap.

"We want to make sure we are growing slowly, deliberately and that we are serving students very intentionally."

Long said families at Preparatory Academy are "ecstatic" about the potential site.

The proposed site is in a more western, affluent part of the city compared with the school's current campuses.

Long said the school operators want to stay true to the school's mission of serving children from low-income and working families, which is done by offering a longer school day and school year and smaller teacher-pupil ratios.

The school system now provides student bus services back and forth between its two campuses, meaning pupils living downtown can catch the bus at the Spring Street school to get to the middle school.

Long said the bus service plan will be expanded if the new school site is approved. Buses won't pick up students at their homes, but there would be supervised bus stops at various locations in the community. She called it a wheel-and-spokes plan.

The charter school operators propose to lease the building from Arkansas Charter Partners at a rate of 11 percent of the school's public operating revenue.

Charter school operators and planners are required to notify superintendents in the districts that are home to charter schools of plans to modify the terms of their state-issued charters.

Kurrus, the Little Rock superintendent, said he had received information about the proposed changes from the Little Rock Preparatory Academy. He said Friday he had no comment about the proposal.

In the past weeks, Kurrus has said that the LISA and eSTEM charter schools pulled more affluent, higher-achieving students from district schools, leaving the Little Rock district with fewer resources to educate greater percentages of students with special needs, be it physical disabilities or limited English-speaking skills. He's also said that separate public school systems in a community that are authorized and funded by the state are legally problematic.

Little Rock Preparatory enrollment, where nearly all students qualify for subsidized school meals because of low family income, does not have the same racial and socioeconomic diversity that is found in the eSTEM and LISA schools. Little Rock Preparatory's middle school has a nearly 100 percent black and Hispanic enrollment. It is labeled by the state as a priority school, meaning that the school's average scores on state tests were among the 5 percent lowest in the state.

Education Department rules on charter schools specify that charter amendments are to be heard in February and October by the Charter Authorizing Panel.

Key, the education commissioner, waived those requirements for Little Rock Preparatory Academy as well as the other applicants that want to appear before the panel later this month.

Haas Hall Academy, widely recognized as the state's highest academically achieving high school, is seeking to replicate its Fayetteville campus at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale starting this fall.

The system is also seeking to expand its enrollment cap at the Fayetteville campus from 400 to 500 and to give enrollment preference to siblings of Haas Hall students at its Fayetteville, Bentonville and proposed Springdale campuses.

The Arkansas Connections Academy, a statewide virtual academy for 3,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades and with headquarters in Bentonville, is planning to move from 609 SW Eighth St. to the much larger 1009 Beau Terre Drive, Building Q, also in Bentonville. The cost for the first year would be $100,380 for 5,736 square feet compared with the $31,656 for the current site that has just 297 square feet.

Additionally, the Springdale School District's Don Tyson School of Innovation is seeking permission to employ an academic course work provider at a cost of $4,000 per course. "The students are working at a pace that demands coursework beyond the scope of what has currently been developed [by district staff]," the application states.

The Mountain Home High School Career Academies is seeking a waiver of of state rules and laws that require students to have a minimum number of hours in instruction in a course to be eligible for course credit.

"The goal is to increase graduation rate and allow students to complete courses at their own pace," the application states and adds that the flexible scheduling will allow for the completion of more academic courses and participation in business internships.

A Section on 05/07/2016

Print Headline: Third charter school asks to grow LR rolls

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