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story.lead_photo.caption Dennis Felton, principal of Premier High School of Little Rock, speaks Thursday during a meeting of the state’s Charter Authorizing Panel. The school’s charter was up for renewal. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel on Thursday approved the multiyear renewal of three open-enrollment charter schools, including one of the state's oldest -- Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers.

The panel's decisions on the Rogers school as well as on Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville and Premier High School of Little Rock are now subject to review by the state Board of Education in January.

The Education Board can accept the authorizing panel's 4-0 decisions or conduct hearings of its own -- based on its own initiative or at the request of a charter school or any traditional school district opponents to a charter school -- before making a final decision on the renewals. There was no opposition voiced to any of the three schools at Thursday's panel meeting.

The three charter schools are among the state's 25 taxpayer-funded open-enrollment charter school systems that operate independently of traditional public school districts. The schools rely on state-issued charters, or contracts for the authority to operate. Those charters must periodically be renewed by the state for periods of up to 20 years.

Arkansas Arts Academy, which opened in 2001, was approved Thursday for a 10-year renewal through June 2028. The school serves 807 students in grades kindergarten through 12, with a waiting list of 432 students -- most of whom are at the elementary and middle-school levels. School leaders anticipate reducing the waiting list and more closely approaching the state-imposed 1,225-student enrollment cap after the opening of a new $24 million seventh-through-12th-grade high school building on Poplar Street in August.

Mary Ley, academy superintendent, said all of the school's goals and lesson plans are wrapped around the four pillars of academics, arts integration, museum initiative and mastery of the arts.

"We stay clear on what our school's about," Ley told the panel. "That's what makes us strong. That's what makes us the unique, special school we are."

The school features a 1-to-1 ratio of student-to-computing devices; a highly qualified teaching staff; a creative leadership team that blends traditional public school experience with charter school innovation; and a well-thought-out curriculum that is underscored with the integration of high-level arts, Ley said.

"It's not crafty," she said about the art focus, noting there were 72 museum experiences in the past school year at sites such as Pea Ridge Historical Society and Museum, Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and Peel Mansion Museum and Heritage Gardens, plus 22 visits to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for events that included student performances.

Theater, piano, orchestra, choir, dance and creative writing are included in the offerings at the school which had a 97 percent graduation rate in 2017 and where students were accepted into some of the nation's renowned arts schools, including the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"We had 75 kids on stage last year all rocking out at one time," Ley said. "If you want to feel good you ought to see 75 kids playing the guitar at one time. It was pretty amazing."

Panel member Naccaman Williams of Springdale, a former member of the state Board of Education, said his visit to the campus showed every child looking like they belonged.

"I can say confidently that this is a world-class art school," Williams added.

In response to questions from Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer, chairman of the authorizing panel, about the declining performance of third-graders when most other grades showed gains on state tests, Ley said there were faculty changes made and a more uniform instructional program instituted.

Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville and Premier High School of Little Rock opened in 2013, and both are sponsored by Responsive Education Solutions, a Lewisville, Texas-based charter management organization that operates 95 schools in Texas and Arkansas. Despite those commonalities, the two schools have different purposes, Steven Gast, superintendent of the Responsive Education Solutions schools in Arkansas, told the panel.

While the kindergarten-through-12th-grade Classical Academy had the third-highest scores on the state-required ACT Aspire exams in the 2016-17 school year, Premier High School of Little Rock for up to 240 students in grades nine through 12 does not have average scores that reached the state averages.

Many of Premier's students are there because they fell so far behind in earning graduation credits that they had little hope of graduating or had already dropped out of their traditional high schools, Gast said. The school has an enrollment of 114 this year.

Premier High Principal Dennis Felton told the panel that 20 percent of the school's 68 graduates in the past four years were already parents. Better than 71 percent of this year's ninth-grade class are in their second year of ninth grade. Seven percent of the enrollees are homeless.

"When most students come to Premier, it is for a second chance or their last chance or last hope," Felton said.

When students at Premier graduate, the ratio of graduate to family and friends at the ceremony is 1-to-30, he said. For students and parents, graduation day is a day they did not think would happen.

The school, which is in leased property on the Arkansas Baptist College campus, works one on one with students to develop a plan for reaching graduation and personalizes the instruction. A 1-to-1 ratio of students to computing devices is a feature of the school as are home visits, exposure to college and careers, character education and extracurricular activities -- including sports, service clubs and student council.

Panel members praised the school's efforts.

Former state Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, a panel member, told school leaders he voted for the requested five-year renewal of the charter because of its "super-human effort" to help the most disadvantaged young people.

The 522-student Classical Academy was approved for a 10-year renewal and the expansion of its 685-student enrollment cap to 1,200 to accommodate the large number of students in the elementary grades as they move through middle and high school. The school will have its first graduating class of 10 students in the spring, Headmaster Susan Provenza told the panel.

The school, where the enrollment is 67 percent white, 21 percent Asian/Middle Eastern, 9 percent Hispanic, 2 percent American Indian and 1 percent black, features a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences. Students read great books, study history in depth, and learn why math and science matter, Provenza said. Phonics is emphasized in the elementary grades. Logic, rhetoric and Latin are taught. The Socratic method of instruction through questioning is used. Frequent recitation of memorized speeches and poetry is another strategy.

Another focus of the school is to teach and model good character and virtue.

"We want our students to be well-rounded," Provenza said. "We have four different orchestras and two different choirs."

Student councils, golf, tennis, volleyball, basketball, robotics, flag football and a Young Marines organization are among the activities. There is a newspaper staff, theater club and a chess club at the school.

The school's partnership with nearby Bentonville High School to develop a video promoting Northwest Classical Academy was commended by the Charter Authorizing Panel for its show of cooperation among institutions that are typically viewed as competitors.

Metro on 12/22/2017

Print Headline: Charter panel OKs 3 renewals; State to review decisions next

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