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Arkansas Virtual Academy gets panel OK for more kids

Raising cap to 3,000 pupils still needs board approval by Cynthia Howell | May 18, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel on Wednesday approved a 1,000-student increase to 3,000 for the Arkansas Virtual Academy after the school's leader described steps taken by the school to improve data reports to the state.

The panel's unanimous vote -- which is subject to Arkansas Board of Education review for a final decision -- comes after the school's leader in February withdrew a similar request to raise the enrollment cap because of the panel's concerns about errors in the school's reporting.

Scott Sides, head of the online kindergarten-through-12th-grade school that is based in North Little Rock, told the charter panel Wednesday that the academy's board of directors and its staff agree there must be "a 100 percent commitment" to fully comply with reporting requirements.

"That is something we are going to be successful in doing," Sides said, presenting a 34-page document that included a list of the information that is required from the charter school, the deadline for the information, and the school employees who are responsible for fulfilling and verifying the responses.

"There should be no questions about any of the cycle reports that are submitted to the state," Sides said about the information in the document. "It includes where it starts and where it ends, and it starts with me and ends with me."

He said he and his staff have worked with the Department of Education, as well as with at least one other charter school system -- eSTEM Public Charter Schools -- to construct the virtual academy's reporting system.

"I'll tell you, this has been a great exercise for us," Sides said.

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In February, Sides told the panel that the school's October 2016 enrollment was 1,874 and that it had grown to 1,916 as of Jan. 1 of this year.

Arkansas Department of Education information, however, showed an October enrollment of 2,092, which exceeded the charter's cap of 2,000 students.

Panel members at the time wanted to know which numbers were correct and the sources of the numbers.

Incorrect reporting of student numbers by a school to the Education Department can have a ripple effect throughout the state, causing inaccurate distribution of federal Title I money and other school funds that are based on enrollments.

Sides in February said inflated enrollment numbers for the middle-school grades were mistakenly included in the virtual academy's "cycle 2" report to the Arkansas Public School Computer Network. School districts and charter schools are required to submit information at certain times of the year to the Education Department. Those are referred to as "cycle" reports.

Greg Rogers, assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services and a charter panel member, said at the time that Sides had submitted corrected enrollment numbers within a few days of the cycle 2 reporting deadline, but that was past the time when the numbers could be corrected.

Rogers also said in February that the academy had in 2015 underreported by half its 1,200 students who were eligible for free- or reduced-price school meals because of low family incomes.

"It's all over the map on your reporting," Rogers told Sides about the academy's errors. "I'm struggling with setting the cap at a higher number when I really don't know what your number is," Rogers said. "I can't have any confidence in your cycle 2 data."

On Wednesday, charter panel members were complimentary of the school's efforts to provide accurate, timely data.

"I appreciate you ... jumping on it, taking it seriously," Rogers told Sides.

Deborah Coffman, the Education Department's chief of staff and the panel chairman, called the academy's work "very well organized," "excellent," and that "detailed operating procedures are always the right way to go."

Regarding the 1,000-student increase in the enrollment cap, Sides said the school's board of directors believes that the number -- which is to be phased in over three years -- will enable the school leaders to do long-range planning for the school, including the expansion of high school course offerings.

Plans call for the school to enroll about 2,440 students next year, Sides said. He added that the school has already begun advertising for staff members to support the enrollment increase. That was being done with the understanding that the jobs won't be filled unless the state approves the change in the cap, he said.

Stacy Smith, the Education Department's assistant commissioner for learning services and a panel member, noted that the academy's student achievement results fell below the state averages in most grades.

Sides said the results on interim tests this school year have shown improvement. The interim tests' results are being used to intervene with students who are identified as needing academic help. Additionally, teachers are being given a lot of training on use of the student data.

Smith said all schools -- traditional schools as well as online schools -- have to be concerned about the quality of digital or online instruction. She urged Sides to be a party at the table and give input as digital instruction continues to grow across the state.

Arkansas Virtual Academy is the older of two online charter schools serving students statewide. Arkansas Connections Academy, based in Bentonville, is completing its first year of operation.

Metro on 05/18/2017

Print Headline: Virtual school gets panel OK for more kids

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