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story.lead_photo.caption State Department of Education officials Jeremy Owoh and Ivy Pfeffer listen Wednesday to Dan Fushee of Focus Academy of Arts and Sciences in Bentonville during a Charter Authorizing Panel meeting in Little Rock. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Arkansas’ Charter Authorizing Panel gave initial approval Wednesday to the proposed Premier High School of North Little Rock but rejected applications for three other open-enrollment charter schools planned for North Little Rock, Little Rock and Bentonville.

The panel’s 5-0 vote for the 250-student Premier High — intended for young people who have dropped out or are in jeopardy of dropping out of their traditional high schools — must now be ratified by the state Board of Education before the school planners can proceed with the opening of the campus in the 2019-2020 school year.

The charter panel that is made up of top-level state Department of Education staff members and interested members of the public denied the applications for Focus Academy of Arts and Sciences in Bentonville, Pioneer Schools in North Little Rock and Prolific Learning Arts Academy in Little Rock — for reasons that included insufficient financial and curriculum information.

The Charter Authorizing Panel will meet again at 8:30 a.m. today to consider three applications for charter schools in Searcy, Pine Bluff and Hartford.

The 250-seat Premier High of North Little Rock would duplicate Premier High-Little Rock on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College.

“We provide another chance for those students who for whatever reason have left the public education system — and are disengaged from education in general,” Steven Gast, the superintendent for Responsive Education Solutions charter schools in Arkansas, told the panel about the Premier program.

The school program includes individualized graduation planning for students, flexible scheduling and a mix of online and traditional classroom instruction. Students can graduate from Premier or return to their initial high schools for graduation.

The charter panel included in its unanimous vote in favor of the application the rare but not unprecedented waiver of the minimum 38 courses that high schools much teach every year. School planners asked for the waiver of the mandatory courses, saying it was necessary to be able to tailor a graduation program to each student’s specific academic needs and career interests.

“We focus each year on putting high school diplomas in students’ hands,” Dennis Felton, principal of the Little Rock campus and a consultant on the North Little Rock plan, told the panel, adding that nearly 100 young people have completed high school who might not have done so otherwise as the result of the Little Rock campus.

Responsive Education, based in Lewisville, Texas, operates 75 schools, including 37 Premier High Schools. It is the largest charter school operator in Texas.

Besides the Little Rock high school, Responsive Education also operates the Quest School of West Little Rock and the Northwest Classical Academy in Bentonville. The organization, however, just recently chose not to renew its charter for the Quest Middle School in Pine Bluff, which had struggled academically and required a Responsive Education investment to stay solvent, Gast said in response to questions from the panel.

The school planned for North Little Rock does not yet have a principal or a final site selected, although Gast said he anticipates the location will be close to North Little Rock High School in hopes of future collaboration with the traditional school district.

No one from the North Little Rock School District spoke in opposition to the proposed school.

The panel’s newest member, Angela Kremers, deputy director for career and technical education at the Arkansas Department of Career Education, cautioned school leaders against relying so heavily on online courses in career education to the point where hands-on, projects-based learning is forfeited.

Panel member Mike Hernandez, state superintendent for the Arkansas Office of Coordinated Support and Service, questioned Gast and Felton about downward trends over time in student achievement and enrollment at the Little Rock campus.

Felton said the school “owns its data” and is taking steps to improve instruction, provide greater student support and advertise the school.

Gast told the panel that Premier schools won’t ever generate very high standardized test scores and that he would be alarmed to see a spike in graduation rates because the Premier campuses are not diploma mills.

The panel voted 4-1 to deny three other charter applications Wednesday. Panel member Mike Wilson, a former state legislator from Jacksonville was the dissenting vote in each case. He said he would have preferred that the panel table decisions on the plans to give planners time to modify their applications without having to start the application process over next year.

The planners of the rejected applications can still appeal for approval to the Arkansas Board of Education.

Planners of the Focus Academy of Arts and Sciences in Bentonville proposed serving as many as 900 students in kindergarten through eighth grades, starting with up to 500 in kindergarten through fourth grade in the 2019-20 school year and growing by 100 students and a grade each year.

The school would be housed in a two-story office building at 5121 Runway Drive in Bentonville.

The school’s program would feature a curriculum built around inquiry and interdisciplinary math, science, technology and engineering projects.

Jessica Thompson, a volunteer for the school, told the panel that the school would be distinctive in Northwest Arkansas in regard to its teaching instrumental music — possibly the ukulele — to kindergartners, and piano and guitar to other elementary-age children, followed by band participation in fifth through eighth grades. Other features would include once-a-month teacher-parent conferences and required community service by pupils.

Panel members were unfamiliar with the proposed school’s reading program and whether it could realistically attract 500 students in its first year of operation, a shortfall that would have financial implications for the school.

“I don’t think they are ready,” said panel member Naccaman Williams of Springdale.

Planners of the proposed Pioneer Schools envisions serving as many as 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade starting in 2020-21 to give the school leaders additional time to prepare, veteran charter school educator Will Felton told the state panel.

The school — to be placed in a low-income neighborhood in North Little Rock — would feature co-teaching by master and apprentice teachers, and career and college development in the earliest grades with “maker spaces” and business partnerships, giving students hands-on projects and allowing them to be active participants in their learning, according to the application.

The early grades would use the Montessori model for instruction. “Tinker labs” would enable high school students to prepare for high-paying jobs upon graduation. A traditional school schedule would be used four days a week. The fifth day would be reserved for innovation, enrichment, tutoring and fundraising for “educational immersion” trips in fifth, eighth and 11th grades.

Again panel members had concerns about staffing, revenue and curriculum, just as they did for the proposed Prolific Learning Arts Academy sponsored by Aviate Through Knowledge, a nonprofit organization.

The academy, planned for 6210 Baseline Road near Geyer Springs Road in Little Rock, called for serving as many as 350 students in ninth through 12th grades not far from the site of the Little Rock School District’s new Southwest High School that is scheduled to open in August 2020 as a replacement for the McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools.

Edmond Davis, a lead planner for the school, told the panel that the school would offer an arts-infused curriculum, and would emphasize parental involvement, social and civic responsiblity and college and career readiness.

Michael O’Leary, a member of the school’s board of directors, said the proposed charter school would provide an outlet for students who will not be successful at the 2,200-student Southwest High School.

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