Planners and operators of the eSTEM Public Charter School campuses in Little Rock are change agents.
In the charter system's 11-year history, planners have transformed a newspaper headquarters, a Federal Reserve bank and a university classroom building into schools for elementary, junior high and high school students.
Now eSTEM planners have worked their magic on a 120,000-square-foot building, converting what was mostly empty warehouse space and a few businesses into two separate but adjacent single-story buildings in the southern shadow of the Heifer International headquarters.
The eSTEM East Village Elementary and eSTEM East Village Junior High at Shall and World avenues are to open to about 300 seventh- through ninth-graders and to 700 kindergarten- through sixth-graders on July 24. The schools are the fourth and fifth campuses in the taxpayer-supported charter system.
John Bacon, chief executive officer of eSTEM Public Charter Schools Inc., says the warehouse conversion in some ways has been the easiest and the best.
Hallways and classrooms are large, he said. Both campuses have dedicated, attractively decorated lunchrooms. Classroom furnishings don't have to be arranged around columns in irregularly shaped classrooms. Therapists and other student support providers have dedicated spaces to do their work. There's no huge bank vault or a former gun tower -- features of the old federal reserve bank and now eSTEM Downtown Junior High -- to serve as curiosities.
"I love this," Bacon said Tuesday in the main hallway of the eSTEM East Village Junior High. "In the downtown [school] buildings, the halls are so narrow just because they are old buildings. Now this feels so wide open, so spacious, a lot of natural light. This feels totally different."
ESTEM has had two schools at Third and Louisiana streets for several years and opened just last year a high school on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The two newest eSTEM schools are opening at a cost of $30 million for land, construction and furnishings in a year in which there are several new campuses opening throughout Pulaski County and even more are under construction for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.
The Pulaski County Special School District will open new replacement schools for Robinson Middle and Mills University Studies High, and Fuller Middle in the district is being relocated, for August. The Jacksonville/North Pulaski District is opening the new Bobby G. Lester Elementary, also in August. ScholarMade Achievement Place of Little Rock, a charter school, is to open to kindergarten- through fifth-graders in an extensively renovated building at Roosevelt and Battery streets.
Little Rock, Jacksonville/North Pulaski, and Pulaski County Special have new or extensively renovated schools underway, as do the LISA Academy and Friendship Aspire charter school organizations.
The architects for the two new eSTEM campuses are WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock. Builders are Eco Construction Inc.
The main hallways of both new eSTEM schools feature light-colored wood paneling with occasional blue, yellow and red accent panels. Sleek black benches run the length of both walls in main hallways, providing space for group activities or waiting for carpool pickup at the end of the day.
Near the top of the walls are clerestory windows. Soundproofing panels of different designs hang from the original warehouse ceilings throughout the two schools to minimize the schoolhouse din.
Boldly colored hallways of classrooms branch off from the main hallways. The classrooms are carpeted and typically have three gray-painted walls and a single accent wall of colors such as deep blue, red, forest green or bright yellow. Many of the rooms have windows. Each room has a computer for the teacher and some of the latest technology in electronic white boards.
Computer labs at each of the campuses supplement the laptop computers used in the classrooms.
Science labs in the two schools won't be plagued with multiple electrical cords snaking across the floor. Instead cords equipped with four electrical outlets per cord can be pulled down from the ceiling when needed or rolled back up when they are not -- a ceiling of yo-yos.
Maurice Guest Jr. is the director of the eSTEM East Village Junior High.
Alyson Harris is the director of eSTEM East Village Elementary School.
Harris, who will manage a total of 69 employees and who has been part of the eSTEM faculty for nine years, said she is excited about the whole school.
Asked to identify her favorite feature, she said, "I love our little 'e-forest' area."
The "e-forest" is an enlarged hallway outside the six kindergarten classrooms. One wall of the hallway is decorated with yellow birds and trees with whimsically striped trunks. Green "clouds" hang from the ceiling, and the space is furnished with plastic chairs that look like little boulders.
The space is one of several available for student activities. There is a small outdoor playground for the youngest of pupils and a larger space for older elementary pupils. Both have spongy surfaces and brand new climbing equipment. Then there is the wide, colorful bench-lined alley between the schools that will serve as the student drop-off and pickup space in the mornings and afternoons.
But when the gate with the large yellow and blue metal eSTEM graphic is closed during the day, the space between the dark-colored junior high and the gray-colored elementary becomes a recreation area for the junior high pupils. Finding that kind of space has been a struggle for eSTEM's longtime downtown junior high at Third and Louisiana streets.
"It feels like because we were able to take the shell of the building, and make it what we wanted, I think the classrooms are better spaces than what we have had in some of our more historic buildings," Bacon said.
"And the recreation areas -- indoor rec areas, a special playground for the little ones, a regular playground and using the area between the schools for recreation -- we finally had a chance to think through all the things that elementary and junior high school kids would need to have a great experience," he said.
While school leaders anticipate enrolling about 1,000 in the two schools this new school year, the capacity is about 1,250.
The eSTEM system had a total enrollment of 1,975 last year. That is projected to be 3,000 this coming school year, Bacon said. The state-allowed maximum for the system is 3,844, which Bacon said will not be reached until the mid-2020s.
The Little Rock School District leadership opposed the proposed charter school campuses when the applications were presented to the Arkansas Board of Education and were ultimately approved.
The new eSTEM East Village Junior High sits at Shall and World avenues in the East Village area of Little Rock. The charter school and an adjacent elementary charter school are to open July 24.
A Section on 07/04/2018