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Planners of the Friendship Aspire Academy charter school on Wednesday withdrew its request to open a state-approved campus a year earlier than the previously approved August 2019 opening.

Donald Hense, the chairman and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based charter school organization, sent a letter to Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key on Tuesday, telling Key that the school planners "with deep regret and concern" will no longer pursue an August 2018 opening for a Little Rock campus.

Key said Wednesday that a special meeting of the Arkansas Board of Education set for Friday to consider the accelerated school opening date and location change has been canceled.

The special meeting was scheduled after the Education Board voted 6-0 a week ago to conduct a hearing on the proposed amendments to the school's state-issued charter. The state's Charter Authorizing Panel had approved the Friendship Aspire amendments in May, but all panel decisions on charters and charter amendments are forwarded to the Education Board, which has the authority to accept the panel decision or conduct its own hearing -- either at its own initiative or at the request of a charter school or a surrounding traditional school district.

"This decision, while difficult, comes as a direct result of the Arkansas Board of Education's recent decision to reopen deliberations at this late point and potentially reverse ADE's Charter Advisory Panel's recommendation approving our early school opening," Hense wrote to Key.

"Given the burden of evidence required to review, and the time that has been lost in this process, we do not believe it to be in the best interest of the children and families of Little Rock to rush our school opening," Hense continued in the letter." The uncertainty, with less than seven weeks to open our doors to staff and eight weeks to open our doors to students, has created an untenable position and is unfair to our families."

The Charter Authorizing Panel and Education Board in 2017 had approved charter applications for two Friendship Aspire Academy campuses -- one to open in Pine Bluff in August this year and another to open in southwest Little Rock in August 2019.

However, earlier this spring, after a different charter school organization withdrew its plan to open a school at 3615 W. 25th St., Friendship Aspire asked the state to allow it to use the location, starting this August with kindergarten and first-graders. The West 25th Street site is the Little Rock School District's former Garland School, which the district sold a year ago to KLS Leasing LLC, an affiliate of the Walton Family Foundation. KLS Leasing has been renovating the building to make it available to the charter school on a lease purchase basis.

The Walton Family Foundation is a national advocate of charter schools.

At last week's meeting, Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore asked the Education Board to reconsider the Charter Authorizing Panel's approval of the proposed amendments to accelerate the opening date and alter the location. The panel is made up of a combination of state Education Department employees and other interested citizens.

Poore argued that his district had already made its staffing decisions for the coming year based on the belief that there would not be a charter opening at the Garland site this year. Poore also questioned whether the charter school could adequately prepare in terms of finances, enrollment and programs in the abbreviated time frame.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, former Sen. Sam Ledbetter, D-Little Rock, and former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., all urged the Education Board against approving the amendments at last week's session.

Education Board members themselves had questions about the Friendship Aspire Academy plan, including questions about student transportation and the ability to hire adequate staff.

Joe Harris, the charter organization's chief operating officer and national executive director of Friendship Aspire charter organization, told the Education Board that he was confident of the ability to open in August.

The organization had hired Phong Tran as school leader in Arkansas and Lauren Chapman as principal for the Little Rock campus and identified seven teachers for positions in the school, including a special- education teacher. The organization had also developed and started a student recruitment campaign.

"As I am sure you would agree, this a decision that has not been made lightly -- as it leaves our most vulnerable kindergarten and first grade children a year further behind and gives the parents in Central and Southwest Little Rock one less quality school choice," Hense wrote in the Wednesday letter to Key.

" Equally disheartening is the fact that after almost a decade of being closed, a completely renovated and state-of-the-art school facility will go underutilized," he said.

Hense said that the Friendship Aspire organization will proceed with its plans for a Little Rock campus.

Metro on 06/21/2018

Print Headline: Academy withdraws request to open early

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