Pulaski County district moves to set up online schooling

Pulaski County Special School District leaders are taking steps to offer an online kindergarten-through-12th-grade education program that would initially target home-school families in the district and eventually students statewide.

The School Board in a 6-0 vote Tuesday authorized district staff members to enter into contract negotiations with Epic Charter Schools of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla., to be the providers of the virtual academy.

Epic would hire and train Arkansas-licensed teachers to help parents with instruction, as well as supply computers and other materials for a program that might be up and running as soon as the 2019-20 school year.

The board's vote on the virtual school came during a regular monthly business meeting in which board members rejected requests by teachers and support staff committees for one-time bonuses of up to $1,250 per full-time employee in the absence this year of across-the-board pay raises.

Rachel Blackwell, an informational technology facilitator for the district, told the board that district staff members had evaluated three vendors to provide the virtual academy and recommended Epic because it serves all grades and makes available some 22 curriculum options to families.

Those options include Odysseyware, she said, which is the learning program the district already uses in its newly established Driven initiative -- a blend of traditional classroom and online instruction that is now in use at Mills and Maumelle high schools and will be expanded to Robinson High in the 2019-20 school year.

Odysseyware Academy and My Tech High were the other vendors considered for the academy.

The teaching and learning programs offered by Epic would give parents flexibility to select the programs best for their children, Blackwell said.

The virtual academy proposal, which is subject to some state Department of Education guidelines and approval this spring -- presents no upfront cost to the district, Superintendent Charles McNulty said.

Epic would receive 90 percent of the state aid provided for each student enrolled in the district's virtual academy and the district would receive 10 percent of that aid.

McNulty said the proposed academy has the potential to attract into the district many of the 810 students who now live in the district but are home-schooled and are not counted in the district's enrollment for state-funding or any other purpose.

Kenneth Grover, a consultant to the school district on the blended learning initiative in the high schools and the virtual academy, said that the Pulaski County Special district brand would be on the virtual academy. If at some point, the school attracts significant numbers of students, the district would have the option of taking over the operation of the academy including the employment of teachers.

Pam Fitzgiven, a teacher and chairman of the district's Certified Personnel Policies Committee, said that while she liked the idea of the district expanding enrollment, she questioned whether there is a potential that a majority of students would opt to be virtual academy students, causing a reduction in the number of district-employed teachers.

McNulty said the academy won't target students in the district's more traditional schools where he expects education to be robust.

Both McNulty and Blackwell said the district will be working with the state Department of Education and the Arkansas Public School Resource Center in the coming weeks to ensure that the proposed academy meets operation requirements. That might mean acquiring charter school status or school of innovation or waivers of some state laws and rules.

The proposed academy, if it comes to fruition, would not be unique in Arkansas. Arkansas Virtual Academy Charter School and Arkansas Connections charter school are both statewide online schools. Additionally, traditional school districts such as Fayetteville and North Little Rock , have acquired state approval in recent years to provide online instructional programs outside the traditional school building.

Earlier Thursday, Fitzgiven asked the School Board to approve a one-time bonus of $1,250 for full-time teachers and support staff and $625 for part-time employees. The district paid bonuses in the 2017-18 school year of $1,000 per full-time employee and $500 for each part-time employee.

Board President Linda Remele said the district does not have the money to provide raises even though teachers and support staff are the "most important" features "we have in this district." She noted that the Arkansas lawmakers are considering funding for raising minimum salaries for teachers, which will provide some funds to the Pulaski County Special district.

McNulty told Fitzgiven and other audience members that it is a priority to balance the district's budget and to budget in "as soon as we can" across-the-board raises for employees, whom he called "amazing."

District leaders expect to draw as much as $6.2 million from its reserve funds this year to meet expenses, in part the result of student enrollment declines and shortfalls in available funds for constructing the new Mills High and Robinson Middle schools and the conversion of the old Mills High campus into a middle school. The district recently issued $20 million in second-lien bonds as a way to meet the construction costs. The bonds will have to be repaid with interest over several years.

Metro on 02/13/2019

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