A unique experiment between the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and eStem Public Charter High School is fraying.
Since the 2017-2018 school year, the charter high school has operated on the south side of the university's campus, but university students have started a petition urging the schools' leaders to find a way to keep the high-schoolers out of the college students' way.
About 800 university students, faculty and staff members have signed the petition in just six days' time, and UALR Chancellor Andrew Rogerson said Wednesday that the experiment was "failing" in its current form.
The petition, Rogerson said, shows that "it's impossible to accommodate this number of students in our shared space."
When reached Wednesday, eStem Superintendent John Bacon said he and Rogerson are still working on making the partnership work for both institutions. He said he had not consulted faculty members or student groups.
It appears there is no model for the schools to look at, he said, because the arrangement between the charter school and the university is unique. The uniqueness that once excited Bacon is now causing frustration.
Envisioned years before -- and before Rogerson took over as UALR chancellor -- the arrangement was anticipated to be a boon for both schools. The high school students would get a taste of college to better prepare them for postsecondary studies, leaders thought, and the university would get a pipeline of high school students to meet its enrollment growth goals.
"What's a greater experiment than for students to be at or near a college campus?" Bacon said.
But eStem students take up too much space at the dining hall and too many parking spots not designated for them, according to the petition. It urges students, faculty and staff members to sign if they believe several things, including "that the atmosphere on campus is now a 'high school atmosphere' instead of a collegiate atmosphere."
The high school students have access to the the dining hall, student union, library, bookstore and gym facilities.
Larry Dicus, president of the university's Student Government Association, which originated the petition, did not respond to email, voice-mail or text messages left for him Wednesday. Association member Katie Zakrzewski, who has circulated the petition since Friday, said the petition had "around 800" signatures Tuesday. She would not agree to an interview.
"The individuals who would be impacted the most -- UA Little Rock students -- were not given a say in the approval of this merge, yet face the greatest repercussions," the petition reads. "UA Little Rock students are leaving because they do not like the 'high school atmosphere' created by eStem students, and because UA Little Rock students cannot adequately access the facilities that they pay tuition for -- our facilities were not designed to provide for the number of both collegiate and high school students that they do now."
Bacon said he visits the campus at least once a week and that he does not believe parking is often a problem. Parking spaces are frequently empty in the eStem lot, he said.
He said he understands having high school students on campus is a different experience for college students.
"I wouldn't really agree that it's that disruptive," he said.
Bacon said the experiment of a high school and university sharing campus space is in its infancy. He's still trying to find ways to get eStem students in regular university classes, which was in the original plan.
Bacon and Rogerson, along with others within the schools' administrations, have met regularly since the high school opened.
The tone of the last meeting was optimistic, Rogerson said. The sides thought they had a temporary solution: Fix up the nearby empty strip mall the university owns as a place for students to eat lunch.
At the beginning of the week, however, Rogerson said he received preliminary cost estimates for upgrading the building to meet city codes (repairing toilets, fire-proofing, etc.) It was cost prohibitive, he said, although he's still waiting for the final estimates.
It doesn't look like a solution at this point, he said, and no one at the schools has expressed other ideas.
In the end, eStem plans to grow anyway, Rogerson said. The shopping mall wouldn't accommodate everyone forever, and he doesn't want eStem students going into university classrooms.
Rogerson plans to increase enrollment at his school, too, which has suffered from persistent enrollment drops that have led to university budget cuts.
The arrangement with eStem is "a detriment to our plan to increase enrollment," he said
The eStem school had 506 students enrolled as of Oct. 1, according to Arkansas Department of Education data, up from 460 last year. The university had an enrollment of 10,525 at the beginning of the fall term, down 15 percent from five years before.
At the most, about two dozen eStem graduates enroll at UALR each year. In the 2016-2017 school year, 26 eStem graduates enrolled at the university, the highest in the seven years eStem has graduated students, according to Arkansas Department of Higher Education data. That number was 18 the next year, and 16 for this latest school year.
Rogerson isn't surprised by the number of signatures gathered so far for the petition.
"There's a lot of anger on campus," he said, noting there wasn't as much before the school opened.
"I think there was a general feeling of optimism that this would be a pipeline to the university," Rogerson said. "But of course the reality is that the nature of the high school student is that once you've been to high school, you want to go somewhere else. It's not a pipeline, and it will never be a pipeline.
"If I was a high school student I wouldn't want to stay at the same institution. It was a flawed assumption."
Bacon also has sensed a change since the high school's groundbreaking ceremony for renovating the campus's Larson Hall.
"They have a different attitude now," he said.
In October, a third-party report studying the schools' "partnership feasibility enhancement" identified four possible approaches to improving the arrangement between the schools. Three involved constructing new facilities, and one recommended limiting eStem enrollment to 500 students.
In November, the university faculty senate voted to recommend that the campus be only for seniors, which was one of the recommended scenarios outlined in the report.
"It keeps it at a manageable group of students," Amanda Nolen, faculty senate president, said Wednesday. "They're more mature. They're more able to assimilate in college campus culture."
In turn, according to the senate recommendation, that increased assimilation would inspire more of those students to enroll at the university upon graduation.
The schools would need to construct another facility to house the 10th and 11th grades, according to the recommendations.
No matter what, Nolen said, the current memorandum of understanding between the schools "needs to be renegotiated," though it's not as simple as getting rid of eStem.
"That's at the heart of the matter, right?" she said. "You have this school, these students, teachers and staff, and they're trying to go about their education, as well. It's an unfortunate situation that we're surrounded by this swell of uncertainty."
University and high school leaders attempted early on to address issues about how to share spaces.
A December 2016 memorandum of understanding, signed by Bacon and Rogerson and others, included provisions on enrollment growth and classroom space for the high school as well as parameters for eStem student dining space and parking.
The high school students were to have two university options for breakfast and lunch: prepared trays to be served in Room G of the Donaghey Student Center and all dining establishments on campus with the exception of the Trojan Grill, according to that early agreement.
At first, more than 200 students would rotate in two one-hour lunch periods at the dining hall in the Donaghey Student Center, Bacon said. That was too many students at once, so now the school has three 50-minute batches of more than 150 students eating lunch during the day.
The memorandum of understanding envisioned an eStem High School enrollment of as many as 1,125 students in grades 10 through 12 by the 2026-2027 school year.
While the high school classrooms are currently in Larson Hall, which was extensively renovated and expanded for the school in 2017, the high school would eventually grow into the university's Ross Hall, next door, where it would occupy about half of the classrooms.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 01/31/2019