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BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy's plan to open another campus within the next few years earned the endorsement of the state's Charter Authorizing Panel on Tuesday.

Arkansas Virtual Academy and three other charter schools run by the Fayetteville, Springdale and Cabot school districts requested enrollment cap increases. The panel approved each of them. Their requests came as parents are being asked to decide what their children's school setting will be for this school year as they deal with uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key have said traditional school campuses will open to students for face-to-face instruction the week of Aug. 24. Schools also must have online instruction programs ready with the flexibility to blend face-to-face and online instruction, and to pivot from one to the other in the event of a viral outbreak.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The state Board of Education will review the panel's decisions at a later date.

Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville has 850 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It had 848 students apply for 87 openings for the 2020-21 school year, Headmaster Susan Provenza said.

"We have a huge demand here in Northwest Arkansas from families who appreciate what we're doing, who want to be a part of what we're doing," Provenza told panel members.

School officials want to buy 20 acres on Dodson Road in Rogers, about 4 miles east of their campus on Melissa Drive in Bentonville and less than half a mile west of Interstate 49.

They intend to build a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school that would open in 2022 and a high school to open by 2024, both on the Dodson Road site. After the high school's opening, the Bentonville school would shift from a K-12 to a K-8 campus. All high school students would go to the Rogers campus.

Responsive Education Solutions, a Texas organization running the Classical Academy and three other charter schools in Arkansas, has an agreement with the landowner contingent on the state's approval of the plan, said Steven Gast, superintendent of the organization's Arkansas schools.

The property is listed for sale at $2.1 million, according to documents the school submitted to the state. Gast said he expects the final price will be close to that.

"This particular company has students that attend our school, and they are offering us a piece of land at a price that we generally could not match if we were just in the general market," he said.

The property is just west of a site on South Horsebarn Road in Rogers, which LISA Academy has chosen for a K-12 campus. LISA Academy is a charter school district with campuses in Central Arkansas and Springdale. The state Board of Education approved LISA Academy's proposal to expand into Rogers.

The panel approved Classical Academy's request to increase its enrollment cap from 1,500 to 2,500 by a 4-1 vote.

Greg Rogers, a panel member and assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services in the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, was the only member who voted no.

Rogers said he was caught off guard by the extent of Classical Academy's request. Several other items on the panel's agenda concerned virtual charter schools requesting enrollment cap increases in anticipation of additional students signing up for this fall. Rogers said he thought that's what Classical Academy was seeking as well.

OTHER CHARTERS

The Fayetteville School District asked to expand its Virtual Academy enrollment cap from 500 in grades four through 12 to 5,000 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The district's overall enrollment is about 10,500.

The Virtual Academy is a district-operated charter school that had 154 students last school year. Fayetteville, like other school districts, is preparing for many students to opt for virtual education and wants flexibility to offer that, said Megan Slocum, associate superintendent.

Angela Kremers was the only panel member who voted against Fayetteville's request, saying she felt it was "excessive." Others, however, agreed the district needed the flexibility such a cap increase would offer, because it's unclear how many students will go for that option.

The panel unanimously backed the Springdale School District's request to increase the enrollment cap at its Tyson School of Innovation from 2,000 to 8,000. The move would allow additional students in kindergarten through 12th grade to access the school's Virtual Innovation Academy -- a completely online educational program for students uncomfortable returning to on-site instruction.

The panel also approved a request by the Arkansas Virtual Academy, an online charter school serving K-12 students statewide, to increase its cap from 3,000 to 4,000 students.

Amy Johnson, the Arkansas Virtual Academy's head of school, said the school has 2,931 students enrolled and 918 applications for the 2020-21 year.

Many families fill out applications and don't complete the enrollment process, Johnson said. The conversion rate of application to enrollment is about 40% during a typical enrollment season. This year, however, the school had a conversion rate of 76% by the end of June, Johnson said. Applying that rate to pending applications, the enrollment could increase to 3,628 students, she said.

The Cabot School District earned panel approval of a 500-student increase, to 1,000 students, for its Academic Center for Excellence for a virtual learning option this year.

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