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Arkansas charter panel favors out-of-state school models for Pulaski County

by Cynthia Howell | August 19, 2021 at 6:45 a.m.
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Pulaski County is in line for three new open-enrollment charter school campuses in the coming two years.

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to:

• Idea Public Schools Arkansas, which has applied to establish two campuses within the borders of the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts.

• Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy, a ninth-through-12th grade school likely to be within the Pulaski County Special district.

Both plans must now be approved by the Arkansas Board of Education, probably at the Education Board's meeting in September.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposals at Wednesday's charter panel meeting.

Currently there are 12 open-enrollment charter systems operating in Pulaski County, not counting statewide virtual academies and a charter school for adults that does not receive state school funding. Several of the 12 systems include multiple campuses. Open-enrollment charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations other than traditional public school districts.

Both of the tentatively approved charter plans are proposed by organizations with already existing charter schools in other states.

The IDEA Public Schools organization is planning to open an elementary and a secondary school on each of two campuses in 2023-24 within the boundaries of the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts. Both campuses would start with kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades, and then would add one elementary and one secondary grade each year at each of its two locations. Ultimately, there would be four schools on two campuses.

Actual locations for the campuses, which together would serve as many as 2,600 students by 2026-27, have not yet been finalized.

The initial application for the IDEA schools do not include grades 10 through 12, but the organization would ask for approval of those upper grades when it applies to renew its state charter after five years.

That charter system started in Texas in 2000 and has since expanded into Louisiana and Florida. IPS Enterprises Inc., is the nonprofit management organization for the proposed schools in Arkansas as well as the existing schools in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Tampa.

IPS Enterprises is the employer of the school staffs.

Dan Fishman, senior vice president for growth, said that making IPS Enterprises the employer allows the organization to assign future Arkansas staff to work and train at the campuses in other states. Additionally, it gives the organization "a lot more purchasing power when it comes to benefits and negotiating. We are able to offer much more competitive salaries and benefits because we are doing it under a very large umbrella."

THE MISSION

The organization's mission is preparing students from under-served communities for success in college and for citizenship. The elementary and middle school programs include standardized testing three times a year to track progress and a "critical student intervention" strategy to help low-achieving students to make two years of academic growth in a single year.

Lisa Garza, chief schools officer for IDEA, told the Arkansas panel that high school students must take at least 11 Advanced Placement courses. Students also take courses on how to attend and get through college. They visit at least 10 colleges and universities and apply to a minimum of six -- all with the guidance of school-employed college counselors. One hundred percent of IDEA graduates are accepted into college annually, the school planners said.

Fishman told the panel that despite the expanded number of IDEA schools, overall student achievement has improved. A study of the system done by a Stanford University organization showed that IDEA students achieved the equivalent of 80 extra days of learning in math every year and 74 extra days of learning in reading compared with students who applied to the IDEA schools but were not able to attend.

"That doesn't mean we kept them for 80 extra days and it doesn't mean we kept them for 74 extra days. It means one year in an IDEA classroom was as though they were exposed to 80 extra days of learning. Multiply that by 12 years, Stanford found that attending an IDEA school was the equivalent of getting five extra years of education over a K-12 tenure," Fishman said.

Deborah Coffman, an assistant education commissioner for Arkansas and the chairwoman of the charter panel, questioned the IDEA school planners about their request for starting each school year a week or more prior to the traditional school start date that is set in state law.

Naccaman Williams, another panel member, urged that the charter planners delay their request for a waiver of the minimum 38 courses that high schools must offer until alternatives to that can be explored.

The IDEA planners withdrew both of those waiver requests.

FIRST RESPONDERS

The tentatively approved American Military and First Responders Academy for up to 800 ninth-through-12th graders is planned for an undetermined location in the Pulaski County Special district, possibly in buildings leased from U.S. military installations, project executive Paul Vallas told the charter panel.

The Arkansas school would be modeled after 11 already operating schools with military and first responder training components in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn. Those are all districts where Vallas previously served as superintendent or chief executive officer.

The proposed school would feature personalized learning with a college preparatory curriculum and a focus on engineering and computer coding. It would require a 420-minute school day compared with the typical 370-minute day, and 27 credits for graduation compared with the 22 required by state education standards.

A Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program would be a feature of the school along with electives, internships and paid work-study with first responder organizations in the community, such as police and fire departments, hospitals and other emergency services.

Uniforms, daily ROTC training activities, a military-style chain of command, and a summer boot camp orientation session would be other components of the school that will be under the day-to-day direction of a "commandant," Vallas said.

"These academies have been extraordinary successful," Vallas said. "These schools keep their students. There is not a significant exit whatsoever. And parents gravitate toward these schools because they are academically rigorous, because they are character building and because they are extremely safe and secure environments in this day and age," said Vallas, the father of two police officers and a fire fighter. Additionally, his wife was a police officer, he said.

Sonja Wright-McMurray, senior associate director of the state Division of Career and Technical Education and a member of the charter panel, urged Vallas and his team of school planners to meet with the state's career education staff to identify existing courses of student study that would support the themes of the charter school.

Williams, charter panel member, called the plan a great one and unlike anything else in the state. He also asked, however, that the school planners return to the panel prior to opening the school in the 2022-23 school year to report on the development of the elective courses and their integration with the core academic program.

"Is there a way to see more of the curriculum on paper?" Williams asked. "It's not as tight as I would like. Will we have another look at it?"

Print Headline: 3 new charter campuses for Pulaski County OK'd

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