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Little Rock school for older students endorsed as a model for state

by Cynthia Howell | June 16, 2021 at 3:23 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The state Charter Authorizing Panel on Tuesday endorsed plans to duplicate Little Rock's Excel Center charter school model for students 19 and older at sites in Springdale, Jonesboro and Fort Smith.

The Goodwill Industries-sponsored proposal will now go to the Arkansas Board of Education for a final decision.

The charter panel voted in support of the Excel Center plan -- which hinges on funding -- at a meeting Tuesday when it also gave tentative approval to:

• Plans and accompanying waivers from four open-enrollment charter school organizations -- eStem Public Charter Schools Inc., LISA Academy, Graduate Arkansas and Friendship Aspire Academy -- to offer remote instructional programs to students.

• Name changes to the classical academy charter schools operated in Arkansas by Responsive Education Solutions.

The Excel Center proposal calls for raising the enrollment cap from the current 350 students for grades nine through 12 to 1,050 students statewide, to accommodate up to three new campuses at addresses not yet identified.

The Excel Center at 7400 Scott Hamilton Drive is one of 31 Goodwill Industries adult high schools in the nation but the only campus in Arkansas.

The Arkansas charter school opened in 2017-18 as a way to enable adults 19 and older to earn a high school diploma as well as work toward industry certificates for jobs such as fork lift operator, welder and pharmacy technician.

Brian Marsh, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas, said there are some 320,000 adults in the state who do not have a high school diploma.

"We see the need to expand," Marsh said of the diploma program.

Greg Wertenberger, Excel Center's school director, said the tuition-free Excel Center provides both traditional and flexible class schedules for its students, as well as free on-site child care and city bus passes to aid in student access to the center.

Additionally, a life coach is assigned to aid each student in overcoming barriers that prevented their earlier graduation, locating old transcripts and setting life goals. Industry training is available to the Excel Center students on campus, which would also be the case at any of the new locations.

Marsh said the new sites are contingent on acquiring funding either through the state or other entities. The Excel Centers are not eligible for traditional school funding from the state because of the age of the students.

Excel Centers in Jonesboro, Fort Smith and Springdale would be attached to the existing charter for the Little Rock campus. That charter expires in June 2022 unless operators seek its renewal later this calendar year.

The eStem, LISA, Graduate Arkansas and Friendship Aspire charter organizations are among 152 Arkansas school systems seeking state approval to offer options for online instruction to their students who want to learn away from the standard classroom.

Arkansas school systems had scrambled in the just-ended school year to provide students online instruction as a way to combat the spread of the covid-19 virus.

States and school districts nationwide are now grappling with whether to continue with online learning options for the coming school year.

Back in January, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Education Board invited school districts to submit virtual instruction plans for next school year.

With that invitation came the offer of waivers of state rules and laws that cap class sizes at 30 students, limit teacher workloads to 150 students, require 120 clock hours of instruction per course and six-hour instructional days, set student attendance requirements, and require a minimum number of recess minutes.

Not all the newly approved plans incorporate all the waivers.

Luanne Baroni, assistant superintendent of the LISA Academy system of charter schools in Pulaski and northwest Arkansas, told Charter Authorizing Panel members that the system will use the staff hired for its recently approved Arkansas Hybrid School to teach students who are enrolled in the Hybrid School and students enrolled in other LISA campuses who want remote instruction.

The Arkansas Hybrid School plan, approved by the state Education Board in May, will provide students with virtual instruction but also will require that they report once a week -- or at least every other week -- for a half day at a time to a LISA campus or satellite learning center.

Using the Hybrid School staff for all remote instruction will keep teachers at the other LISA campuses from having to teach a mix of online and in-person learners, Baroni said. There are about 100 enrolled in the Hybrid School. There are an additional 240 students from other LISA Academy campuses who have indicated an interest in digital, remote instruction in the coming year.

The panel approved remote instruction plans and waivers for Friendship Aspire Little Rock and Friendship Aspire Pine Bluff Southeast, which is a high school, but delayed until next month any action on Friendship Aspire Academy Pine Bluff's plan to open a new campus at 700 South Main St. in Pine Bluff.

That would be in addition to the organization's elementary school on Hazel Street. Charter school planners must give the superintendent of a local school district notice of a proposed campus, which did not occur.

The charter panel also delayed until July any action on Graduate Arkansas charter school's request to raise its enrollment cap from 275 to 1,500.

The panel did vote in support of a proposal to rename Northwest Classical Academy in Bentonville to Founders Classical Academy of Bentonville.

Similarly, the panel favored the name Founders Classical Academy High School Rogers over Northwest Classical Academy High School, and the name Founders Classical Academy of West Little Rock over West Little Rock Classical Academy.

The charter system, if state Education Board approval is obtained, would become the Founders Classical Academies of Arkansas.

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