Arkansas Education Board approves four new charter schools for Pulaski County and Fort Smith

Application for Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy receives nod

FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)
FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday gave final approval to four open-enrollment charter schools to begin operations in 2022 and 2023 -- three of them in Pulaski County and one in Fort Smith.

The newly approved schools are:

• Premier High School of Fort Smith to open in 2022-23.

IDEA Public Schools Arkansas, which has applied to establish two campuses within the borders of the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts in the 2023-24 school year.

• Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy, which is a ninth-through-12th grade school likely to operate within the Pulaski County Special district, starting in 2022-23.

Each of the plans received preliminary approval by the state Charter Authorizing Panel last month. The Education Board has the authority to conduct its own hearing on charter school applications but voted 7-0 Thursday to not review the panel decisions on Premier and IDEA's two campuses.

After a question from Education Board Sarah Moore of Stuttgart about the anticipated enrollment of female students at the Arkansas military academy, the board approved the plan for that school with another 7-0 vote.

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No representatives from school districts in which the schools will be located spoke against the plans Thursday.

Twelve open-enrollment charter systems operate 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.

Specific addresses for the planned schools have not been finalized.

Each of the charter plans are sponsored by organizations with already existing charter schools in other states. Premier High School of Fort Smith would mirror existing Premier schools in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Springdale, and Premier in Texas.

The IDEA charter system also 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.

The IDEA Public Schools plan calls for an elementary and a secondary school on each of two campuses in 2023-24. 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 to serve as many as 2,600 students by 2026-27.

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

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 make two years of academic growth in a single year.

At the point that the high school grades are offered, students must take at least 11 Advanced Placement courses.

Students also would take courses on how to attend and get through college. They would visit at least 10 colleges and universities and apply to a minimum of six -- all with the guidance of school-employed college counselors.

IPS Enterprises is the employer of the IDEA school staffs. That allows the organization to assign future Arkansas staff to work and train at the campuses in other states. Additionally, it gives the organization the ability to offer more competitive salaries and benefits because they are doing it on a larger scale.

The newly approved Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy is to serve up to 800 ninth- through 12th-graders It will be modeled after 11 already operating schools with military and first responder training components in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn.

Paul Vallas, one of the chief planners for the Arkansas school, is a former superintendent or school chief executive in those cities.

The school is to 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 Arkansas 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."

Premier High School in Fort Smith will be the fourth Premier campus to be opened in Arkansas by Responsive Education Solutions of Lewisville, Texas.

The Fort Smith campus, with a maximum student enrollment of 300, would be open to all interested ninth- through 12th-grade students but would target in particular those who have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out of high school, Dennis Felton, state director of Premier schools, told the state charter panel last month.

"We offer a personalized learning environment that has high quality instructors and a viable curriculum," Felton said at that time. "We also offer a flexible schedule that is blended with character education. We want to make sure that students not only get the academic support and content that they need but we want them to be better human beings as they go back into the communities."

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