Charter plans in state surge for next school year

Up to 18 in works after law removes limit

File Photo
File Photo

As many as 18 new open-enrollment charter schools are on the drawing board for the 2024-25 school year for locations that include Pulaski County, Northwest Arkansas and Texarkana.

The 18 schools are being planned in a year in which the new Arkansas LEARNS Act eliminates any cap on the maximum number of charter schools that can be operated in the state by nonprofit organizations other than traditional public school districts. The new law also streamlines the charter renewal process.

The LEARNS Act -- or Act 237 of 2023 -- is Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature piece of legislation in her first 100 days in office.

Currently there are 22 state charters issued -- some of which cover just one school while others authorize the operation of multiple campuses.

Thirteen individuals last month sent to the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education letters of their intent to apply for the 18 new charter school campuses. One person, Carlos Alvarez, submitted letters of intent for six schools for Northwest Arkansas.

The letters of intent did not always indicate the organization being represented by the individual.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center that provides technical assistance to charter and rural schools, attributed this year's larger than usual number of letters of intent to the charter school terms in the LEARNS Act.

"I do think there is a lot more interest from in and out of state," Smith said, adding that Arkansas has caught the attention of some of the nation's more experienced charter school operators.

"We'll see what that looks like moving forward," he said. "Obviously they still have to put a good application on the table."

The preliminary applications are due May 15 and final versions are due July 17 in time for the Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel to review them in August. The charter panel decisions could go to the Arkansas Board of Education for final action in September.

In any given year, not all of the organizations that submit letters of intent follow through with an actual application.

Already, CJ Huff, a former Joplin, Mo., superintendent who sent in a letter of intent for a charter school in the Marvell-Elaine School District, said Thursday that he was curtailing his participation.

"My reason for withdrawing was that I had a few things come up personally and professionally since I submitted my letter of intent," Huff said in an email. "Consequently, I didn't feel like I could commit the time and leadership the students, staff and community would expect, and quite frankly, deserve. That was a tough decision because my heart and head were 'all in.'"

The following proposed schools, their anticipated enrollments, and their central focuses are:


Futures would be a school for up to 300 boys in grades one through 12 at 1900 Pine St., North Little Rock. Michael J. O'Leary is the contact for what is described as a virtual, alternative learning environment that can be a resource for parents.

"The model will provide education and deliver support services for ... boys who continue to be suspended from their current schools in Pulaski County," the letter of intent states. "With community partners, the school will offer a 12-month educational curriculum and provide services for the most behavorially challenged male who has shown he cannot matriculate in what is considered a normal classroom setting."

O'Leary is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and founder of the Arkansas Learning Network Inc., an online education and job training program for adults.


The Virtual Preparatory Academy of Arkansas would be a statewide virtual school for up to 500 students in its first year for kindergarten-through-12th graders. Nate Bell, a former Arkansas legislator, is the contact for the plan that calls for online, individualized flexible learning.

There would be "synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities, one-to-one tutoring, organized peer interaction, and a focus on critical skills for success in college and the workforce," according to the letter of intent.


The Academies of Math and Science is being designed to serve up to 800 students in kindergarten- through-eighth grades at a Pulaski County site to be determined. Steven Hykes is the contact for the proposed school that would be an addition to a network of nine charter schools serving 8,500 students in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz.

"As a network, we exclusively bring our proven program to communities in need with high free and reduced lunch populations," the letter of intent for an Arkansas campus states.

Hykes, the chief financial and growth officer, said in the letter that the organization leverages data, invests in adaptable curriculum, and offers engaging electives to support students and the science and math focus of the schools.


The Virtual Arkansas Online School would be a state-wide virtual school for as many as 2,500 in kindergarten-through-12th graders that would be sponsored by the Arch Ford Educational Service Cooperative in Plumerville. Gregg Grant, the cooperative director, is the contact for the proposal. It would build on the work of the existing Virtual Arkansas organization that provides some 214 online courses to students when a school doesn't have a teacher or sufficient student numbers to teach a course on campus. The proposed charter school would enable students to enroll full time without going through their local school systems.

"Virtual Arkansas employs approximately 120 Arkansas certified teachers at present, who also hold online teaching credentials ensuring they are the best qualified online teachers in the state," the letter of intent states. Core courses, career and technical education courses, concurrent college credit and Advanced Placement courses would be available.


The Freedom Learning Academy, a proposed virtual school, would serve up to 1,000 elementary and secondary students-- with a particular focus on home-school and adjudicated students -- in all 75 counties. Lindsey Graham is listed as the director and contact for the school that would feature blended, individualized instruction.

"With resource centers located in various locations around the state, students will have access to high-quality Arkansas approved curriculum, face-to-face instruction with their instructors on a weekly basis, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapy, as well as services for dyslexia, giftedness, and special education."


Garfield Scholar's Academy would serve up to 200 prekindergarten-through-fifth graders in Garfield, which is in the Rogers School District. Educators Joy Thomas Sawyer and Julie Lien are listed as the contacts for the school that they intend to be a continuation of the "longest continually operating elementary school" in the state.

"Our services will include ... in-class/in-person instruction, hands-on learning experiences, community involved learning, technology-enhanced learning, one-to-one technology, special education, counseling and a free/reduced lunch program," the letter of intent states.


The Community Charter School of Arkansas is being planned as a "hybrid" school for up to 400 kindergarten-through-eighth-graders statewide with headquarters in Fayetteville.

David Conover is the executive director and contact for the proposed "learn-at-home" program.

"We provide students equitable resources through our Student Engagement Funds program," the letter of intent states. "As a community school, we connect families to meaningful educational opportunities and enrichment activities.

"Our program is designed to meet the educational needs of homeschool-centric families in Arkansas. Our targeted population are families who have purposefully disengaged from public schools and are homeschooling their children with little guidance and support," the letter of intent states.


The Marvell-Elaine open-enrollment school proposal was submitted by CJ Huff, president of CJ Huff LLC. But Huff said he will not follow through with an application.


The Birchwood Harvest Charter School would initially serve up to 100 children in kindergarten at a location within the Pulaski County Special School District.

"The Harvest Way is a model that brings nature, arts, interests, and skills of all stakeholders to the table," according to the letter of intent submitted by Elizabeth Graves Meyer. "We will bridge gaps in parent and community involvement, effective communication, academic learning deficits, inclusive learning for students with special and exceptional needs, and create a healthy culture among staff, students, and families."


The Institute for the Creative Arts would be located at 1101 Riverfront Drive in Fort Smith for as many as 600 students in grades nine through 12.

Rosilee Russell, founder and executive director of what is an existing after-school and pre-school arts program, is the contact for what the applicant describes would be an immersive, intensive, and cutting-edge preparation for college and a career in the arts. Theater, dance, culinary, music, visual art, film, and writing would be featured.


The CIVICA Career and Collegiate Academies for kindergarten-through-fifth grades, sixth-through-eighth grades and ninth-through-12th grades, would be located in the Bentonville area for 2,350 students.

Carlos Alvarez is the contact for the plan that is modeled after COHEA Charter School in Hileah, Fla. The Civica Network operates schools in Nevada and Colorado.

The three schools planned for Arkansas would feature "a seamless college preparatory curriculum with an emphasis on preparedness for careers and post-secondary education attainment. Students in upper grades will experience this emphasis hands-on as they participate in career technical education-style coursework and enlist in one of several career academy pathways."


Pinecrest Academy for kindergarten-through-fifth graders, sixth-through-eighth graders, and ninth-through-12th graders would be located in the Fayetteville area. Carlos Alvarez, governing board chair for the 20-year-old Pinecrest Academy organization, is the contact for the schools that would "implement research-based instructional strategies and innovative resources in technology-rich environments in order to maximize learning for all students."

The 19 Pinecrest schools in Miami and Orlando in Florida and five in Las Vegas in Nevada have been recognized at local and state levels for high academic achievement while serving a high percentage of minority students.


The Northwest Arkansas School for Advanced Studies would be located in one of northwest Arkansas' cities to serve as many as 700 students in fifth through 12th grades. The school would be managed by BASIS Education Group or BASIS.ed that currently manages non-profit charter schools in Arizona, Louisiana, Texas and Washington D.C.

DeAnna Rowe, executive director of BASIS Education Group, is the contact.

Middle school pupils would be prepared for a high school curriculum "that is not only an AP-for-All environment, but rich with core classes in seminar discussions in primary text, logic, research methods, systems thinking and decision science.


The Alfred B. Jones Academy in Texarkana would initially serve 75 students in kindergarten through third grades and add grades each year.

The school plan calls for meeting the needs of students who have experienced traumatic experiences.

Tina Jones is listed as the contact for the proposed school.

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