Arkansas panel reviews 37 charter schools

D- and F-graded schools make up 39% of all state charters

A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Arkansas' Charter Authorizing Panel on Tuesday worked through a review of 37 open-enrollment and district-operated conversion charter schools that had received state-imposed letter grades of D or F for the 2021-2022 school year.

Ten schools had F grades and 27 had Ds, according to the report that was requested late last year and accepted Tuesday by the panel that is made up of Arkansas Department of Education staff and interested citizens.

The A-to-F letter grades, which are applied to almost all state-supported schools, are based on the federally required Every Student Succeeds Act numerical scores. The numerical scores are calculated largely on the state-required ACT Aspire tests given every spring in literacy, math and science. The numerical scores, and the letter grades, also take into account factors such as year-to-year achievement growth on the Aspire tests, student attendance and high school graduation rates.

The 37 D and F charter schools reviewed by the charter panel make up 39% of the total 95 charter schools that are either operated by traditional school districts or by not-for-profit organizations other than traditional school systems.

In Arkansas, charter schools are taxpayer-supported schools that operate according to the terms of a contract or charter with the state Board of Education. Charter schools are exempt from some rules and laws that govern traditional schools. But, in return, charter schools are held to student achievement goals.

Tiffani Grayer, coordinator of school performance and monitoring, told the panel that even though the 2022 letter grades were the first applied to schools since 2019, the schools did receive federal Every Student Succeeds Act numerical scores in 2021 as well as in 2022.

The 2022 numerical scores show that many of the charter schools improved over 2021, Grayer said.

"Even though we are talking about D and F schools, it is very important to realize that the data goes much deeper than just the letter grade," she said. "It is important to notice that these schools are getting that momentum back and rebounding from that learning loss."

Panel members asked charter school representatives whether their teachers were state-licensed, whether high teacher turnover was a factor and about the use of adult mentors for students.

The school representatives described changes being made to strengthen their literacy and math instruction. Several talked about struggles with shifting quickly to remote learning during the pandemic. Others told how sudden increases and then decreases in students enrolled in online programs affected their scores. School leaders described their efforts to double math and literacy instruction or add academic intervention periods in the school day to improve student achievement.

Deborah Coffman, panel chairman and the state's assistant commissioner for school accountability, complimented several of the school leaders about their initiatives.

"You need to tell you story," Coffman told some of the school leaders, adding at one point that starting a new school is hard work.

The state's first charter schools opened in 2000-2001.

Last November, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education reported that 32% of the state's 1,055 public schools -- including charter schools -- received letter grades of D or F for the 2021-2022 school year. That was compared to 19% of schools in 2019, the last year that the state applied letter grades to campuses before the global covid-19 pandemic disrupted education in Arkansas and across the nation starting in March 2020.

The panel's quiz of representatives of the D and F -graded charter schools comes at a time when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has proposed the Arkansas LEARNS education plan that would -- in part -- remove limits on the number of open-enrollment charter schools in the state as well as phase in universal school choice for all families by 2025-2026.

The reports and data for the D- and F-graded charter schools are available on the Charter Authorizing Panel agenda for Tuesday's meeting:

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