The Arkansas Military & First Responders Academy, an open-enrollment charter high school approved by the state Board of Education in September 2021, is moving toward an inaugural August opening for as many as 150 ninth graders.
Operators for the school -- in which every student will be part of a U.S. Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program and will have opportunities to learn and train for emergency-responder jobs as well as take pre-engineering and coding courses -- will add a grade a year until grades nine through 12 are served, Lt. Col. Jason Smedley said last week.
Smedley, a Little Rock native and decorated U.S. Marine having served two tours to Iraq in 2003 and 2006, is commandant and spokesman for the new school that is to be housed in what is now the South City Church -- formerly Temple Baptist Church -- at 10710 Interstate 30 in Little Rock.
"It's going to be the first of its kind in Arkansas," Smedley said about the school-wide JROTC program in contrast to JROTC programs at other high schools in the state that don't require all students to participate.
"Students will wear an actual Marine uniform as their daily uniform," Smedley said. "This doesn't mean they have to go into the military. But they will have an awareness, they will participate and be active in the leadership, history and physical training aspect of any JROTC program."
The school's additional focus on first responders means that students will have course work and internships related to firefighting, law enforcement and medical emergencies. Course work on coding and pre-engineering will be offered in the 11th and 12th grades particularly for those students who may want to pursue those subjects in college.
"We want to make sure our students have an awareness of the different opportunities that exist -- to include college, the military and first responders," Smedley said.
The charter academy was originally scheduled to open to its first students last August but was granted a one-year extension by the state.
"During the planning stage, it became very clear any site we might select would require significant capital improvement," school planners told state officials last summer.
The organization said that the anticipated supply-chain constraints occurring nationally would be "a tremendous roadblock" for completing construction and equipping the ninth-through-12th-grade campus in time to open this year.
There have been other adjustments in the plans in the meantime -- including a transfer of the state charter from one organization to another.
At the time in 2021 that the school was approved by the Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel and ultimately by the state Board of Education, the sponsoring nonprofit organization and the recipient of the state-issued charter necessary to operate was American Quality Schools.
Recent minutes of meetings held by the school's board of directors show that the state-issued charter is being transferred from American Quality Schools to Arkansas Military & First Responders Academy, which has applied to the federal Internal Revenue Service for the required status as a 501-c-3 not-for-profit organization. That IRS determination on nonprofit status was to be decided by Feb. 8, according to the meeting minutes.
Smedley said last week that the school leaders have submitted a request to the state to transfer the charter but have not received a response yet. He said a delay in receiving the nonprofit status should not impact the school opening in August "and we don't expect the IRS denying our nonprofit request."
Arkansas Code Annotated 6-23-303 on the authorization of taxpayer-funded charter schools states that "the authorizer shall review the application for an open-enrollment public charter school and may approve any application that ... establishes the eligible entity's status as a tax-exempt organization under § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 before the first day of its operation with students."
While the military/first responder academy will be unique in Arkansas, there are such schools in other parts of the country -- Chicago and Philadelphia, for example, that have been sponsored by American Quality Schools. The Arkansas school planners have toured the New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy campus, in particular, and are considering a $40,000 contract with the New Orleans charter school that features a school-wide Marine Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.
"The contract is not solidified yet," Smedley said, but once it is finalized it would enable planners for the Arkansas school "to access curriculum and policies and allow AMFRA leadership to shadow [the New Orleans' school staff] during the spring semester."
Smedley said the Arkansas school will be located on about 25 acres in a church building that is being purchased by KLS Leasing, which is affiliated with the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville.
The school will operate with what Smedley called a triple-net lease, meaning that the school will pay expenses associated with the building that would more typically be paid by a landlord. The school operators have an option to lease to own the property, he said.
The church membership will continue to use the property during non-school hours until they can transition elsewhere, Smedley said.
Smedley, who graduated from Little Rock Parkview Magnet High School in 1996, is a Howard University graduate with a Master's degree in business administration and a law degree from from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.
Currently, he is the squadron commander of Marine Wing Support Squadron 471 and the chairman of the Arkansas Veterans Commission, according to his resume.
His experience includes work as a staffer for former Arkansas U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor. He was also the military liaison for Gov. Mike Beebe and an agricultural lobbyist for the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation.
Planners of the Arkansas Military & First Responders Academy have established an online informational brochure for the campus -- using stock photographs and not actual Little Rock students -- and are seeking faculty members for the coming school year and asking potential students -- ninth graders -- to complete school enrollment interest forms.
More information about the school is available at the following website: https://amfra9-12.org.
Arkansas has about two dozen taxpayer-supported open-enrollment charter schools and charter school systems.