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CLASS OF 2023: Friendship-Southeast starts afresh

by I.C. Murrell | May 22, 2023 at 3:13 a.m.
Friendship Aspire Academy Southeast Campus is undergoing an expansion to eventually house students in grades 6-12. The next senior class from the school in graduate in 2027. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

This is the 13th entry in the Class of 2023 series.

The final graduating class of Friendship Aspire Academy Southeast Campus is not the last in the school's history.

Nine of the 19 students that made up the class, however, were among the last to enroll at the charter high school when it was known as Southeast Arkansas Preparatory School. From that point, when Friendship Education Foundation Arkansas took over the decertified school late in the 2019-20 school year, the campus phased out by graduating the remaining classes (and not enrolling any new ones) with the intent of restarting with a slow-growth model from ninth grade up. That class will be Friendship-Southeast's next graduates in 2027.

Also aiding the campus in its reset is Friendship's upcoming acquisition of three Arkansas Lighthouse Charter Schools, including two at the same location in Pine Bluff at 708 W. Second Ave., site of the old Trinity Episcopal School. The transition will become official July 1,the Pine Bluff Lighthouse schools will close in favor of the Friendship elementary schools at 700 S. Main St. and 3911 S. Hazel St.

"In bringing on Lighthouse, everything is going fantastic," said Phong Tran, superintendent of Friendship's Arkansas campuses, following Wednesday's graduation at the Southeast Campus. "We're absorbing the kids, they're coming on board, and we're going to start with the high school next year. You've got the sixth and seventh grades coming over from Lighthouse, and you've got the ninth grade coming over from the eighth grade. They're going to get the summer boot camp, the student orientation, the parent orientation. We are so looking forward to having them at our schools, and, again, we're going to do what we did with Southeast and we're going to go ahead and give them the best education we can within Pine Bluff, the best education ever, anyway, you know what I'm saying? And then graduate them to become just as successful as these students."

Arkansas Lighthouse campuses were part of a national charter management organization until 2021. LaShawnDa Noel, the CEO of Arkansas Lighthouse, said the loss of that partnership led to officials considering shrinking its system and then growing again. The Capital City Lighthouse School in North Little Rock, which enrolls students in K-5, is also being acquired by Friendship.

The Arkansas Board of Education approved the acquisition in February, and the Charter Authorizing Panel finalized it in March. Noel said in February the move would allow Lighthouse to focus on its Jacksonville campuses. Friendship would take on about $750,000 in debt related to Capital City, Friendship CEO Joe Harris told the state board.

Noel told the state board there was hesitation among one of its transition committees because of school culture, but Tran said Wednesday the Lighthouse parents and students seemed to welcome the change as they prepared for it.

"You don't ever want to close down a school," Tran said. "You want to keep seats open, and it allows us to keep kids in the community. That's what Friendship is all about, to allow the community to remain and to allow the kids to continue where they are without disrupting anything. It's been very welcoming. It's been very receptive, and we look forward to seeing them."

Anitra Rogers has seen such an acquisition before. She was principal of the Jacksonville Lighthouse high school campus for three years before she came to then-Southeast Prep as an English teacher at the time of Friendship's takeover and was elevated to principal, her current role, the next school year.

"Being able to merge the things I know – the good policies and procedures that Lighthouse has – over here to Southeast Prep and still carry some of those things into Friendship, just being able to put all of that together, I just think I've been blessed to be around and see these different changes," Rogers said. "Regardless of what happens, at the end of the day, it's always been about the kids. I'm one of those principals, I'm available for them 24-7."

Friendship-Southeast has seen growth from a physical standpoint before the Lighthouse acquisition was finalized. Since the start of this school year, a campus expansion has been underway to create more space for the slow growth from sixth through ninth grades to sixth through 12th.

"It allows us to work with each individual student," Tran said of the slow growth. "When they come in as ninth grade, we get to work with them individually. OK, what is one thing they need in order to be successful with them? We get one-on-one time with them. We get to know each and every one of them, and then when they get to 10th grade, we can help them move through 10th grade into 11th grade, then 12th grade."

Goodwin has seen the physical growth firsthand and likes what's in store for the Friendship students following her.

"I feel like they'll have more opportunity to explore around the school," she said. "They'll have better learning opportunities."

  photo  Friendship Aspire Academy Southeast Campus graduates take part in commencement Wednesday at the school's gymnasium. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  Anitra Rogers serves as Friendship-Southeast's principal and sits with valedictorian Arereunti Goodwin. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  Friendship Aspire Academy Superintendent Phong Tran confers diplomas for Southeast Campus graduates Wednesday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  Lighthouse Charter School in Pine Bluff will close with its acquisition by Friendship Education Foundation Arkansas. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

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