Panel endorses charter school Institute for the Creative Arts in Fort Smith

New campus set for Fort Smith

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel on Tuesday endorsed plans for an arts-themed open-enrollment charter high school to be located on the Arkansas River-front in downtown Fort Smith, starting with the 2024-25 school year.

The charter panel of state employees and interested citizens also voted to expand the network of Premier High Schools in the state from five campuses and an online school to eight, with the two new charter campuses being placed in Fayetteville and Russellville.

The Arkansas Board of Education will have an opportunity as soon as next month to review the plans for new campuses -- all of which would be operated by not-for profit organizations other than traditional public school systems -- before acting on whether to make the plans final.

The Fort Smith-based Institute for the Creative Arts is planned for up to 500 ninth-through-12th graders and will feature an "intensive arts and academic curriculum," according to its application.

In addition to core academics, the institute, which has its roots in an after-school and weekend community arts program, will be made up of programs in music, drama, art and design, culinary arts, dance, and cinematic arts.

Rosilee Russell, co-founder of the school's sponsoring Community School of the Arts organization, presented the plan to the panel earlier this year and the panel asked for more details, particularly about the core academics and school governance.

Jennifer Feeny, a consultant to the school planners, offered assurances Tuesday that the school will provide all state-required core academic courses.

"We are a high school. We may look different in how we offer courses," Feeny told the panel. "We may look different in how our students take electives, but at the end of the day our focus is high school graduation just like any other high school. We want to make sure our students are receiving 22 high school credits aligned to the state [Education Department] standards."

The school's career and technical education programs that are required by the state will tie into the arts, Feeny said. The first-year offerings will be both advertising and graphic design, and programming and software with a focus on game design and development. In year two, the offerings will be expanded to include audio/video technology and digital cinema. Plans for the third year include culinary arts and radio broadcasting technology.

"There is a need for additional school options in the River Valley," the school's charter application states and adds that the school has the potential to reach into 20 districts within a 60- mile radius including areas in which there are disadvantaged populations with little to no arts education and weak academic test scores.

Currently the state has issued a total of 22 charters or contracts to organizations operating publicly funded charter schools. Some of the organizations are authorized by the state to use their charters to operate one campus while others operate multiple campuses.

The number of organizations operating open-enrollment charters will be increased next school year by at least five.

The Charter Authorizing Panel decision on the Institute of Creative Arts comes after lawmakers approved the Arkansas LEARNS Act, or Act 237 of 2023, that eliminated any cap on the number of charter schools that can be operated in the state by nonprofit organizations.

The new law also streamlines the charter renewal process.

The 145-page omnibus LEARNS Act is Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature piece of legislation. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

If ultimately approved by the state Education Board, the Institute of Creative Arts will be the sixth organization to receive a state charter this year to begin operations in 2024-25.

Others charter schools approved for opening in the 2024-25 school year are:

Garfield Scholars Academy for 340 children in kindergarten through eighth grades located within the Rogers School District boundaries.

Pinecrest Preparatory Academy in Fayetteville to serve as many as 2,000 kindergarten through 12th-graders by 2028-2029.

Civica Career and Collegiate Academy in Bentonville to serve up to 2,550 in kindergarten through 12th-grades.

The Academy of Math and Science -- Arkansas, an open-enrollment charter school that would serve up to 600 in kindergarten through eighth-graders in southwest Little Rock.

The Bentonville School for Advanced Studies, a liberal arts charter school that would serve up to 750 in grades five through 12.

Amendment endorsed

The Charter Authorizing Panel voted 4-1 Tuesday to endorse an amendment to the existing Premier High Schools of Arkansas charter to add second-chance high schools in Fayetteville and Russellville.

Premier High Schools, which focus on students who are struggling in traditional schools or have dropped out of school, operate in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Springdale, Fort Smith and Texarkana. There is also an online Premier High.

Matthew Sutherlin, chairman of the Charter Authorizing Panel cast the sole "no" vote on the expanded number of campuses, saying he was dissatisfied with quality of data coming from the Premier High School in Springdale.