Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel approves new Garfield Scholars' Academy charter school

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

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve the establishment of the Garfield Scholars' Academy, an open-enrollment charter school for kindergarten through eighth grades that would be located within the Rogers School District boundaries.

Plans for the proposed school must now be approved by the Arkansas Board of Education in order for the school to open in the 2024-25 school year.

The academy proposal for as many as 340 students was developed in response to a January 2023, decision by the Rogers School District to close its state-graded "B" Garfield Elementary School after the 2023-24 school year.

The next closest Rogers elementary school is 13.6 miles away from the Garfield campus, charter school planners have said, creating lengthy travel requirements for families that choose to continue enrollment in the Rogers district.

Charter school planners hope to eventually use the current Garfield Elementary campus but, initially, the charter school would be housed in the Garfield community's furnished First Baptist Church at a price of $1 a month plus the cost of utilities.

School planners Melanie Kennon and Joy Sawyer told the state panel, chaired by Matthew Sutherlin of the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, that they are budgeting for 150 students in the first year of operation. They said the school can be sustained financially if at least 80 students enroll out of a pool of 1,050 students in Garfield and nearby communities such as Avoca, Little Flock and Eureka Springs.

Sawyer, chief operating officer for the proposed school, has said the charter would feature a traditional educational program with an emphasis on agriculture and economics -- a reflection of the farming communities surrounding Garfield.

This year's round of open-enrollment charter school applications comes after the Arkansas LEARNS Act, or Act 237 of 2023, eliminated any cap on the number of charter schools that can be operated in the state by nonprofit organizations rather than traditional public school districts.

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.

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

If approved by the state Education Board, the Garfield Scholars Academy will be the fifth charter school authorized by the state panel in this cycle of charter school applications.

Since September, the Education Board has given final approval to the following charter schools for opening in 2024-25:

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.

The charter panel was expected Tuesday to consider amending the existing Premier High School of Arkansas charter to add campuses in Fayetteville and Russellville. That agenda item, however, was delayed until November, Sutherlin said.

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.

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