Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Charter supporters to meet

Leader staff writer

Tonight at 6 p.m. at the Jacksonville Community Center, plans for a local charter school will be presented by local residents who have been working on the proposal for more than a year. If the organizing committee’s application for a charter is approved by the Arkansas Department of Education, the school will open in the fall of 2009.

Parents, students and teachers are invited to attend the meeting, where the charter school concept as an alternative to the existing public schools will be discussed.

“We are interested in explaining to the public what a charter school is and is not, and to make clear that a charter school is a public school. Anyone can come to a charter school at no cost,” said Mike Wilson, spokesperson for the group.

The proposed school is tentatively being called Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy because the planners solicited assistance in developing their proposal from Lighthouse Academies, Inc., a Massachusetts-based organization that has helped launch charter schools around the country. There are currently 10 Lighthouse Academies, Inc. schools, located in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York, and the District of Columbia, according to the organization’s Web site.

“This is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps project, but a project with expertise and experience,” Wilson said. “This is what these people offer us.”

The proposed school would initially serve kindergarten through fifth grade, with enrollment capped at 250 for the first year.

A grade would be added each year thereafter. The school would be open across district, city, and county boundaries, allowing not only Jacksonville students but those from surrounding areas to apply. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of spaces, students would be selected randomly.

The vision for the school is to create a challenging learning environment that will prepare students to succeed in college, Wilson said.

“There will be strict discipline and high, high expectations for student achievement and college prep – things that all parents want for their children and that they are not getting from the public schools.”

A charter school is a state-regulated public school, the purpose of which is to provide educational alternatives to communities.

The ADE grants a charter for five years, after which renewal is based upon how well the school has met state-accountability mandates.

An open enrollment-charter school can be established by a government entity, community, institution of higher learning, or non-sectarian group. Arkansas state law limits the number of open-enrollment charter schools to 24. Currently, there are seven vacancies.

Wilson says that the application to the ADE is ready to go but only awaits selection of a site for the school.

“I think (the group) has narrowed it down to two or three sites and would like to get some public reaction of these locations, to see how people like them,” he said.

The Pulaski County Special School District will have until Sept. 30 to respond to the ADE regarding any concerns or objections to the Lighthouse Academy application. The Arkansas Board of Education will convene in November or December to decide which applicants to grant a charter.

Eleven entities have filed letters of intent with the state to apply for an open-enrollment school charter. Besides the Lighthouse Academy, another proposal is in the works for a Jacksonville-based charter school, headed up by two local private school educators, Buster Lackey of Sherwood and Dave Sanders of Maumelle.

Since word has gotten out about the two charter school proposals, Wilson has received numerous calls from persons living in Jacksonville as well as other communities expressing interest in enrolling their children. The calls have come “from a diverse mix of folks, racially and socio-economically,” he said.

“I am gratified by that because we have been determined to see that the charter school would be open to all kids of all backgrounds,” Wilson said.

A Web site is being constructed “where folks can express their viewpoints and ideas” and get involved in various aspects of the project as it develops over the next year, Wilson said.

Mayor Tommy Swaim, who will facilitate the meeting tonight, said that “the people of the city of Jacksonville need to have the opportunity to decide whether they are interested in a charter school process.”

A charter school in his mind would not interfere with his “ultimate goal of a separate school district for north Pulaski County and Jacksonville.”