Tuesday, November 11, 2008

EDITORIAL >>New schools set to open

Although there hasn’t been a new public school built in Jacksonville in more than 30 years, the city’s residents have taken matters into their own hands, and they will soon help build not one but two new campuses not too far from each other — a new charter school on the east side, and a college-level education center in front of Little Rock Air Force Base funded through a unique partnership between Jacksonville and the military.

Next fall, Jacksonville will open Lighthouse Academy at North First and Willow streets near a blighted area that will supply many of the students for the new charter school, which received the final go-ahead last week from the state Board of Education. Instead of having to attend one of the many dilapidated schools in town, hundreds of youngsters will go to classes in a new school for first time in three decades.

The education board turned down a second proposed charter school in the old Wal-Mart shopping center, farther up on North First Street. But it, too, could get its own charter in a couple of years, especially if the first one proves successful.

The organizers behind Lighthouse Academy had made a strong case for the charter school, which will offer an ambitious arts curriculum aimed at attracting disadvantaged students. The academy has a national track record and will bring new ideas to a community that has tried to break away from the Pulaski County Special School District, which has ignored the area’s needs and allowed its schools to crumble while the district built new campuses elsewhere.

So regardless of whether Jacksonville forms its own independent school district, a new charter school will be a welcome sign along the railroad tracks, which could help lead to the revitalization of a languishing neighborhood.

A year after the charter academy welcomes new students, the $14.8 million joint-education center will open in front of the Base, funded in part by Jacksonville residents who approved a 1-cent sales tax five years ago to help pay for the campus in cooperation with the Air Force. Many of the same local people behind the city’s first charter school helped push funding for the joint-education center, which will offer college-level courses for both military members and civilians through Pulaski Tech, ASU-Beebe and other institutions of higher learning. Jacksonville will have its own college campus, making it easier for area students to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees without having to drive a long distance.

The joint-education center and the charter school are proof that Jacksonville can build for the future and could do even more when it forms its own independent school district. Jacksonville will then have public schools that are as good as its neighbors’.