Wednesday, November 05, 2008

TOP STORY > >Jacksonville gets a charter school, but not another

Leader staff writer

The state Board of Education commissioners on Monday approved one application for an open- enrollment charter school to open in Jacksonville, but denied a second proposal that would have given the community two open-enrollment charter schools next fall.

The board gave its unanimous approval for Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy, but then unanimously rejected the application for Jacksonville Charter Academy.

Board sentiment was that Jacksonville children deserved an alternative to local schools, but that two charter schools at once was moving too quickly and could bring harm to the Pulaski County Special School District, which opposes the charter schools.

Several dozen community members and a contingent of current and former public officials – including Mayor Tommy Swaim, parks and recreation director George Biggs, state representatives Pat Bond, Will Bond, and Sandra Prater, and state senators John Paul Capps and Mike Wilson – were there in a show of support for the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy.


Organizers say the selection process can now begin in earnest for the school’s principal, who will then begin hiring teachers. A national search for the principal is already underway, but the hope is to hire a candidate from Arkansas.

Southern Financial Corpo-ration, a Little Rock-based organization that funds community development projects, is providing financing for the construction of the school building at the corner of Willow and North First streets.

The school will be the 11th in the national Lighthouse Academies system, which started its first school in 2004 in the South Bronx. Nine other schools are in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington. The Lighthouse mission is educating underserved populations in urban areas.

Lighthouse Academies boast of an “arts-infused” curriculum that begins preparing students in kindergarten for college and a positive, individualized approach to learning, character development, and discipline problems.

The first year, the school will have space for 344 students, kindergarten through sixth grade. The two kindergarten classes will have 22 students each. All other grades would have two classes of 25 students. A grade would be added each year through high school for a capped enrollment of 644 students.

The school will be supported by public funds as part of the county school district. Students attending the open-enrollment school, however, could live in a school district, city, or county other than where the school is located.

In the likely event that the number of applicants will exceed the available seats, lottery will determine which students are admitted. The application process will be in the spring.


Brenda Bowles, PCSSD assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, told state commissioners that opening a charter school would mean a $1.97 million revenue loss in the first year and put in jeopardy efforts by the district for release from court-ordered monitoring of its desegregation plan.

Three of the six Jacksonville elementary schools are not meeting mandates for racial balance and a charter school, historically popular with whites, would only make that situation worse, Bowles argued.

Bowles also questioned the need for an alternative to existing Jacksonville schools, noting that Benchmark test scores show that four of the six local elementary schools “are doing great.”

Rebel Wilson, a Lighthouse Academy board member, countered Bowles’ position in her presentation to commissioners on the need for a charter school.

Wilson cited “startling statistics” in a recent state Department of Education report. Three elementary schools, three middle schools and both high schools in north Pulaski County have failed to meet federal education standards. Harris Elementary, Jacksonville Elementary, Murrell Taylor Elementary, Jacksonville Middle School Girls, Northwood Middle, Jacksonville Middle School Boys, Jacksonville High, and North Pulaski High schools were among 18 schools in the PCSSD that did not attain test score levels mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind program. For three of the schools, this is the fifth year on the “needs-improvement” list.

Substandard performance by both area high schools means that an option for a quality high school education “simply does not exist,” Wilson said. “This is an injustice to our community.”

Wilson also noted a 28 percent high school dropout rate locally and the need for college remedial courses by two-thirds of college freshman coming from Jacksonville.

Also speaking for the application were Biggs, Swaim, Lighthouse Academies founder and CEO Mike Ronan, Mike Wilson, and Capps.

Swaim told the board that local activism for improved public schools in Jacksonville dates back 30 years. The recent taxpayers’ $5 million gift to Little Rock Air Force Base for a college education center and a locally funded $4 million public library is clear proof, he said, of strong support for better education.

Education commissioners expressed concern about the impact of the school on racial balance in Jacksonville schools.

Mike Wilson and Ronan vowed that every effort would be made to recruit a racially diverse applicant pool.

Jeremy Lasiter, legal counsel for the state Department of Education, told commissioners, “No one is clairvoyant; we are not going to be able to know the makeup of these schools.”

In the end, commissioners concluded that the over riding issue was giving Jacksonville children an alternative to current school offerings.


But sentiments shifted in response to the Jacksonville Charter Academy application. Commissioners voiced reluctance to push the envelope with two charter schools the same year.

The application was defended by Buster Lackey, principal and deputy superintendent of Academics Plus, a charter school in Maumelle. Lackey has been working as a consultant with “I Can, We Can, We All Can,” the organization spearheading the application. Planning began a year ago with a racially diverse group of parents, some parishioners at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, who wanted to improve education for their children.

The strengths of the proposed school, Lackey told commissioners, included a location convenient for Hwy. 67-167 commuters and Little Rock Air Force Base families, strong community participation, individualized education plans for all students, free college-level courses via a partnership with University of Central Arkansas, and vocational-trade school training for students not geared to college.

Lackey said that the school application had the support of Swaim, the Jacksonville City Council and the Jacksonville police.
Craig Collier, Mt. Pisgah pastor, and Mona Briggs, an educational consultant working with Jacksonville Charter Academy planners, spoke passionately about the proposed school.

Briggs told commissioners not to get hung up on worries about impacts on the local school district but to see the proposed school with its strong parental engagement as a rare opportunity that should not be missed.

“We have schools in crisis in this state, and communities desperate to improve, and when we find pockets or places with the desire to meet the need, and when the leadership is there, what does it hurt to give them the chance?” Briggs said. “This is an opportunity to allow a group of people who have come together with a vision for their children.”

Commissioners questioned Lackey about his decision, as stated in the application, to not seek federal funds the first year for meals for students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

Lackey said that the excessive paperwork made application until the second year prohibitive, but promised that private contributions would cover the meal costs for all children the first year.

As each commissioner voted down the application, most expressed interest in seeing how the approved school impacted the county school district before allowing another to open in the same community.

Ben Mays said, “We have already provided something to give relief to Jacksonville.”

Sam Ledbetter also voiced concern about “going too fast, too quickly,” but also said he had “issues with the application” not fully addressing state requirements.

Jim Cooper said he feared that a second charter might do “too much damage to the existing school district.”

Lackey said that advocates for Jacksonville Charter Academy would return next year to seek state approval.

After the meeting, Briggs said that the school would have not been a drain on the county district, because it would have attracted families with parents commuting from other counties into work in Little Rock.

Briggs called the decision “arbitrary and unfair.”

“There are enough children in central Arkansas that are not being successful. The application should have been heard on its own merits,” Briggs said, adding she had hoped “that the commissioners would have shown more courage.”