Tuesday, August 24, 2010

TOP STORY > >Lighthouse plans to build middle and high schools

Leader executive editor

The headline in Saturday’s Leader: “Cabot schools about to hit 10,000.”

The headline in last Wednesday’s Leader: “Charter school growing,” referring to the Lighthouse Academy in Jacksonville, which has added a seventh grade and has nearly 400 students enrolled in its second year.

While turmoil continues in the Pulaski County Special School District, which can’t even decide when classes should start, the Lighthouse Academy keeps expanding: It has received state approval for a middle school at Little Rock Air Force Base next year, and there are also plans for a high school near the elementary charter school on North First Street.

If this trend continues, Lighthouse — where students are called scholars — might build a new school here every couple of years, much like Cabot, which has benefited from the flight of families from Pulaski County.

Charter school officials told a group of parents and interested residents meeting at the Jacksonville Community Center on Monday that the middle school would have open enrollment, like all charter schools, which would allow nonmilitary kids from all over the area to attend the new school with proper identification.

The base school would be an alternative to Northwood Middle School, which is on the state watch list for not meeting minimum standards. It faces possible closure if it doesn’t improve.

“The Air Force is providing us with a free building, and we’d be crazy not to take it,” said former state Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who is leading the drive for the new middle school.

The former officers club, which was set for demolition, would house the new middle school. Costs for the renovation have not yet been determined, but philanthropists like Wilson and others — including the Waltons of Walmart fame, the Fishers of the Gap clothing chain and the Pritzker family of the Hyatt Hotels — have given millions to charter schools.

They are built with private funds but receive state aid, which is $5,876 per student, 30 percent less than the $8,960 for regular public school students.

But since the facilities come from private sources and there’s no busing for students, more money is spent on classroom instruction. Classes are eight hours a day — an hour longer than other schools in Pulaski County, and school stays open a couple of weeks longer.

Phillis Nichols Anderson, Lighthouse Academies vice president for the southern region, said the middle school will probably have about 150 students in grades six through eight, with two classes for each grades.

A lottery would determine who gets into the school if more than 150 students apply, which is likely, since there is a waiting list of some 600 students who want to attend the elementary charter school in Jacksonville.

Anderson, a Lonoke County native, said there’s room for a high school behind or next to the elementary school.

Col. Andy Coggins, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing Mission Support Group, who will oversee the middle school project, said engineers are at the base this week studying ways to make the old officers club into a school.

“The facility is in great shape,” Coggins said. “It will not be just for military families. We’ll bend over backward to make access as easy as possible” for nonmilitary students.

He said, “We’re trying to find more educational opportunities other than Northwood.”

One parent complained, “I feel I have no other choice but to send my child to Northwood. That’s no choice at all.”

She said she hoped her child could attend the new school.

The Lighthouse Academy was the first new public school built in Jacksonville in 30 years. Parents like the new facilities, smaller classrooms and individual attention their children receive.

The school has a simple philosophy. “We believe all children can achieve at high levels,” said principal Ryan Dean. “We prepare all students for college. High expectations get results. We strive for nothing less than excellence.”

There are some two dozen charter schools in Arkansas with nearly 4,000 students, about 1 percent of the public school students in the state. Nationwide, more than 1.5 million children attend charter schools.

The Pulaski County Special School District is slow to release enrollment numbers, but they continue their steep decline.

Changing around the opening bell only days before the new school year has not helped enrollment.

If the trend continues locally, Jacksonville charter schools alone could have more than 1,000 kids in a few years.

The reason for their success?

“We’ve got something special going on,” said vice president Anderson with a smile.