The state Board of Education today voted down an expansion request by the LISA Academy, the charter school in western Little Rock, near I-430 and Markham Stret. It was seeking to add grades 4 and 5 and to increase enrollment from 600 to 800. It has plans to build a new high school building.
Only two board members, Sherry Burrow and Toyce Newton, supported the expansion. Board chair Naccaman Williams did not vote. (I wrote incorrectly originally that Vicki Saviers was one of the yes votes.)
Earlier, the Board voted fiscal distress status for two school districts, Dermott and West Side Cleburne County.
LISA claimed superiority in test results to schools locally, but it was an apples-to-oranges comparison, as Board member Ben Mays pointed out. "Of course you have better scores because they [neighboring schools] have free and reduced lunch rates of 65 to 70 percent. But when you compare it with those with 25 percent [LISA is at 27 percent], there's not much difference." Scores for black students are higher than black students in the area as a whole, but LISA officials couldn't say if their black students came from higher income backgrounds, as Mays asked.
Mays said he wasn't surprised that school could be successful "assembling a group of socially advantaged students out of a district where they are in short supply."
Mays said the charter school should make the case that they deserved special consideration. "You can go into an urban area and design a school that either by accident or intent assembles a group of students who are much higher on socioeconomic scales than schools around you and you can have better test scores. That's obvious."
Board chair Naccaman Williams, who works for the Walton Family Foundation in its effort to finance charter schools and education reform, objected to May's effort to find out the socio-economic background of black students at LISA. He said the number isn't compiled for other public schools. But Mays argued LISA had to meet a higher standard if it was going to seek waiver on the argument that it did a better job with black students.
Mays said race wasn't his main concern. Rather it's haves vs. have nots. "I don't see anything about this charter that convinces me that what they're doing in the classroom is what makes their scores look good, it's who walks in the classroom."
Board member Toyce Newton noted LISA's college prep orientation and the likely attraction it had for motivated parents and students, moreso than at-risk students. But she, too, thought it unfair to seek data the state didn't compile and voted for the school expansion.
The board heard that LISA didn't outperform schools with similarly low percentages of disadvantaged students and it also heard that its current high school students show shortcomings in standardized testing. Several board members noted the drop in LISA enrollment from middle school to high school years as students transfer back to Little Rock public high schools. This prompted a comment from Brenda Gullett about the need for a discussion about the transfer of middle school students in Little Rock public schools to charter schools. One explanation, of course, is the lack of a middle school in western Little Rock. The Little Rock School District objected to LISA's creation because it offered no programs not already available in Little Rock and was situated far from populations of minority and disadvantaged students. Former board member Baker Kurrus has said its creation decimated, to name one, the Dunbar magnet middle school's award-winning math team. LISA has consistently enrolled a lower percentage of minority and disadvantaged students than the Little Rock School District.