State Board of Education approves Quest charter school for West Little Rock | Arkansas Blog

State Board of Education approves Quest charter school for West Little Rock

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The state Board of Education this morning declined to overturn the department charter authorizing panel's decision to deny a charter for the Redfield Tri-County Charter School. Board member Alice Mahony, would have given the school two more months to deal with questions raised in the original application, but drew no other board support for her substitute motion. CORRECTION: I wrote incorrectly originally that Diane Zook had offered the motion for a two-month delay.

Board chair Brenda Gullett noted that a vote to reverse the authorizing panel — newly created by the legislature as the first and main point of review of charter applications — would be precedent-setting. Board members indicated that the panel included experienced educators and it should take strong justification to reverse that panel's decision.

That was a harbinger for the ultimate Board decision in the Little Rock School District's appeal of the authorizing panel's approval, without dissent, of the Quest charter middle/high school proposed for Chenal Valley, a majority white, upscale section of Little Rock. The applicants got some questions and remarks about dubious representations on demographic makeup of the school, questionable estimates on revenue and the statement that Quest will "seem like a private school" except be free. Approval was nonetheless forthcoming. And meaningful review now that it's approved seems unlikely, too, based on the Academics Plus annual report review earlier.

UPDATE: Board approves Quest charter school


WALTON LOBBYIST: Gary Newton makes pitch for Quest school.
  • WALTON LOBBYIST: Gary Newton makes pitch for Quest school.
After several hours of discussion, the Board voted 6-2 (chairman Brenda Gullett doesn't vote) to approve the application, despite some criticism of the application and uncertainty about how some of the application's goals will be fulfilled. Board members Sam Ledbetter and Jay Barth voted against the charter

At least two Board members, Jay Barth and Alice Mahony, expressed interest in modifying the charter to cover only middle school grades, the time in which most parents seem to be interested. But the applicants weren't willing to give up the high school grades and the Education Department's attorney said the only options under the law were for the board to affirm or overturn the charter authorizing panel's approval of the application. It could also have asked for more information and held another hearing in a month.

The school will open middle school grades in August in a refitted office building on Rahling in Chenal Valley.

 I wrote the following before the vote:

The Quest hearing began after a lunch break. It opened with a beatdown on the Little Rock School District by Gary Newton, the Walton-paid charter school lobbyist, who also hopes to put his child in the new Quest school. He recited the low test scores in middle schools serving his neighborhood, a tally of police calls to Little Rock schools and the difficulty the district has had in building schools in western Little Rock because of the desegregation case. He pitched the choice for the board as between 224 parents who want their children to attend Quest and two school district attorneys. He then introduced a black parent and a Latino parent to support the application. The situation is described as leaving the "fifth best" elementary school (Roberts) for some of the "worst" middle schools in the state. The scores at Forest Heights or Henderson would, of course, skyrocket if all the Roberts kids attended there, instead of fleeing.

A Latino father with two children in Roberts contended children were being denied an equal education. Immediate, accessible education isn't available from the Little Rock district, he said. Several Quest supporters mentioned the loss of children from Roberts to places other than the Little Rock School District after children move to sixth grade.

Chris Heller, speaking for the Little Rock School District, said Newton had misrepresented discussions in the desegregation case about future school construction. He said there was no talk of "banning" a west Little Rock school, as Newton had suggested. It is not part of the settlement of the case and the School Board has bought land for a new West Little Rock middle school.

Heller noted that the original application for Quest had misrepresented the location of the school. It is in the Pulaski County School District. He also challenged its contention that it will enroll a significant percentage of minority and low-income students. The three closest feeder elementary schools have, at the most, 25 percent low-income children.

More from the hearing follows:

Heller emphasized the inadequacy of money or a plan to transport children from poorer parts of town to Chenal Valley. He said the application showed a lack of familiarity with the city. He said expectations of, for example, enrolling 50 North Little Rock children seemed unrealistic.

Heller noted the CREDO study of charter management organizations had criticized the proposed Responsive Education Solutions, the proposed Quest operator, on its record of achievement with both white and minority students. Heller noted, too, that there'd been growth in test scores in Little Rock and Pulaski schools while scores had eroded at the majority middle-income LISA Academy charter school.

"The most innovative thing about this school will be that it exists," Heller said. He said the application showed nothing new and consisted mostly of jargon.

Heller said the district was working through a state process to build a new school, but it seemed unfair that a charter school could step in and undercut that process.

Heller pointed out uncertainty about revenue, particularly if additional courses are required. The plan provides for no library or school nurse, he noted. 

Sam Jones, attorney for the Pulaski School District said Quest had a "slick, superficially beguiling" presentation. Closely examined, he said, the root can be found on Page 37 in describing the atmosphere: "though the atmosphere feels like a private school, there is no tuition to attend Quest."

Said Jones: There's no way for Quest to attain diversity or any significant number of lower-income children. He said there's no CAT bus route that could serve the school efficiently. The budget provides little for the school's own transportation.

Jones noted the only organizational meeting was held in Pleasant Valley, not a place to attract diversity.

Jones, too, ripped the applicants' description of a classical education, mostly just feel-good words with no specifics. He read some of the application and called it "a lot of jargon." When you drill down through the platitudes, he said, "it doesn't inform you to what the school is going to be about except one thing: It's going to be in an area where it's not going to have a reasonable opportunity to be diverse." He said it will end up being a non-diverse school populated overwhelmingly by one race. He said that wasn't good policy or fair to public school districts.

Responsive Education officials said its schools most often meet testing proficiency standards while most Little Rock schools do not.

Board member Diane Zook continued her on-board advocacy for charter schools by saying she'd gone out in the neighborhood and found working people in the area who don't live in the area who were excited about being able to put their children in a school near their jobs.

Jerry Guess, the Pulaski superintendent, responded that the district has schools nearby, including Robinson Middle, and seats available there.

Vicki Saviers asked Heller for a time line on getting a middle school built. He said it could be done in three years, but would require a millage increase. What could be done in the meanwhile? Heller said there would be many more seats in existing magnet schools, for one thing. The Forest Heights makeover also holds magnet-style possibilities for hundreds of students.

Saviers said there was a problem with middle schools across the city and indicated she understood concerns of parents. Heller said a lot depends on what "people are there." That is, a school with 80 percent poor children is much different than one with 20 percent. This brings me back to my own thought that quick fixes for several middle schools would be their use by parents who don't want to go to them. "The rub is convincing those families to attend those schools," Saviers said.

Board member Sam Ledbetter asked how Quest would get schools in poor middle schools into their school. A spokesman said the school is open enrollment, but a lottery is required for excess demand. Once those children are chosen, then the school can work more specifically on insuring they attend. Ledbetter said he was hoping the answer would be a commitment from the school to get that distant child to school. "I don't hear you making that commitment," he said.

Board member Alice Mahony said parents who'd written her in support of Quest had not made a request for high school, which also would be allowed if the charter is approved. Chuck Cook, CEO of the management organization, said he wouldn't want to pull the high school request from the application though he said its eventual establishment would depend on demand. He said some parents had expressed interest in a high school to him.

Cook said his organization might like to open another middle school in Little Rock.

Board member Jay Barth wanted to know what the school would do with a drop in funding that would come if the percentage of poorer children drops from the 78 percent originally estimated to the 35 percent now estimated. More state support is supplied schools with more poor students. School authorities say the budget is flexible and if dollars drop, spending will decrease, beginning with teachers and supplies. The school still thinks it could finish the year with a $30,000 surplus and the national organization will stand behind it.

Barth asked if the Board could amend the application to a 6-8 charter rather than a 6-12 charter. The department's lawyer indicated the only option was to approve or deny the application as it is.

After Saviers issued another criticism of Little Rock middle and high schools, Heller acknowledged the need to improve Little Rock schools, but said that didn't mean taking children elsewhere should be the solution.

Ledbetter asked what would be unique and innovative at Quest and how it intended to share those keys to success with public schools. Chuck Cook said diagnostics were different. He said Quest would deliver direct, independent and "connected" instruction (the last is described as project-based). The "delivery side" is "very innovative," he said. The small size — about 200 students — is "huge." He said the school will push students to consider life beyond and after school. Jerry Guess said the Quest aims were "admirable," but "we've been doing those for 40 years." He observed that devoting part of the day to "independent study" means a reduction in staff, a time when students aren't working with a teacher.

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