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Charter school invasion

A record six charter schools want to open here; but failures around the state cast a shadow.

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It's been a bad year for charter schools in Arkansas — so far, anyway.

The state Board of Education approved three new ones to open this fall, but two others closed last spring because they lost too many students and ran out of money. Two others are facing serious financial problems.

But the year may yet take a better turn. In a couple of weeks, the state Board of Education will begin considering the record dozen applications to open charter schools next year — including six that hope to locate in Little Rock or North Little Rock, twice as many as last year.

They may fare better than last year's crop — the three approved were out of 11 applications. Several of the “no” votes were 5-4, and one of the consistent “no” voters — Calvin King — is no longer on the board. Several of this year's applicants — including two in Little Rock — are repeats from last year who weren't eligible by law for approval because they didn't have their 501c3 non-profit status papers in hand on the day of their application hearing. They won't have that problem this year.

So who are they? And why so many in Little Rock?

The answer to the second question is sheer numbers, said Caroline Proctor, director of the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at the University of Arkansas.

“When they take the mass of kids and the number of schools on the improvement list, you're naturally going to be drawn to this area and Delta,” she said. Four of this year's 12 applicants would locate in the Delta; the remaining two are from Northwest Arkansas. In previous years, state law limited the number of open-enrollment charter schools in each congressional district to six. The legislature removed that restriction last spring, although there is still a cap of 24 charter schools total statewide (10 are currently operating, including three in Pulaski County).

Proctor — with the financial backing of the Walton Family Foundation, which endowed the resource center and awarded $20,000 start-up grants to several applicants — had her hand in most of this year's applications, from suggesting curriculum and assessment systems to wholesale design of the school. The result is applications that have quite a few similarities, although their overall programs have different focuses and different goals.

Open-enrollment charter schools are publicly funded, independent schools run by any non-sectarian, non-profit group — parents, educators, community organizations. (School districts can also apply to convert an existing school to a charter school operated by the district.) The schools can request waivers from various laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, and are supposed to be held accountable for students' test scores in the same way that traditional public schools are. By law, they must accept any student who wants to attend, and hold a lottery if more students want to enroll than the school can hold. They're also required to demonstrate an “educational need” for the program they want to offer. The theory is that charter schools will promote innovation, and provide an alternative for students whose needs aren't being met in regular public schools.

Nationwide, the laws that govern charter schools vary widely from state to state, as do the numbers of charter schools. Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and they're now allowed in 40 states. Charter schools have been legal since 1995, but actual charter schools were slow to appear, and the oldest currently operating dates only to 2001. Arkansas also has a much smaller number of charter schools than many states.

The Walton Family Foundation is a major supporter of charter schools across the country as well. In 2006, the foundation gave more than $55 million to charter schools, about $270,000 of it in Arkansas. Most of that was in the form of $20,000 start-up grants for charter school applicants; $100,000 went to HAAS Hall in Farmington, which has struggled financially for several years.

Although freedom from state regulations is supposed to play a major part in charters' ability to be innovative, in practice, the laws and regulations charter schools seek waivers for in Arkansas tend to be for nuts-and-bolts issues like teacher licensure — charters generally say they want the freedom to hire teachers who may have expertise in their subject area, but aren't certified — and salary schedules or regulations on school year start and end dates, school nurse or guidance counselor staffing, and school board structure. The schools generally don't need waivers to focus their programs on a particular academic area like science or performing arts.

Some Arkansas charters — most notably KIPP Academy in Helena — have had some success. Others, by virtue of their location or program emphasis or both, have developed into oases for affluent families whose children weren't struggling at all in traditional public schools. In terms of test scores, a report done for the state Board of Education last year showed that in general, the state's charter school students don't score much differently than their demographic and regional peers in traditional public schools.

The half-dozen applications for Central Arkansas are a mix. Five plan to locate near low-income neighborhoods. Two of those have an overt focus on at-risk students. One is an extension of LISA Academy, a charter school with a focus on science and math that has drawn criticism for locating in West Little Rock after stating in its initial application that it would locate in an area more accessible to low-income families. The extension would be in North Little Rock.

The Central Arkansas hopefuls:

• E-STEM. This is actually three schools in one: elementary, middle and high schools that would share a location — the Arkansas Gazette Building, provided at an extremely hospitable rate by owner Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and an ardent charter school advocate.

According to the school's application, its focus — and the explanation of its name — is “the student of the economics related to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Students would also study Latin in elementary school, Spanish in middle school and Mandarin Chinese in high school. The schools would operate independently — and submitted separate applications to the board of education, so theoretically one part could be approved and other denied — but are designed to flow together with a common curriculum.

Proctor actually designed the school, she said, at the request of several parents who wanted a school with that focus but didn't want to operate or design it themselves.

One of those parents is Michael Scoles, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas and formerly head of a now-defunct charter school resource organization.

“It's geared toward training students from a very young age to enter the work environment where they can be leaders in the use of technology,” he said.

Scoles said he wanted to locate downtown so students could use public transportation to get to the school, and also because of the neighborhood's concentration of resources, including the Main Library and museums. Proctor handled most of the lease negotiations with Hussman, Scoles said, and there's no other connection with him or the Hussman Foundation. The schools would, however, feature a merit pay system for teachers and administrators — a favorite cause of Hussman's.

E-STEM is the only charter program that Little Rock School Board member Larry Berkley voted to support — this year or in years past. (Local school boards vote on whether to support a charter that wants to operate in its district, but the state Board of Education has sole authority to approve or deny charter schools.)

Berkley said he supported e-STEM because he liked the program and thought it offered something different.

“We need to stop having a knee jerk reaction to anything new and innovative that comes forward,” he said.

• Learning for Life Academy. A repeat applicant from last year, this school would serve grades 4-8, with a focus on at-risk students and their parents. The school's organizers hope to buy the closed Rightsell school from the Little Rock School District. Reginald Hampton, former president of Shorter College, has spearheaded the application process but said he's not sure yet if he would actually direct the school if it's approved.

“The main focus of our school is to try to get to these kids before they get into a life of crime,” Hampton said. “We feel if we can get to them at this age, they're pretty well able to go on from there if they get that background.”

Little Rock School Board member Micheal Daugherty voted to support Learning for Life's application.

The state Board of Education voted to deny Learning for Life's 2006 application unanimously because the school didn't have its 501c3 approval in hand on the day of the hearing. That problem plagued several schools, but it won't be a problem this year: the state legislature changed the law so that applicants need only prove that they've applied for non-profit status at their approval hearing, and have the final papers in order by the first day of school.

• Covenant Keepers College Preparatory Charter School. Another repeat applicant focusing on at-risk children, with plans to locate in Southwest Little Rock. It would serve 180 kids in grades 6-8, eventually extending through the 12th grade, said Valerie Tatum, the school's would-be director. Tatum is currently director of the health science department at Henderson Middle School.

Parents in Southwest Little Rock desperately need an alternative to the area's public schools, Tatum said.

“Cloverdale and Mabelvale [middle schools] are both in year four of school improvement,” she said. “We want to bring another choice outside of the traditional public school. We're just bringing hope to an area I truly feel has been forgotten.”

• LISA Academy-North Little Rock. This would be an expansion of the LISA Academy campus in West Little Rock, which focuses on math and science. It's drawn criticism for locating in an affluent area after stating in its original charter application that it wanted to locate in a disadvantaged area and serve at-risk students. The school's minority population is far below that of the Little Rock School District overall. The North Little Rock campus would initially have 300 students in kindergarten through eighth grades, eventually expanding to 500 students through the 12th grade. LISA Academy is also applying to open a third campus in Springdale.

Hearings before the state board of education will go over at least two days, starting Nov. 5. Last year, the process stretched over four months, but Mary Ann Brown, director of the charter school office at the state Department of Education, said her office has been working to streamline the process this year so that board members spend less time dealing with the applications and school organizers have more time to get their schools off the ground if they're approved.

State board members' openness to charter schools varies widely. Several votes last year split 5-4.

On one end is Ben Mays, veterinarian from Clinton and crusader for accountability in schools' spending on sports. Mays voted to approve only one charter school last year — Dreamland Academy, an elementary school in Southwest Little Rock with a focus on performing arts.

On the other end is Naccaman Williams of Springdale, who works for the Walton Family Foundation, a major financial supporter of charter schools nationwide. Williams voted to approve six of last year's applicants — the most of any board member. Several of his “no” votes were on schools that couldn't legally be approved because of their 501c3 status.

Williams said his willingness to grant charters isn't influenced by his employer. And although the question of whether it's even proper for him to vote on charter school applications has come up, he said he doesn't see a conflict. There's “absolutely not” any pressure from the Walton Family Foundation to vote for charter schools, he said, even though they provide financial support.

“No one ever even asks me or talks to me about what I'm doing on the state board,” he said.

As for Mays, he said he doesn't oppose charter schools wholesale, but doesn't think they're the answer to the state's education problems. Charter schools are a “fringe approach,” he said.

“Before we start allowing a bunch of other charter schools we ought to look at our definition of adequacy and follow it,” he said.

Mays said he voted for Dreamland because it had a good program and because it followed the spirit of the state's charter school law in focusing on a group of students that weren't succeeding in traditional public schools.

“It's not that I have a big problem with charter schools, as long as what they're doing what the spirit of the law that allowed charter schools said they should do — as long as we're not using the charter school process to create little publicly funded private-school-like atmospheres,” Mays said.

This year's applicants will have the benefit of a more streamlined approval process and a state board that is now accustomed to dealing with large numbers of applicants (in previous years, only a handful of organizations applied for charters in any one year).

That may mean more charter schools open their doors in the fall of 2008. Whether it means they'll have any better luck than the ones approved in previous years remains to be seen.

Dreamland, for instance, got off to a fairly rough start. The K-5 school, which rents space from Second Greater Baptist Church on Geyer Springs Road, began the year with about 300 students. It was down to 240 by early October.

The school's superintendent, Carolyn Carter, blamed some of the loss on parents who mistakenly thought their kids would be in a more private-school-like environment.

“We attracted students, some of whom had some at-risk factors,” Carter said. “They just needed us to work with them a little bit, but some of the parents didn't feel that was to their liking, so they withdrew their students and put them in more traditional settings.”

The school also started the year in cramped, temporary quarters because their permanent space wasn't ready, and some of the performing arts programs still aren't completely up and running, Carter said.

Carter's previous experience includes working for a Florida company as a consultant for other charter school applicants, as a deputy superintendent in two public school districts, and as an education professor at Eastern Michigan University.

Dreamland is “getting there,” she said. But it'll lose a significant amount of funding along with those 60 students.

And that doesn't bode well. Other charter schools have closed — or come very close — after losing too many students, and the funding that came with them.

Last spring, both Arise Charter School in Monticello and Focus Learning Academy in Conway closed their doors after losing too many students and the funding that came with them. In June, the state board of education voted to begin the process of closing Imboden Area Charter School, which serves a high number of special needs students, because of financial instability. A grant from the Walton Family Foundation gave the school a temporary reprieve, however, and the board voted to put it on probation for one year.

And HAAS Hall Academy, a charter high school in Farmington, has struggled financially as well. The family of school director Martin Schoppmeyer donated money to the school to help overcome projected deficit spending; the state board voted 6-2 in June to renew the school's charter, although Mary Ann Brown, the department of education's charter school office director, said she had no assurances that the school was making progress toward financial stability. This fall, Schoppmeyer applied to open a second charter school — a middle school in Fayetteville called Northwest Arkansas Science and Math Intermediate.

Locally, Academics Plus, one of the state's oldest charter schools — and former employer of Caroline Proctor, who had a less than amicable split with the school's board two years ago — came very close to surrendering its charter last year after the student population dwindled and the school ran out of money. Parents raised enough to finish out the 2005-06 school year, and aggressively recruited new students.

New administrators got the school back on firm footing. It finished the 2006-07 school year with more than $200,000 in the bank, and this year added kindergarten to the existing grades 3-12. There are about 400 students enrolled, with 130 on a waiting list, principal Buster Lackey said. School leaders are now turning their sights toward building a permanent home that can hold 1,300 students, he said. They plan to add first and second grades as well.

Survival has meant counting every penny and doing all the maintenance work with volunteer labor, Lackey said. It was also crucial that he had experience with running non-profits, and the school's superintendent, Mona Briggs, had decades of experience in public school administration. Charters whose administrators don't have that kind of background won't succeed, he said.

“Because they've had no nonprofit experience, no experience working with the state department of education, they're setting themselves up to fail,” he said.

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