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Is it legal? Will it open?



Jackie Y. Jackson, the originator of the all-boy charter school that got the OK to open its doors in July from the board of the state Department of Education two weeks ago, doesn't believe the restrictions placed by the board on the school are legal.

In a vote Dec. 14, the board required the Urban Collegiate Public Charter School for Young Men for grades K-8 to make sure that 80 percent of its enrolled students either qualify for free or reduced lunches or have scored basic or lower on the state's academic Benchmark Exams.

The restriction is one no other charter school has been required to meet. But the proposal comes at a time when the Little Rock School District is arguing that charter schools threaten to re-segregate district schools and after other charter schools have failed to live up to their promise to enroll under-performing students. State board member Dr. Ben Mays described the requirement, which he proposed, as a “pretty good way of making a compromise that dealt with all of those situations.”

The charter application states that the school, which will serve a maximum of 696 students, would likely serve a population that was 85 percent African-American. During discussion before the board on whether the charter would harm desegregation, Scott Richardson of the state attorney general's office said the school's makeup might benefit the majority-black Little Rock district. In a later interview, board member Jim Cooper agreed. “I don't think there's any common sense argument that I could find that it would resegregate” the Pulaski County school districts.

State charter regulations would seem to prohibit the ADE from imposing an enrollment requirement related to academic achievement. The rule says a charter school must be “open to all students, on a space available basis, and shall not discriminate in its admissions policy on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, athletic performance, special need or proficiency in the English language, and academic achievement.” Federal charter law, however, refers to “academic or athletic eligibility,” rather than achievement.

ADE staff attorney Jeremy Lassiter, asked by Mays whether the board should adhere to its rule or the law, said law trumps rules. The board will discuss whether to alter the rule at its January meeting, Mays said.

Jackson said the restriction will make the enrollment process more complex. But she is undaunted. “We're not going to stop” working to create the school, Jackson said. She added she would step up recruitment efforts in the 72209 and 72204 zip codes in Southwest and South Little Rock that the school is expected primarily to serve.

An all-male school, the UCPC charter application says, can better address the trend in poor achievement among boys. The school environment will be “more boy-friendly and productive,” the application says, in its choice of reading materials, an emphasis on physicality and competition, and experiential learning. African-American and Hispanic males score worse on tests than any other student subset in Arkansas.

Jackson, the prime mover in the UCPC, said she's been working on the idea of an all-male charter school for three years, but began research on the idea of all-male education years earlier because of the difficulties her son, Ryan, was having. (She also has two daughters, both of whom are good students, she said.)

When Ryan was a pre-K student, Jackson said, she was told by his public school teacher that “ ‘He's got three things working against him: One, he's black; two, he's male; three, he's not focusing.' ” The teacher's attitude didn't sit well with Jackson. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, let me look at this again.' ” She ended up home-schooling him in 4th grade, and said she spent most of that time building up his self-confidence. His experience, she said, applies to many boys. Ryan is now a student at eSTEM charter, but will attend UCPC next year.

At their meeting Monday, several board members expressed reservations about Urban Collegiate's application for charter status, saying it was short on specifics and noting that Jackson's was the only name that appeared anywhere in the proposal. The vote to approve the charter was unanimous after Mays' enrollment amendment was adopted.

The charter proposes to teach etiquette as well as traditional subjects and an enhanced foreign language curriculum that includes Arabic and Chinese.

Jackson assured the board that she'd consulted with several high-profile educators and noted that Dr. Fitz Hill, president of Arkansas Baptist College; Steve Straessle, principal of Catholic High School, and Dr. Pat Hoy of Little Rock, who teaches expository writing at New York University, would be part of a committee to hire a principal and vice-principal. Naccaman Williams, education program officer for the charter-promoting Walton Family Foundation and chair of the state board, reminded fellow members that the school does not have to have a principal before a charter is issued.

Jackson told a reporter that Caroline Proctor, a former charter school leader and consultant in the field, had helped her create the framework for the application. She said she also consulted with educators, including some in the Little Rock School District.

Straessle said his role in the school has been “very minor” but that he had accepted the invitation to be part of the hiring committee. “I'm particularly impressed with their strong desire to proceed with this,” he said. “They have a strong passion.”

Straessle, as head of an all-boys school, said the most obvious benefit is that there are fewer distractions — “there are forces of nature at work when boys and girls are in the same classroom” — and that the all-male environment allows boys to be more reflective. He said boys will rise to high expectations or sink to low ones.

Toyce Newton, another member of the state Board of Education, expressed concern about transportation to the UCPC charter, saying the parents' good intentions to get their kids to school absent a school bus weren't enough. Jackson said the school would budget to pay for kids to ride city buses. City buses, she added, “Have got air in summer and heat in winter. And how many incidents have you heard of on city buses?”

Jackson acknowledged the long haul ahead. A former GM truck dealership at 4601 S. University must be remodeled before school starts in July. Teaching and administrative staff must be hired, furniture and materials must be bought. A food plan must be worked out, as well as arrangements with a library.

But, she said, potential administrators have already sent in resumes and people in the community have volunteered to teach some of the school's more unorthodox classes, like Arabic and Chinese. “Everyone wants to help.” She said she does not plan to fail.



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