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story.lead_photo.caption Dedrick Sims with the Sims-Fayola International Academy in Pine Bluff answers questions Thursday for Arkansas Department of Education attorney Mary Claire Hyatt during a Charter Authorizing Panel meeting in Little Rock. The panel voted to deny a charter for the school. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel on Thursday rejected three applications for new open-enrollment charter schools in Searcy, Pine Bluff and Hartford, increasing to six the total number of applications denied this week. One was approved.

The panel's decisions on all seven applications for the 2019-20 school year and beyond are now subject to final action by the Arkansas Board of Education, which has the authority to accept the panel decisions or conduct its own hearing on any one or all of the proposals. The Education Board can choose to conduct a hearing on its own initiative or at the request of the charter planners or the traditional school districts in which the schools would be located.

As a result of the panel's split votes this week on the applications, the number of state-issued charters for independently run, publicly funded schools and school systems will go from 26 in this 2018-19 school year to 27 in the 2019-20 school year -- if none of the current schools close. The state's current cap on state-issued charters -- which are contracts between schools and the state -- is 34, according to the Department of Education. That, however, is a floating cap that can increase as the number of state-approved schools increases.

The charter panel, made up of top level state Department of Education staff and interested residents, rejected applications for the following:

• The Seven Arts Lyceum, a statewide virtual school to be physically based in the Searcy School District for up to 700 students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

• Sims-Fayola International Academy for up to 200 boys in grades five through eight within the Pine Bluff School District.

• Sugarloaf Valley Academy for up to 300 students in grades kindergarten through 12 in Hartford, which was recently consolidated into the Hackett School District.

The school applications considered Thursday were strikingly different and were denied for a variety of reasons.

The Seven Arts Lyceum School was proposed by Likewise Inc., a 501-c-3 nonprofit organization, which was previously established at least in part to provide college programs to prison inmates.

Mary Claire Hyatt, an attorney for the Education Department, told the charter panel Thursday that she had concerns about Likewise Inc. and what she saw as its ties to religion.

She said that the state's approval of the organization's charter school plan could result in a violation of charter school rules and laws that prohibit open-enrollment charter schools from religious offerings or program operations. Eligible entities to operate charter schools are those that are nonsectarian in their programs, policies and operations, Hyatt added. Sectarian is defined as being of a particular religious sect.

"That's a pretty big legal concern," Hyatt said about the issue and the potential of sending taxpayer money to a religiously affiliated organization.

Jeff Kreh, president of the nonprofit organization, said the organization's access point into the prisons was through the chaplaincy services, which required the organization to be something nonsectarian but also not atheistic so that the chaplain's office could champion the organization.

"We have no religious denomination or religious sectarian entanglements at all," Kreh told the charter school panel. "We are not ashamed to be Christians but we do not limit our student involvement in any way based on whether someone has a specific faith or does not have a specific faith," he said.

Kreh also said that there are no stand-alone Bible courses for the purpose of indoctrination of a denomination but only for academic study and debate.

Panel members voted 4-1 with panel member Mike Wilson casting the sole opposing vote. They cited the religion issue and also questioned whether the proposed high school course offerings complied with the minimum 38 courses required by the state for high schools.

"I'm not seeing it clearly," Education Department Deputy Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer said about the "crosswalk" between the proposed courses for the school and the state requirements.

"We needed this information prior to today," said Pfeffer, the panel chairman who had also questioned the lack of a line item in the school's first-year budget for teachers.

The charter panel put the brakes on the approval of Sims-Fayola International Academy for Boys in Pine Bluff after learning that a similar school started by Pine Bluff native Dedrick Sims in Colorado was closed after three years.

Sims blamed the closure on his rookie mistake of diverting his attention from the Denver campus to starting schools in other parts of the country.

"I lost the eye on the prize in terms of being there," Sims said about the school that featured hands-on project learning for its sport-coat and necktie-wearing middle school boy students.

The Sims Fayola Foundation Inc. received state of Arkansas approval last year to open the Southeast Preparatory Academy, a charter high school, in Pine Bluff this year. It started Monday.

Panel members said they wanted to see progress there.

"I like the model you are bringing to Pine Bluff, but there are concerns," panel member Naccaman Williams of Springdale told Sims. "Give it a year. Get this school up and running. Have a good, successful year and then come back again and have these details worked out. We want you to be successful because it is about kids."

"If you don't pay attention to history, you are prone to repeat it," Williams also said, noting the potential similarities in Arkansas to the conditions that led to problems in Colorado.

Panel members opposed the Sugarloaf Valley Academy, citing a lack of identified need in the area for the school, the lack of significant innovation in the program and its financial viability based on a potentially small enrollment. The Academy would be in Hartford, south of Fort Smith.

John Harris, a retired school improvement officer for the state Education Department, had said the school would stand out in terms of its parent engagement efforts and character education.

He said the school could operate with as few as 65 students and, as a charter school, could draw enrollment from some 22 small communities in Northwest Arkansas. He denied that the school plan was to circumvent the recent closing of the Hackett School District, which fell below the minimum enrollment for maintaining a school district.

The Charter Authorizing Panel's approval of just one out of seven proposed schools for opening in 2019-20 contrasts with last year's approval of five out of nine proposals. Two of the proposals rejected this week were also rejected a year ago.

The single application approved by the panel this week was the Premier High School of North Little Rock, a second-chance high school proposed by Responsive Education Solutions, a charter school management organization based in Lewisville, Texas.

The applications turned down Wednesday were Pioneer Schools, proposed for 1,000 in kindergarten through 12th grades, in a low-income area of North Little Rock; Focus Academy of the Arts and Sciences, a kindergarten through eighth grade school for 900 in Bentonville; and Prolific Learning Arts Academy, for 350 in ninth through 12th grades in southwest Little Rock.

Focus Academy of Arts and Sciences in Bentonville and the Prolific Learning Arts Academy applied this year for the second consecutive year.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center that advocates for charter schools, said Thursday that the charter panel this week "did a good job of thoroughly vetting the applications and coming to some right conclusions."

He said charter school growth can take different forms other than just the new applicant process. Charter school organizations that are already established in Arkansas, for example, can expand or add campuses through an amendment process rather than new applications, Smith said.

Metro on 08/17/2018

Print Headline: 3 more charter schools denied

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