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story.lead_photo.caption Rachel Carpenter (left), a music teacher at Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers, shares information Saturday about the school at the annual Northwest Arkansas School Choice Festival. Representatives from dozens of public and private schools offered information about the varied education opportunities in Northwest Arkansas at the event held at The Jones Center in Springdale. The group, NWA School Choice, put on the event. Music, crafts and prize drawings were part of the festivities. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

SPRINGDALE -- Laura Cole attended the Northwest Arkansas School Choice Festival on Saturday to survey the educational options for her two children, ages 7 and 9.

Cole's children are home-schooled, but she's looking to place them in one of the area's schools. Her primary concern was what kind of tests, if any, the schools would require them to take before enrollment. She was pleased with her experience at the festival.

School Choice Week

Today marks the start of National School Choice Week. The goal of National School Choice Week is to raise awareness about the K-12 education options available to children and families while highlighting the benefits of school choice.

Source: Staff report

"They actually had people who knew what they were talking about," said Cole, a Bentonville resident. "If you had a question, they had someone there who could answer your question."

The annual festival brought representatives of about two dozen traditional public school districts, charter schools and private schools together at The Jones Center so parents such as Cole could easily learn what each option offers.

Cole's son was most impressed by the Arkansas Arts Academy, a charter school in Rogers.

"They had a bunch of people over there who are very passionate," Cole said. "He loves drawing, so they could talk to him about all the stuff he likes."

The festival was organized by Northwest Arkansas School Choice, started by Martin Schoppmeyer, founder and superintendent of Haas Hall Academy. Haas Hall, a charter school, has campuses in Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale.

Schoppmeyer was impressed by the turnout, which he believed to be double that of last year's festival.

"I think Northwest Arkansas is really showing the rest of the state, 'hey, we can all work together and be better,'" he said. "I just hope it continues and we see them all over the state, big events like this to try to bring everyone together for the common cause, and that's to educate our young men and women."

Admission to the festival was free. Swimming and ice skating at The Jones Center were free as well. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge both attended and spoke at the event.

Patrick Wolf, professor and endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform, also spoke. He's found through his studies when school choice expands in a community, traditional public schools are motivated to improve so families want to keep their children in those schools, he said.

He applauded Schoppmeyer for starting the festival, but also encouraged parents to continue researching the school options available.

"After you've identified some schools that appear to be a good fit for your child, visit those schools," Wolf said. "Have your child shadow students there. I found in my research that parents who visit more than one school before making a school choice tend to be much more satisfied with the school they select, because it's a more informed choice."

Michelle Hightower, assistant principal of St. Joseph Catholic School in Fayetteville, stood at her school's table at the festival. In talking to people there, she said she realized many families don't fully understand all the educational options available to them.

Administrators weren't the only ones representing the schools. At the table of Springdale's Har-Ber High School, students Erick Soto, Georgia Milhem and Isaac Antony told visitors about everything their school has to offer, from the academics to the extracurriculars.

Milhem, 17, a junior, spoke enthusiastically about her involvement in student council, National Honor Society and the band. She added the school encourages her to serve her community.

"Even though we have really great academics, we also have really great organizations that allow us to have fun," Milhem said.

Focus STEM Academy is a school that doesn't actually exist yet, but that didn't stop organizers from attending the festival and spreading the word about the charter school they hope to open in Bentonville in the fall of 2019 for grades five through eight.

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel narrowly rejected the group's application last year. The group plans to resubmit its application this year.

"We wanted to take the opportunity to generate more public support, which is one of the reasons we're out here today. We feel like that was part of our application that was lacking," said Micah Cummings-Sparrow, the school's executive director.

Melanie and Dave Pelkey of Springdale attended the festival with their son, a sixth-grader. Melanie Pelkey said they came because her son is curious about other schools.

"It was great to have all the choices together so that we don't have to look them all up on the computer. We could actually walk around and talk to people," Pelkey said. "Some people were extremely enthusiastic and others were very informative and helpful and gave guidance and suggested ways to find out more information."

NW News on 01/21/2018

Print Headline: Festival highlights school options in Northwest Arkansas

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