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story.lead_photo.caption The remodeled and expanded Larson Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is now an eStem Public Charter High School. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

EStem Public Charter High School has closed the book on its first semester at its new location on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus -- but not without growing pains.

The UALR faculty senate has sent a set of recommendations to university leaders calling for a hold on eStem's 10th-through-12th-grade enrollment at the 2018 level until problems -- including rowdy behavior and overcrowded dining and library spaces -- can be resolved.

The charter school's enrollment was supposed to top out at 450 this school year, according to a memorandum of understanding between the two institutions, but is 465. That is 10 less than the 475 count envisioned for the coming 2018-19 school year, as well as under the 600 number set for 2019-20, the 700 for 2020-21 and 1,125 in 2026-2027.

"This is our approach as faculty to try to do our due diligence -- both to our students but also to this partnership -- to make sure that it has a chance of working," Andrew Wright, the president of the faculty senate, said in an interview Monday on the faculty senate's unanimous vote.

"We'll eventually find a way to get this to a good place. But we also need to remember that not many places have even attempted something like this. It's a very, very new, very, very original thing. So, hopefully, we can discover ways in which the two institutions can complement each other."

John Bacon, chief executive officer of eStem Public Charter Schools Inc., also noted the one-of-a-kind public high school-public university partnership.

"It would make sense that we are going to have to make some adjustments and learn as we go," Bacon said. "But we definitely believe our concept is solid and we know that our kids are excelling.

"I respect the feedback and say we look forward to working with UALR. I hope the faculty staff and students can all be involved in the planning for the second semester and beyond."

The eStem High School was previously located at Third and Louisiana streets in downtown Little Rock but, in an agreement with the university, remodeled and expanded the university's Larson Hall to house the high school, which is a part of a growing kindergarten-through-12th-grade charter school system.

The taxpayer-funded, independently run system currently operates an elementary and a junior high in downtown Little Rock in addition to the high school. A second elementary and junior high are to open in July in east Little Rock, south of the Heifer Project headquarters.

All the schools will channel students into the high school.

Faculty members went through the fall 2017 semester, observed and gathered feedback on the university's relationship with eStem. That process, Wright said, helped illustrate some policy gaps and some strains on resources that the university needs to fix.

Among the problems is overcrowding. As an example, the high school students may take up seats in dining hall areas at the Donaghey Student Center, leaving little room for university students. The problem has also cropped up at the university's library and its gymnasium, two facilities that the high school campus does not have at that location.

Another challenge revolves around the population of both schools: A high school campus has teenage students, while an average UALR student is 26 years old, said university Chancellor Andrew Rogerson, who noted that the faculty members -- not administration -- drew up the recommendations.

Both Wright and Rogerson said their partnership is unique and referred to the problems that have come to light as "growing pains." Neither said they see the problems as insurmountable.

Bacon said changes are in the works or already being made. The school will put into place next school year three lunch periods instead of two to reduce crowding in the Donaghey Student Center.

Already in this new semester, parents have been notified of strict adherence to rules requiring student drop-offs and pickups to occur behind University Plaza (which is at University and Asher avenues), and not directly in front of the high school building. Parents will be fined for student pickups and drop-offs at unauthorized spots.

Additionally, starting this week, students are no longer permitted to go to the Donaghey Student Center or to the university's Ottenheimer Library after school, Bacon said. Students may remain in the eStem building until 5 p.m. but must be picked up by then or parents will be charged $1 a minute for those late pickups.

High school student noise during the period of college finals was listed as a concern by the faculty senate.

"Our goal is that our high school kids will learn from the model of the college kids and what college behavior is," Bacon said. "We'll continue to work on that, making sure our students adapt and adjust and integrate ourselves into the university environment. That is part of the reason we are there."

The charter system pays the university for high school student access to the Donaghey Student Center's retail dining areas and to the fitness and recreation areas, according to an amendment to the original memorandum of understanding between the institutions. This year that fee is $133.33 per student, which is paid by the charter school system.

The charter school system plans to incrementally increase its population at a time when the university is also aiming to enroll 15,000 students in five years. Enrollment is now about 11,625. Rogerson, who was selected as UALR's leader after the agreement with eStem, said he did not take into account eStem's plans for growth when setting UALR's goal.

Asked what would happen should eStem grow more than planned, Rogerson said "I would assume that they are going to hold to the [memo of understanding]," a document both parties are using to "guide the future."

If eStem abides by the student-enrollment guidelines, the university will have 18 months to resolve the challenges in a mutually beneficial way, Rogerson said.

He added that a group of six -- three administrators from each school -- meets regularly to do so, though the faculty senate has requested a committee of teachers from both institutions to help establish and maintain a code of conduct as well as an "on-boarding orientation" for eStem students.

In its recommendations, the faculty senate cited concerns about inadequate classroom space for university students if eStem High grows as projected. The high school will expand into as many as 15 classrooms in the adjoining Ross Hall, starting in 2021-2022, to accommodate the charter school's anticipated enrollment growth.

Wright said the Ross Hall rooms are mostly used for mathematics courses, and the university hasn't figured out where to relocate them.

Rogerson said he's expecting most of the university's growth to come from commuter students -- the university has targeted students from local high schools to save money by attending their regional university -- and many of those students are likely to attend part time or take evening classes.

In that regard, he said, it is possible to still have both populations -- high school and college -- on the campus.

"The facility structure is something we'll have to talk about in the future," he said.

Bacon said high school leaders are very pleased so far with the school's operation, the behavior of students and their academic growth.

"We want to be responsive and proactive in planning so that the growth can be managed in a way that the university can feel good about it and we can also feel like our kids are succeeding," Bacon said.

A Section on 01/23/2018

Print Headline: Crowding a problem on UALR-high school campus

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