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The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday gave final approval to plans to alter the instructional program and expand the grades at what is now Quest Academy of West Little Rock.

The board voted unanimously for the reconfiguration of the open-enrollment charter school on Rahling Road at a meeting in which it put the brakes on a proposed amendment to the state charter for the KIPP: Delta Public Schools, a system based in Helena-West Helena.

The Quest Academy plan allows for the addition of kindergarten-through-fifth grades and a switch to a classical liberal arts instructional program at what is currently a sixth-through-12th-grade school on Little Rock's west side. The change is to take effect with the 2021-22 school year.

The expansion of the west Little Rock charter school comes at a time when the number of independently operated, taxpayer-funded charter schools is continuing to increase in Pulaski County. At the same time, the traditional Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts have opened new secondary schools in their western sectors.

Responsive Education Solutions, a charter-school management organization based in Lewisville, Texas, had applied to Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel last month to give up its state-issued charter for Quest Academy at the end of this school year and attach the Little Rock school to the organization's charter for Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in Bentonville.

And, with that, the charter-school operators also proposed that the instructional focus at Quest change from technology and career education to a classical education program with its emphasis on stimulating intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and character building -- similar to that in Bentonville. The instructional model calls for students to study foreign languages, starting with an introduction to Latin in the third through sixth grades.

The plan also called for increasing the enrollment cap for Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy from 1,200 to 1,500 students to accommodate both the Bentonville and Little Rock schools.

The Charter Authorizing Panel approved the plan and forwarded it to the state Board of Education. The state board has the authority to accept the panel's decision on charter schools and charter-school amendments or to conduct its own hearing on a proposal before making a final decision.

The Education Board can decide to hold a hearing on its own or at the request of the charter applicant or affected traditional school districts. In this case, no traditional districts challenged the expansion of the west Little Rock school, and Education Board members had few questions about it on Thursday.

Education Board Chairman Jay Barth of Little Rock did ask about the logic of having Bentonville and Little Rock schools that are so distant from each other under the same charter, while Responsive Education Solutions' Premier High School of Little Rock and soon-to-open Premier High in North Little Rock continue to have separate state-issued charters.

Alexandra Boyd, who has been the state's charter-school director, said Responsive Education Solutions' most successful school model is classical education. The Premier high schools, on the other hand, are dropout-recovery schools. As such, the Premier schools have a more difficult time meeting achievement goals that are prerequisites for establishing new, duplicate schools.

In regard to the KIPP charter amendment request, the Education Board will hold a hearing on it at its December meeting.

KIPP school operators had asked for a waiver of a state law that requires specialist/coaches, data coaches and school improvement specialists to hold state teacher licenses if their salaries are paid with a category of state funds that are calculated on the percentage of their low-income students. The Charter Authorizing Panel approved it.

Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne made the motion Thursday to review the proposed amendment at a hearing. She said the state-issued letter grades for KIPP have declined in recent years and she wanted to explore the cause of that. Five of the six campuses earned D's for the 2017-18 school year. The sixth had a C.

Zook pointed in particular to below-state average achievement rates for black students, students from low-income families and special-education students.

"That is a concern to me," Zook said, and questioned whether there are teachers at the schools who do not hold state licenses and are being supervised or mentored by supervisors who also are not licensed or certified in a particular academic field.

Metro on 11/09/2018

Print Headline: West Little Rock academy wins approval for focus shift

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