Panel gives thumbs-up to Little Rock charter school

Plan is to expand, offer all 12 grades

A proposal to alter the academic program and expand the grades served at what is now Quest Academy of West Little Rock won unanimous approval Thursday from the state's Charter Authorizing Panel.

The school plan would in effect add elementary grades beginning in 2021-22 to an already operating sixth-through-12th-grade school on Rahling Road on Little Rock's west side.

The plan will now go to the Arkansas Board of Education in November for final action. The Education Board has the authority to accept the panel's decision or conduct its own hearing on the matter -- either on its own initiative or at the request of the school planners or a nearby traditional school district -- before making a decision.

The proposed 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.

The Little Rock district's leaders, in particular, are preparing a districtwide facility plan to be presented in the next few weeks that could include a new high school option to be housed in the former Leisure Arts office building next to Pinnacle View Middle School in the northwest part of the city.

However, those preliminary Little Rock School District plans have centered on a possible specialty high school that would focus on technology or another special feature. Parent leaders in the area have asked in response for a more traditional public high school, possibly developed in conjunction with the Pulaski County Special School District.

Responsive Education Solutions, the Lewisville, Texas, charter management organization for Quest Academy and a handful of other Arkansas charter schools, had applied to:

• Give up Quest Academy's separate charter with the state at the end of this school year and attach the Little Rock school to the organization's Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy, a charter school that serves kindergarten-through-12th grades in Bentonville.

• Transform Quest Academy from a career education and technology-focused program for middle and high school students to a classical academy similar to that in Bentonville, beginning in the 2021-22 school year.

• Increase the enrollment cap for the Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy from 1,200 to 1,500 students to accommodate both the Bentonville and Little Rock schools.

Steven Gast, the superintendent of Responsive Education Solutions schools in Arkansas, told the panel Thursday that the classical liberal arts education program is a time-tested, academically rigorous way to stimulate intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, virtuous character-building and a lifelong passion for learning.

The organization's classical academy model calls for students to study foreign languages starting with an introduction to Latin in the third-through-sixth grades.

"The whole purpose of our amendment is to take a giant step forward in west Little Rock and replicate the success that we currently have." Gast said, highlighting for the panel the accomplishments of the Bentonville campus, which has received A letter grades from the state based on student test scores and other factors.

Gast told the Charter Authorizing Panel on Thursday that planners for a new classical academy anticipate purchasing land and constructing a building that would house the classical academy's upper and lower grades, starting in 2021-22.

He expects the new school to resemble the classical academy the Responsive Education Solutions recently opened in Frisco, Texas.

The existing Quest Academy would continue to operate for grades six through 12 until the new building opens.

No one spoke in opposition to the classical academy plans at Thursday's panel meeting.

In response to questions, panel members were assured that the charter school leaders would return to the state for approval of a new school location once that location is identified.

Ivy Pfeffer, Arkansas' deputy education commission and the chairman of the charter panel, asked about the preparation of teachers to provide the classical liberal arts education.

Gast said that training would occur before the opening of the school in 2021-22.

Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy was approved earlier this year by the state Board of Education for a 10-year renewal of its state charter.

NW News on 10/20/2018