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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy Director Lenisha Broadway Roberts (left) smiles after the state Board of Education granted a hearing for the charter school over whether to keep the school open. Khori Whittaker, president and chief executive officer of the national Lighthouse Academies network of charter schools, also expresses pleasure at the decision. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted 8-0 Thursday to hold a hearing next month to determine whether to renew the Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy's state-issued charter that will otherwise expire at the end of June.

The board took the action at a meeting in which it chose not to do reviews of several other charter school renewals and amendments.

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel had voted 3-2 last month against extending the Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy's charter because of low achievement and insignificant or erratic achievement gains in the school's seven-year history. The state charter is necessary for the school to continue to operate and to receive state funding.

Lighthouse Academy leaders appealed to the Education Board to overturn the panel's decision on the Pine Bluff campus, saying that the panel decision was based "on an incomplete understanding of the school's academic outcomes and its larger impact on the Pine Bluff community."

The leaders also noted that the letter grades given by the state to the lower and upper schools at the campus were no lower than the letter grades applied to schools in the surrounding Pine Bluff School District that most Lighthouse pupils would attend if the academy is shut down.

Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy's lower school for grades kindergarten through six received an F letter grade from the state for the 2017-18 school year, down from a D the previous year. The upper school for seventh- and eighth-graders received a D, down from a C the previous year.

The Education Board has the authority to accept the decisions of the authorizing panel on granting, revoking or amending a school's charter or it can choose to conduct its own hearing on charter matters -- either on its own initiative or at the request of an affected charter school or surrounding school district.

Board members did not on delve into the student achievement details for the 270-pupil kindergarten-through-eighth grade campus Thursday, reserving that for the hearing that will be part of the board's regular monthly business meeting at 10 a.m. Feb. 14 at the Arch Ford Education Building, 4 Capitol Mall in Little Rock.

They did, however, agree to take public comment on the matter, including a letter from Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and remarks from Pine Bluff businessman Tommy May.

May said several community members recently convened to review the Lighthouse Academy matter.

"As you know, we have a lot of challenges in our educational system ... and I believe we have been very proactive in trying to do what is right ... for the kids," May said about the Pine Bluff area.

"We did not want to blindly support the school," he said, adding that the community members asked a lot of questions about the school's operations, its problems, possible solutions and its national sponsor, Lighthouse Academies.

"The group was pretty unanimous in wanting to extend time, allowing the school the opportunity to get it right," he said. "No question the panel's decision was well thought out and articulated, and we don't disagree with that. We simply say we have 270-something students and right now -- it's not the right time for those students to be put into the environment that they came from."

May said the concern about the school options for displaced Lighthouse Academy students and the confidence that the Lighthouse personnel has remedies are reasons for the state Education Board to consider the charter renewal.

Both the Pine Bluff and Dollarway school districts in Jefferson County are operating under state control, with state-appointed superintendents and no locally-elected school boards. The Pine Bluff district was taken over by the state late last year. Jeremy Owoh, whom May praised on Thursday, was made superintendent.

Flowers wrote in her letter to the board that closing the school would be premature and that the school needs time to expand on the progress already made in academics, student attendance and community support.

She also said that closing the school would amount to punishment to the campus during a time when schools statewide have been transitioning to the state-required ACT Aspire exams and revised scoring of the English/language arts section of that test.

Education Board member Fitz Hill of Little Rock spoke in support of a hearing on the renewal, saying he was supportive of efforts to maintain the school that features small student-to-teacher ratios over displacing students and putting them into a large school environment.

Education Board members asked to be provided with information about the school for them to consider in deciding whether to renew the charter, including student and teacher attendance records, a breakdown of the elements that went into the school letter grades and a description of the school's reading program.

If the Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy is ultimately closed, it would be the second charter school to close in Pine Bluff in as many years. Responsive Education Solutions voluntarily surrendered its charter and closed Quest Middle School in Pine Bluff at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Lenisha Broadway Roberts, director of the school, attended Thursday's meeting with Khori Whittaker, president and chief executive officer of the national Lighthouse Academies network of charter schools. Neither addressed the board during the meeting.

Roberts said after the meeting that she was pleased with the board's decision to conduct a new hearing on the charter renewal. She also said that renewal of the state charter would allow the school faculty to focus on the academic achievement of students, building on the better discipline and attendance established at the school.

The Education Board on Thursday voted to accept the charter panel's decisions to renew the charter for the Exalt Academy of Southwest Little Rock for three years and the charter for the SIATech charter school, a second-chance high school in Little Rock, for seven years.

Additionally the Education Board accepted the authorizing panel's approval of an amendment to the charter for KIPP Delta Public Schools that permits closing the 97-pupil KIPP school in Forrest City in east Arkansas at the end of this school year and offering those students seats at KIPP campuses in Helena-West Helena.

Metro on 01/11/2019

Print Headline: Hearing set on school charter; education Board to weigh renewal for Pine Bluff academy

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