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8 districts propose charter schools in 2021

Pulaski County Special, Ozark Mountain join others submitting letters of intent by Cynthia Howell | April 8, 2020 at 2:24 a.m.

Eight Arkansas school districts, including the large Pulaski County Special School District and the smaller Ozark Mountain School District, have notified the state of intent to open nine conversion charter schools starting in 2021-22.

Additional school plans are being designed by the Batesville, Acorn, Augusta, Cave City, Vilonia and Rivercrest school districts.

Leaders of the districts recently submitted letters of intent to apply for state charters to operate the special focus or special program schools. The full applications are due Aug. 1 for consideration by the Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel in October and ultimately by the state Board of Education.

Currently, there are 29 conversion charter schools in Arkansas with four more approved to open in the coming 2020-21 school year.

If all eight districts follow through with applications for the nine proposed charter schools, and all nine are approved, the state would have 42 special program schools operated by conventional school districts.

In comparison, Arkansas has 25 open-enrollment charter schools with one more to open later this year. Open-enrollment charter schools are public schools but are operated by nonprofit organizations other than traditional school districts. The state has a soft cap of 34 open-enrollment charters. There is no cap on conversion charter schools.

The 640-student Ozark Mountain School District in the Buffalo River region has three campuses serving kindergarten through 12th grade: St. Joe, Bruno-Pyatt and Western Grove.

The proposed Ozark Mountain Academy conversion charter school would constitute a fourth school in the system, serving as many as 250 elementary and secondary students, Assistant Superintendent Andrew Curry said.

"We found that in north-central Arkansas there is a large group of students not being served by public schools right now," Curry said about the target population for the new venture.

Plans for the conversion charter school call for a blend of instructional methods -- the use of a digital, online platform from which students would access assignments while at home.There would also be the possible establishment of one or more regional centers where the charter students could receive more traditional classroom instruction, tutoring and other school-related services.

The charter school planning began well before the March closing of all Arkansas school buildings and the reliance on students and teachers doing their work from home as a way to combat the spread of the virus that causes covid-19. Much of that at-home work in the Ozark Mountain system and throughout the state is making use of online resources.

"It shouldn't be that much of a stress for us to do this," Curry said of the charter school design in the wake of the at-home teaching now occurring.

The school plan calls for partnering with an online company for curriculum but will allow for customizing the lessons as long as education standards are being taught.

"Our goal is to have the premier online learning program for the state of Arkansas," said Kerry Saylors, Ozark Mountain superintendent.

The Driven Academy charter school proposal from the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special district expands on initiatives already underway at the district's high schools and its program for students who wish to be educated at home.

The more comprehensive plan for the charter schools would provide options for students who require home-bound services, offer flexibility for virtual course options, provide accelerated learning and early graduation and present a blend of online and traditional delivered instruction, Superintendent Charles McNulty said in the letter of intent for the Driven Academy.

The Batesville School District is proposing to make its high school and junior high schools conversion charters. The purpose of the high school plan, for example, is to increase college and career readiness of students.

"We will provide students access to personalized pathways that will lead to industry and college-ready skills, knowledge and training that will allow our students to be better prepared to enter college or the workforce," the letter of intent states.

The plan for the proposed Acorn Charter High in the Ouachita River School District near Mena calls for turning the seventh through 12th grade campus into one that focuses on life preparation by teaching relationship skills and developing career plans.

Augusta High School in the Augusta School District is seeking charter school status in an effort to increase the college and career readiness of students who are from demographically isolated areas with generational poverty that has limited student opportunities.

Officials hope the redesign of Cave City Middle School in the Cave City School District would give students meaningful experiences and thus a head start on college and career planning -- before entering the Cave City High School Career and Collegiate Preparatory School.

Rivercrest High School in the Wilson-based Rivercrest School District is proposing a high school structure made up of different academies: a freshman academy, an agriculture academy, a technology academy, a general studies academy and a fine arts academy. Seventh- and eighth-graders, along with elementary school pupils in the district, would be provided with a more exploratory curriculum in preparation for enrollment in the high school academies.

Vilonia K-12 Virtual Academy, proposed by the Vilonia School District, would provide online learning to accommodate the need of some home-school families to have a more flexible schedule while still providing a rigorous, standards-based curriculum.

Metro on 04/08/2020

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