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Return to school presents thorny issues this year

Online-instruction charters seeking state’s OK to raise enrollment caps by Cynthia Howell | July 9, 2020 at 7:30 a.m.
FILE -- Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale.

The covid-19 pandemic is prompting some open-enrollment and district-run charter schools -- ones that feature online instruction -- to ask for state permission to raise their student enrollment caps.

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel is to act on the requests for student enrollment increases for the Arkansas Virtual Academy, and for schools in the Fayetteville, Springdale and Cabot school districts, at its 10 a.m. meeting Tuesday.

At the same meeting, the charter panel is to consider a proposal by Responsive Education Solutions of Texas for the opening of a kindergarten-through-12th-grade Classical Academy charter school on Dodson Road in Rogers.

A classical academy in Rogers would mirror the Northwest Classical Academy in Bentonville and the plans for a classical academy in Pulaski County at what has been Quest Charter School of West Little Rock.

The charter schools are asking for some large enrollment increases -- reflecting efforts by the school systems to be ready to serve students who can't or won't be able to attend classes in a traditional school classroom in the coming year because of the coronavirus.

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The Springdale School District is asking to enlarge its Don Tyson School of Innovation enrollment from 2,000 to 23,000, which is about the entire enrollment of the state's largest school district.

The Fayetteville School District is asking to expand its Virtual Academy maximum enrollment cap from 500 in fourth-through-12th grades to 5,000 in kindergarten-through-12th grades.

The Arkansas Virtual Academy, based in Little Rock but serving students statewide, is asking to increase its enrollment cap from 3,000 to 4,000 students.

And the Cabot School District is asking for a 500-student increase to 1,000 for its Academic Center for Excellence charter school.

The proposed enrollment increases come at a time when parents are being asked to decide what their children's school setting will be for the 2020-21 school year.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key have said traditional school campuses will open to students for face-to-face instruction Aug. 13, but schools also must have online instruction programs at the ready with the flexibility to blend face-to-face and online instruction, and to pivot from one to the other in the event of a viral outbreak.

To help the districts prepare for the different instructional scenarios, the state Board of Education late last month approved a set of waivers of some state laws and rules regarding school operations for virtually all districts and charter school systems.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Wednesday that the newly approved block of waivers did not include a waiver of the state-set maximum enrollment caps at charter schools.

As a result, Mundell said, the charter schools that want to increase their enrollment caps must go through the regular charter amendment process of applying to the Charter Authorizing Panel for approval. The decision of the panel -- made up of state agency leaders and interested members of the public -- is then subject to review and a final decision by the state Board of Education.

Unless other arrangements are made, state board votes on enrollment caps would likely occur at the board's Aug. 13 meeting -- which will be the first day of school in most Arkansas districts. If the state Education Board has concerns about an enrollment proposal and chooses to conduct its own hearing into a request, that hearing typically occurs the following month, which would be September on this matter.

Jim Rollins, who was Springdale School District superintendent at the time, wrote to Key last month saying that the request to increase the Don Tyson School of Innovation cap from 2,000 to 23,000 is necessary "to serve our students during this unprecedented time.

"This will allow any Springdale student who wishes to be served 100 percent virtually to access the Don Tyson School of Innovation Virtual Innovation Academy," said Rollins, who has since resigned from the district. "VIA currently serves students in grades six through 12 virtually and will offer virtual instruction to students in kindergarten through fifth grades beginning in the fall," Rollins wrote.

Operators of the Fayetteville School District's Virtual Academy are seeking the state panel's approval -- and ultimately approval from the state Education Board -- to increase the maximum enrollment cap from 500 students in grades-four-through-12 to 5,000 students in kindergarten-through-12th grades.

In May, the Fayetteville academy had 178 students.

"Recently, we assembled a Ready for Learning Committee to assess the needs of parents, staff, and students," Fayetteville Superintendent John Colbert wrote to Key about the expansion. "One of the questions that continues to arise is around virtual learning. In 2016, Fayetteville Public Schools opened the first district conversion charter online school in the state. The charter allows our district to enroll students in grades 4-12.

"We would like to extend enrollment in Fayetteville Virtual Academy to K-12 students, in order to prepare for the reopening of schools and to meet the requests of our Ready for Learning Committee," Colbert wrote.

The elementary and secondary education division has urged every district to establish a Ready for Learning Committee to help with planning for the unusual circumstances of the 2020-21 school year.

The Arkansas Virtual Academy currently has 2,813 actively enrolled students and about 575 applications in the works, giving the school a projected midsummer count of around 3,250, according to documents filed with the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. That projected enrollment exceeds the academy's current maximum enrollment count of 3,000.

"Enrollment increase of 1,000 students to a total cap of 4,000 ... [would] ensure any student requesting admission in the current COVID crisis is not turned away," said Amy Johnson, head of Arkansas Virtual Academy.

The Cabot School District is asking for a 500-student increase, to 1,000 students, for its Academic Center for Excellence.

"Presently, our Conversion Charter, Academic Center of Excellence or ACE, is set up as an [alternative education] program and serves students in that model," Superintendent Tony Thurman and his staff wrote to the state agency.

"However, we are requesting that an additional pathway for students enrolling in the Cabot Panther Digital Academy be created that is not the traditional [alternative education] setting. Students in the Cabot Panther Digital Academy are not placed there, but choose to enroll in a virtual learning option. Therefore, the normal support mechanisms needed for at-risk students in an [alternative education] setting would not be required.

"Students enrolled in our Panther Digital Academy would only come to campus for required assessments and receive a majority of their instruction asynchronously," the waiver application states. "As such, we would like to have the flexibility to raise the maximum student load for our seventh-through-12th-grade teachers from 30 to 60 per class and 150 to 200 daily."

Regarding the proposed Classical Academy charter school in Rogers, Responsive Education Solutions Superintendent Steven Gast is asking the Charter Authorizing Panel to approve a student enrollment cap of 2,500 -- up 1,000 -- to accommodate a new campus.

The proposal calls for eventually converting the existing Northwest Classical Academy in Bentonville from a kindergarten-through-12 school into a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, and high school students being assigned, in 2024-25, to the new campus in Rogers. The Rogers campus would offer kindergarten-through-12th grades.

In his presentation materials for the Charter Authorizing Panel, Gast said the expansion is necessary to meet demand. The Bentonville campus had 848 applications for 87 open seats for the coming school year.

Because of the covid-19 pandemic, the Charter Authorizing Panel meeting will be available only via livestream at the following link:

Public comments to the panel will be accepted only by email or postal mail. Public comments should be received by 10 a.m. July 13. Comments can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to the Arkansas Department of Education, Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, Charter School Office, No. 4 Capitol Mall, Slot 21, Little Rock, AR 72201.

The agenda for the meeting is available at


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