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story.lead_photo.caption Lori Freno (center), general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, speaks during a department meeting held at the Arch Ford Building in Little Rock in this Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, file photo. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Arkansas Virtual Academy can increase its enrollment by 1,500 -- from 4,000 to 5,500 in kindergarten through 12th grades.

The state Board of Education approved the enrollment-cap increase on Thursday when it passed a motion to not review a decision made last month by the Charter Authorizing Panel.

Both decisions were unanimous.

Amy Johnson, head of school at the Virtual Academy, told the state Board of Education that the academy has "just over" 100 students on a waiting list.

Johnson said the board approved an enrollment-cap increase of 1,000 a few months ago, and those slots were filled "much more quickly than expected."

Board member Sarah Moore asked Johnson why she's requesting an enrollment-cap increase of 1,500 when she only has 100 students on the waiting list.

"The real reason we're asking for that is for some runway," said Johnson. "When we can't really predict what the virus is going to do, what virtual options are going to do with longevity. ..."

Johnson said the 1,500 increase also would keep her from having to "continually reappear" before the panel and board to request another enrollment-cap increase.

According to a presentation in the board's meeting packet, the Virtual Academy has 4,000 current students, 112 on a waiting list and 915 applications in process.

The Virtual Academy is based in Little Rock and has students in all 75 counties with concentrations of students in the most populous regions of the state. The school provides students with computers and printers.

Teachers provide instruction but parents or grandparents in the home serve as learning coaches for their students.

Johnson told the board the academy is fully staffed right now and it plans to continue to hire staff members.

Johnson said the student-to-teacher ratio at the Virtual Academy is 60-to-1 in the elementary school, 47-to-1 in the middle school and 150-to-1 in the high school.

"This is very good news in that it gives us latitude in our cap to be able to effectively serve the students of Arkansas for any future needs that arise, especially in light of covid," Johnson said after Thursday's meeting. "We've been at cap and wait-listed with students waiting to enroll since Aug. 30. This ensures that students who choose can have a consistent and continuous educational experience without interference of the effects of the pandemic."

Johnson said the school can begin to increase enrollment immediately.

"We can open enrollment back up today and will continue with enrollment with start dates through the first couple of weeks of November," she said in an email. "Enrollment will stay open but start dates will shift at that point t to January and the new semester.

"We'll continue to on-board and orient students as they come to us."

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