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Goodwill school to open new campuses

Digital-learning plans also OK’d by Cynthia Howell | July 10, 2021 at 3:28 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The Excel Center, a charter high school in Little Rock for students 19 years and older who did not earn a diploma, received state Board of Education approval Friday to establish campuses in Springdale, Jonesboro and Fort Smith.

The Education Board approved the Goodwill Industries-sponsored Excel Center expansion plan at a meeting, where it also continued to work through the applications from school systems to operate digital learning for remote learners in the upcoming 2021-22 school year.

State Education Board approval of the Excel Center plan includes raising the enrollment cap from the current 350 students for grades nine through 12 to 1,050 students statewide to accommodate up to three new campuses at addresses not yet identified.

The existing Excel Center at 7400 Scott Hamilton Drive in Little Rock is one of 31 Goodwill Industries adult high schools in the nation, but it is the only campus in Arkansas and the only campus in the network that doesn’t receive any state funding.

The Arkansas charter school opened in 2017-18 to provide adults 19 and older with a way to earn a high school diploma as well as work toward industry certificates for jobs such as fork lift operators, welders and pharmacy technicians.

The school provides in-person classroom instruction in the core academic subjects, representatives of the program said Friday. Other features of the the tuition-free school are the traditional and flexible class schedules for its students, free on-site child care for students with children and city bus passes to aid in student access to the center.

Additionally, a life coach is assigned to aid each student in overcoming barriers that prevented their earlier graduation, locating old transcripts and setting life goals. The school faculty includes a bilingual educator and a special education provider.

The Little Rock school’s operating cost of $8.5 million is raised almost entirely from the sales of donated items to Goodwill, Goodwill and Excel representatives said Friday.

School plan leaders are Brian Marsh, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas, Greg Wertenberger, Excel Center’s school director, and Markous Jewett, vice president of mission services.

In response to questions from the board, Education Secretary Johnny Key said the Excel program is by law ineligible for traditional state funding for kindergarten through 12th grade schools or for General Educational Development programs that offer high school-equivalency certificates.

“The consensus of this board is that we will do whatever we can to help you,” Education Board Chairman Ouida Newton of Leola told the school expansion planners.

REMOTE LEARNING

Also Friday, the board approved digital-learning plans — and accompanying waivers from state rules and laws — for five open-enrollment school systems and 10 traditional school systems.

They are among a total of 152 of the state’s 262 traditional school districts and open-enrollment charter school systems to submit digital learning applications to the state after school systems scrambled this past school year to offer online instructional options as a way to combat the spread of the contagious and potentially fatal covid-19 virus.

Education Board members asked about the instructional plans of districts that have not applied for digital learning academies in the event of a covid outbreak on their campuses or in classrooms this coming year.

Districts can use their state approved Alternative Methods of Instruction days for those days when they need to pivot to online instruction for up to 10 days, according to the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. The division said it is continuing to work through plans for cases in which schools might need to provide online instruction for more than 10 days.

SCHOOLS AND DISTRICTS

Remote learning plans were approved Friday for the following open-enrollment charter schools: eStem Public Charter School, Graduate Arkansas, LISA Academy, Friendship Aspire Academy-Little Rock and Friendship Aspire Academy Southeast-Pine Bluff.

Digital learning plans were approved for the following districts: Augusta, Mountain Pine, Ozark Mountain, Shirley, Marked Tree, Nettleton, Melbourne, Watson Chapel, Pine Bluff and South Side Van Buren.

Before Friday, the Education Board had approved about 100 plans and will hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday to consider more plans.

The school districts are providing the digital learning method in a variety of ways to families who choose to have their students educated away from a standard classroom.

Some districts are providing their own lessons that will be taught by their own faculty, who in some cases will simultaneously teach in-person and online students.

Other districts are relying on curriculum and teachers from education vendors such as Edgenuity or Pearson, or from the long-standing Virtual Arkansas organization that provides course work.

Still, other school systems have arranged to have their state education service cooperatives to provide the instruction.

In January, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Education Board invited school districts to submit virtual instruction plans for the coming school year.

With that invitation came the offer of waivers of state rules and laws that cap maximum class sizes to no more than 30 students, limit teacher workloads to no more than 150 students, require 120 clock hours of instruction per course and six-hour instructional days, set student attendance requirements and require a minimum number of recess minutes.

Not all the newly approved plans incorporate all the waivers.

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