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6 organizations file to open 7 charter schools in state

by Cynthia Howell | June 4, 2021 at 3:48 a.m.
FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

Six organizations have submitted initial applications to the state to establish seven new open-enrollment charter school campuses, five of which are proposed for Pulaski County and two are planned for Fort Smith and Hope.

The proposals include plans for the Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy to be located in Pulaski County for up to 800 high school students and for the Inspire Academy Charter School in Hope that would focus on elementary and middle school pupils who have had traumatic life experiences.

Final applications from the nonprofit organizations are due July 15 for consideration later this year by the state Charter Authorizing Panel and, ultimately, by the Arkansas Board of Education.

All of the proposals could be approved without exceeding the state's cap of 34 on the number of open-enrollment schools. Arkansas has eight open-enrollment charters available to award for schools that would open no sooner than the 2022-23 school year. Currently, there are 24 active open-enrollment charter schools or charter school systems in the state, and two more have been approved to open in the coming 2021-22 school year.

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No specific location within Pulaski County has been finalized yet for the proposed Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy, school planners said in the initial application this week.

The sponsoring organization for the school is American Quality Schools, which is headed by Michael Bakalis, who is described as the founder and/or operator of 19 charter schools and one private secondary school since 1999.

Paul G. Vallas, the contact for the proposed school, is a former chief executive officer of public schools in the major metropolitan cities of Chicago and Philadelphia. At one time, he headed the Recovery School District of Louisiana. Vallas -- in those positions -- oversaw the operation of more than 100 charter schools, including 11 military academies, according to the Arkansas charter school application.

The Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy plan envisions students working in "a focused, college preparatory environment guided by a team of teachers and retired military instructors who bring unparalleled experience to the classroom. The expectation of the academy is that cadets will develop their minds, bodies and character in an atmosphere where active learning stimulates curiosity."

The school would feature a Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps curriculum, a tiered student leadership structure and cadet chair of command, a college preparatory curriculum, personalized learning plans and an instructional day of 420 minutes as compared with the state requirement of 370 minutes, according to the application.

The proposed Inspire Academy Charter School is being sponsored by the Southwest Arkansas Education Cooperative to be located within the boundaries of the Hope School District.

Planners anticipate starting the school with as many as 48 children in kindergarten-through-third grades and growing to 96 pupils in kindergarten-through-seventh grade by the 2026-27 school year.

The school's purpose is to provide students who have had adverse or traumatic experiences with a safe environment and a staff that understands trauma and its impact, and so can provide the students with strategies to heal from the trauma. Campus employees will have extensive training in trauma-centered teaching. Monica Morris is the contact for the plan.

The proposed IDEA Public Schools Arkansas, sponsored by IPS Enterprises Inc., operates more than 100 academy and college preparatory schools in Texas and Louisiana.

The organization is now proposing two sites -- as yet not selected -- one in southwest Little Rock and one in North Little Rock.

"Each IDEA campus opens with two schools on a site," the application states, adding that each school "will grow by one grade level each subsequent year until a campus is fully kindergarten through 12th grades."

The IDEA model calls for high-intensity, teacher-led instruction in the early grades, including the Direct Instruction, which is a nationally used teaching strategy. In the upper grades, every student would take a minimum 11 Advanced Placement courses, which are the College Board-developed courses that give students the opportunity to earn college credit for their high school work.

The Arkansas IDEA schools, if approved by the state, would not open until the 2024-25 school year to give potential school leaders time to train as principals-in-residence at existing IDEA campuses. Teachers are selected through a rigorous vetting process that includes sample teaching and role playing to assess skills and ability to improve practice based on coaching and feedback.

Free transportation would be provided to students.

Daniel Fishman, senior vice president of growth for the sponsoring organization, is the contact.

The proposed Premier High School of Fort Smith, sponsored by Responsive Education Solutions of Texas, would be the fourth Premier High School in Arkansas, if approved by the state. Others are in Little Rock and North Little Rock. One is to open in Springdale this coming 2021-22 school year.

Dennis Felton Jr. is the contact for the proposed school that would focus on students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. The proposed school would use a personalized, self-directed, technology-based and accelerated curriculum, according to the proposal for up to 300 students in grades nine through 12.

The Legacy Leadership Academy, sponsored by Baskerville Squared Inc., would be at 3801 John F. Kennedy Blvd. in North Little Rock for up to 450 students in grades kindergarten-through-eighth grades.

The school design calls for balancing academic achievement -- especially in reading, writing composition, math, science and social studies -- with physical and social-emotional experiences.

"We want the roles of the teacher and the roles of the students to change," the application states. "We want teachers as facilitators rather than directors. We want our students to be self-directed and have more ownership of their learning and of their goals. The ultimate goal is movement toward child-centered learning to raise expectations of our students across each grade level."

Tien Nguyen is listed as the chief operating officer and contact.

The proposed Southwest Innovation Leadership Academy, sponsored by the Ministry of Intercession that does business as Bridge-2-Success, would serve up to 300 students in grades six through eight, starting with 150 sixth-graders in the 2022-23 school year.

The school would be at 3409 Baseline Road in Little Rock, which is the site of the existing Bridge-2-Success Youth Center.

The proposed school would feature curriculum that promotes critical thinking and student accountability, the charter application states. In recognition of the importance of family involvement, students would be assigned a family advocate to help families with needs that are relevant to student success.

The contact is Ronald Wilkerson Sr. The chief operating officer is Shelia P. Wilkerson. The Wilkersons are in-laws.


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