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State panel backs charter changes

4 schools offering plans for digital learning academies by Cynthia Howell | May 19, 2021 at 4:20 a.m.
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, a woman types on a keyboard in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel on Tuesday endorsed amendments to the state-issued charters held by four high schools to accommodate school plans for operating digital learning academies in the upcoming 2021-22 school year.

The panel of state employees and other interested residents voted unanimously in support of the plans that will now go to the state Board of Education in June for final action.

The panel also endorsed and will send to the Education Board a proposal to attach the Pine Bluff and Capital City Lighthouse Academy campuses to the state charter held by the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy, resulting in a single charter for campuses in three cities.

The four conversion charter high schools that received the preliminary approval for their digital learning academy plans are Siloam Springs High School, Lincoln High School, Harrison High School and Mountain Home Career Academies.

The schools constitute the initial round of charter schools that are seeking changes to the terms of their charters to allow for digital academies in which students can complete some or all of their academic programs online from remote locations.

Deborah Coffman, assistant commissioner for accountability and chair of the nine-member authorizing panel, said there are 15 more charter systems that are similarly asking for changes in charter terms to permit the digital learning academies. Any approved amendments to the charters will remain in place until the charters expire.

About 150 of the state's 238 traditional school districts are asking for waivers for up to five years of some state rules and laws for the same purpose -- operating digital learning academies starting in the 2021-22 school year. The Arkansas Board of Education approved one school district's digital academy proposal last week and has a work session set for 9 a.m. Thursday to get a better understanding of the digital learning plans and the requested waivers before taking up more applications at a special meeting May 27.

The opportunity to offer digital learning academies comes after the current year, in which many school systems scrambled to provide remote, online instructional programs to students who opted to learn from home as a defense against covid-19.

In January, the state Board of Education set a May 1 deadline for the state's school systems -- including charter schools -- to propose any plans they might have for continuing remote instruction.

Kiffany Pride, the state's assistant commissioner for learning services, said the agency's staff put together a digital learning guidebook for the school systems that highlights the kinds of decisions to be made about an academy, such as whether the program will feature live online instruction, recorded instruction for viewing later or a combination of the synchronous and asynchronous instruction.

The Learning Services Division has also preapproved waivers of state rules and laws, or new charter terms, that allow alterations to:

• How student attendance is recorded.

• The minimum number of clock hours of instruction required for a course and for an instructional day.

• The maximum number of students per class.

• The maximum number of students assigned to a teacher.

The division staff has done an extensive review of the proposals that were submitted, Pride said, adding that the staff will continue to monitor high-risk components of digital academies over time.

Don Benton, assistant commissioner for research and technology, told the authorizing panel that the agency staff "dug really deep" into the proposals and that those that were advanced to the panel met "every single requirement."

"We learned a lot of lessons this past year," Benton said. "There was a lot of trial and error this year, and now we are implementing lessons learned."

Panel member Phil Baldwin asked whether the state was moving too quickly on new rules for operating digital schools.

Panel member Naccaman Williams questioned the process for enrolling students in the digital programs and whether there are "guardrails" against placing unreasonable student and course loads on teachers in digital instruction.

Coffman said the school systems set those caps.

Mary Claire Hyatt, an attorney for the division, said state law already permits assigning more than 150 secondary students -- without additional compensation -- to teachers of 100% online, remote lessons. No change in charter terms or waiver of state law is required on that, she said.

Stewart Pratt, superintendent of the Harrison School District, said his district's plan is to cap the number of students per secondary teacher to 160, which is 10 above the state standard for grades five through 12 except for classes that are conducive to large enrollments, such as physical education and band.

Williams, the panel member, called the foundation work done on the digital academies "outstanding" and said that "it's not the wild, wild west anymore" of trying to adapt during a pandemic.

Jody Wiggins, superintendent of the Siloam Springs School District, said his district has had a long-standing plan to offer a virtual instructional program and that the pandemic accelerated the plan. His district started this school year with 700 virtual students, a number that has since dropped to 225. About 175 students have applied to learn remotely in the coming year.

Wiggins also said that his district has capped its class size at 60 for virtual instruction in the elementary grades and at 180 for the secondary level.

"We won't have that many, I don't believe," he said.

The larger numbers of students per teacher would be offset by the district's plan to use the Florida Virtual Academy learning management system that eliminates some of the work -- such as lesson planning and the development of tests -- for the Siloam Springs digital teachers.

In response to questions about a digital class day, Wiggins described how an algebra teacher would teach live classes twice a week using the Zoom online meeting platform and also would prepare asynchronous lessons -- which are recorded lessons for student viewing at a different time -- throughout the week. On top of that, struggling students would be provided support individually or in small-group sessions, using Zoom, that are arranged by the teacher.

"There will be a lot of follow-up by our teacher, making contact with the students, making sure they get the instruction they need," Wiggins said.

LIGHTHOUSE CHARTER

Also on Tuesday, the Charter Authorizing Panel voted in support of the request to allow the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy to absorb the Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy and the Capital City Lighthouse Academy, resulting in one charter license with multiple campuses.

The charter name would become the Arkansas Lighthouse Academies.

All campuses would retain the waivers of Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy. The current grade levels at each campus would remain the same.

Additionally, the charter school system is seeking to alter the terms of the charter that call for a 190-day student school year with eight hours of instruction per day, to be reduced to the state minimum of 178 student days with six hours of instruction per day. That would allow for a summer enrichment program, charter system operators said Tuesday.

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