Saturday, February 22, 2014

Quest charter school changes locations; question remains on enrollment policy

Posted By on Sat, Feb 22, 2014 at 6:53 AM

click to enlarge NEW CHARTER NEIGHBORHOOD: Quest school now plans to use this commercial building on Hardin Road, off Financial Center Parkway.
  • NEW CHARTER NEIGHBORHOOD: Quest school now plans to use this commercial building on Hardin Road, off Financial Center Parkway.


click to enlarge screen_shot_2014-02-22_at_6.52.09_am.png
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning that the newly approved Quest charter middle school, originally planned for a site on Rahling Road in Chenal Valley, will move several miles east to 400 Hardin Road, near I-430 and Shackleford Road.

This puts it almost eight miles from Roberts Elementary on Highway 10, the target population for rising middle school students, and about two miles from a middle school in the Little Rock School District, Henderson. It is judged a failing school by Quest parents because of low test scores. I suspect it would no longer be a failing school if all Roberts students migrated there, but that's not likely to happen.

I hope the Democrat-Gazette will soon look into an issue that Quest's major backer — Walton-paid charter school lobbyist Gary Newton, whose aunt Diane Zook was among the votes on the state Board of Education for creation of the charter school — refuses to discuss  with me.

The Democrat-Gazette article again today referred to Quest as an open enrollment school, with students  to be chosen by lottery where demand exceeds the supply of seats. But Newton has also mentioned an enrollment preference for "founding parents."

A preference for founding parents is an aspect of federal law that has been used in other cities to game the charter school admission process. Education Week reports on how the system was used in Los Angeles:

To become a founding parent requires not only time but also money. The first prerequisite is satisfied by volunteering at a particular school long before the child is ready to apply for admission. The second involves payment that usually comes to a minimum of $2,500. The only restriction to the arrangement is that founding parents cannot constitute more than 10 percent of the school's total enrollment. The rule is supposed to apply only to schools that are beginning. However, the time period is not defined. As a result, a charter school that has been in existence for a time can add new founding parents.

Making matters even more unfair, charter schools are permitted to implement a first-come, first-served policy. That means those who want to become founding parents anxiously hover around their computers waiting for the announcement that a school is accepting applications. According to an analysis by L.A. Weekly of the 200 charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one-third grant a preference to founding parents (or variants of the term).

What about parents who work two jobs? Even though they want the best education for their children, they can't afford to do volunteer work or donate money. As a result, they are effectively shut out. For example, Larchmont Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles is 54 percent white and 17 percent Hispanic. But Van Ness Elementary School, which is only a few blocks away, is 5 percent white and 71 percent Hispanic.

I don't know what's contemplated for the Quest charter school. Newton won't talk to me about it.  Perhaps the Democrat-Gazette can get an answer.

One question I had for Newton from today's article was whether the move to a new location was contemplated a month ago when the state Board of Education approved the application, which specified the site on Rahling Road. An absence of a Little Rock or Pulaski district school near the neighborhood was a factor in arguments for the charter school approval. The article leaves an impression that the deal fell apart and a new site was found and pinned down within the last five weeks.  Newton remarked to the D-G that  charter schools are hampered by the state's requirement to tie up property before classes start.  Doesn't seem so bad. A solid idea of where a school is to be located could be important to potential parents. Nonetheless, it would appear from this transaction that the charter operators can move pretty quickly. Fact is, little hampers charter school creation in Arkansas now. Demonstrated lack of performance on test scores and failure to meeting founding promises are no longer relevant, based on recent state board decisions.

Quest will be operated by Responsive Education Solutions of Texas. The group operates three other charter schools in Arkansas and additionally holds three management contracts to help run charter schools within three public school districts. The company has come under fire for poor performance in the CREDO study at Stanford and also was slammed for religion-influenced science instruction and faulty history instruction in a recent article in Slate. The Slate criticism prompted the chain to say it would make changes in some of its biology workbooks on account of criticism over its teaching of creationism.

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