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Strong roots for e-Stem 

Successful students give new charter competitive advantage.

FIRST DAY: Estem opens its doors in July.
  • FIRST DAY: Estem opens its doors in July.

Three charter schools opened in July in the former Arkansas Gazette building at Third and Louisiana to challenge traditional public schools to produce better results, supporters say. To stimulate the competitive urge, be an example, show the way.

But the schools have an advantage at the starting line.

Students transferring to the three e-Stem Public Charter Schools from public schools — more than half of whom came from the Little Rock School District — scored significantly higher on benchmark tests last year than their classmates as a whole. (Data was available for 406 students entering grades four through nine.)

So if these e-Stem students outperform students in traditional public schools this year, it would be a continuation of past performance and not necessarily a reflection of superior teaching or course offerings.

For example, only 46.6 percent of last year's fourth grade students in the Little Rock School District, 54 percent in the North Little Rock District and 59 percent in the Pulaski County School District scored proficient or advanced in literacy last year. But 77 percent of e-Stem's incoming students from those schools scored advanced or proficient. For every grade tested, e-Stem students outscored their classes, with the exception of third grade math in the county district.

LRSD, NLRSD and the PCSSD supplied 81.9 percent of e-STEM's student body, said Joe Mittiga, chief operating officer of the non-profit organization that manages the schools.

What the figures suggest is that e-Stem — which has 859 students in three schools — drew some of the best students in the county away from the public schools. Critics have long feared “cream-skimming” by charter schools such as e-Stem. Whatever else, those kinds of students should give e-Stem charters a competitive advantage in achieving the national No Child Left Behind directive to reach 100 percent proficient or advanced on benchmark scores by 2013-14.

Benchmark figures for e-Stem students who came from home, private or other charter schools don't exist, but John Bacon, executive director of schools, characterized the student body as “pretty diverse in terms of ability and motivation.” He said e-Stem's administration “will hold ourselves and our teachers accountable” to make sure every e-Stem student improves academically at a rate higher than the average growth for students who tested at the same level.

“If our students are not growing academically every year, we will not be getting the job done and will refocus our efforts,” he said. If they do, teachers and staff “will receive a handsome financial reward” in merit pay supplements of up to $10,000 a year.

E-Stem touted its location, in downtown, as offering the best charter combination — an innovative, advanced curriculum in a location easily accessible to low-income (and underperforming) students — for improving education. But for the first year, the charters attracted a student body markedly different from the Little Rock School District in which it sits and different in ways that tend to predict better education results.

E-Stem, for example, did not attract the same percentage of poor kids as the Little Rock School District. E-Stem students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — a common measure of a school's low-income population — amount to about a third of the enrollment, executive Bacon estimates. (He did not have firm figures last week.) In contrast, about 62 percent of the students in the LRSD qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. 

The number could be blamed on transportation issues, Bacon said. There is no free busing to the school; children may get city bus passes for $18 a month from Central Arkansas Transit. Bacon made a rough guess that 100 students now ride the bus. He believes the number will grow.

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