By most educational standards, LISA Academy, Little Rock’s sole charter school, appears to be a success.
Students at the school, now in its third year, bring home buckets of awards from science and math competitions. They routinely score higher on standardized tests than their peers locally and around the state. The school’s top academic achievers are given as much attention and status as star athletes at other schools.
But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one.
Charter schools are funded with public money and are open to all students. In exchange for producing academic results, they can request waivers from certain state regulations that govern regular public schools. One of the purposes of charter schools, according to state law, is to “Increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as low-achieving.”
Several of the state’s charter schools meet that goal — they’re located in areas with high numbers of low-achieving students, and their enrollments reflect that.
But the others — most notably those in Central and Northwest Arkansas, including LISA Academy — have student bodies that are less diverse and more affluent than the general population in the area.
In other words, they may be successful at producing students who score highly on standardized tests and win top honors at academic competitions, but they have a considerable head start. The real news would be if they weren’t succeeding.
LISA Academy opened in the fall of 2004, with about 150 students in grades 6-8. It now has 360 students in grades 6-10, and administrators plan to add 11th and 12th grades in the next two years — assuming that the state Board of Education votes later this spring to renew the school’s charter. The board hasn’t yet set a date to consider the renewal, but when it does, it will consider the school’s financial and academic performance. It’s not clear whether the renewal process will also include an examination of the school’s demographic make-up, but if it does, administrators may have some tough questions to answer.
In their original charter application, approved by the Board of Education three years ago, the founders of LISA Academy — UALR professors Serhan Dagtas and Ibrahim Duyar — envisioned a college-prep school that emphasized science, math and technology, and listed as one of their goals reaching out to minorities and girls, who are underrepresented in the ranks of professional scientists. The application said the school wouldn’t have a negative impact on desegregation efforts in the Little Rock School District because the organizers hoped to have a similar minority population — 61 percent black.
As an open-enrollment charter school, LISA Academy must admit any student who wants to attend. If more students applied than the school had room for — that hasn’t happened yet — students would be selected through a random lottery.
But that doesn’t mean anyone who wants to go to LISA can. The school doesn’t run school buses, so parents must be able to get their kids to school and home on their own. That can mean that location has a major impact on who is able to attend.
LISA’s founders originally planned to locate the school in the Train Station downtown — which would have made it easier for residents of lower-income neighborhoods in eastern and central Little Rock to get to the school.