eStem to delay K-8 expansion plan by one year | Arkansas Blog

Friday, November 13, 2015

eStem to delay K-8 expansion plan by one year

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 3:41 PM

click to enlarge ESTEM: It has delayed its application for expansion from its one school at Third and Louisiana to new facilities at UALR and east of I-30 downtown.
  • ESTEM: It has delayed its application for expansion from its one school at Third and Louisiana to new facilities at UALR and east of I-30 downtown.
eStem, the downtown-based charter school that hopes to expand to 5,000 students in 10 years with a new middle school east of the freeway and relocation of its high school to UALR, is delaying its application for state approval of the plan. This will delay a new K-8 school by at least a year.

John Bacon, CEO of the school, notified Education Commissioner Johnny Key and leaders of other local school districts in an e-mail this morning that it wanted to be removed from the Education Department's charter authorizing committee's agenda on Tuesday, Nov. 17. He told Key the school anticipated asking for consideration of the amendments at a future meeting, probably in February.

eStem had said in its original application that approval in November was critical to meet a 2017 startup for planned new schools. In a brief letter, Bacon said the school needed more time.

Additional planning time will allow us to present the most comprehensive, detailed proposal to the authorizing panel at a future scheduled meeting. Our commitment to maintaining high quality educational opportunities for our current families, while creating those same types of opportunities for future families, continues to serve as the cornerstone of our expansion plan.

Charter amendments are normally considered by the state board in October and February. eStem had moved up the process to November in hopes of achieving a 2017 start for its new schools.

But Bacon told me that "aggressive" plan had a tight timetable. He said it became clear more detail work was needed. But he added, "Based on what we would need to have ready, by delaying until February, it definitely means the only thing we're focused on in 2017-18 would be the UALR project."

He said the new K-8 school on Shall Street east of Interstate 30 downtown would "definitely": be delayed until at least 2018-19, with that year as a target date. The purchase of the building is scheduled to close Dec. 31 and Bacon said he still hoped to go forward with that. But he said this was among the details that needed to be ironed out. And he noted that uncertainly about the shape of the Interstate 30 expansion project downtown also was on his mind. 

"I am worried about the freeway," he said. "This is just something we need to stop and think about — completely changing the fabric  of the downtown community. It could impact so many things. We need to be smart about it. It could have a huge impact on our ability to be on the east side ..... We are definitely highly alarmed." He said comments had been made recently about addressing some concerns, but, like me, had yet to see them firmed up.

I asked him if recent concerns about eStem's expansion as a negative for the Little Rock School District played a role in slowing the timetable. Little Rock Superintendent Baker Kurrus  has been among those who feared a further drain of better students from the district.

"The primary factor related to us — planning for every detail," Bacon said. . "But certainly we want to be respectful of Baker's efforts and his comments." He said it was important that — in using a charter school to develop better education for all — that the charter school was a "part of the solution and not part of the problem."

The delay of the K-8 school essentially gives Little Rock another year of breathing space to demonstrate it can do more for children in the very grades most at issue. Little Rock was taken over by the state because of low test scores in six elementary and middle schools among the district's 48 schools.

Benji Hardy wrote a cover story one-Stem's expansion for the Times.

The article noted concerns by not only Kurrus, but also state Board of Education member Vicki Saviers, a founder of eStem. As Kurrus noted, eStem is no longer just a charter "school," but a school district whose expansion to 5,000 students would make it one of the state's 20 biggest, all within and drawing from the pool of students that would otherwise attend Little Rock schools.

Others who've followed charter expansions closely because of concerns about Little Rock schools note that it is legally somewhat trickier for the state now to take  steps that the Little Rock District's leader says could be bad for the district. The state is in charge of the district. A pending federal lawsuit, filed by state Rep. John Walker, argues that the state has continued to take steps that have racially discriminatory impact and been harmful to the Little Rock School District.

The eStem student body is whiter, better off economically and includes fewer special ed and non-native speakers than Little Rock schools. eStem parents also must overcome more obstacles for children to attend — no bus system and the children have longer days and school years. The fear of Kurrus and others is that growth of eStem and similar charter schools — with demographically better situated students and more engaged  parents — will mean a still higher concentration of more difficult-to-educate children in Little Rock.

UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, who also has heard similar concerns, spoke at length to Hardy about the facts that led him to partner with eStem at the high school level. These included the campus' proximity to lower income neighborhoods with struggling Little Rock District schools and the benefit to education students of having a school on campus.

eStem isn't the only charter operator with expansion plans. Both LISA and Quest want to enroll more students in predominantly white, upper income western Little Rock. LISA charter school is within a few yards of a Little Rock School District elementary, Terry, that is high performing despite a student body with a high majority of low-income students.

A meaningful review of past and future charter school applications should evaluate the sorts of students ultimately accepted. Numbers I obtained under FOI on the Quest charter middle school in Chenal Valley, for example, showed most were already proficient at existing schools in the Little Rock School District before moving to Quest.  Whatever their schools' overall scores showed, these students hadn't been "failed."

Based on things I've heard from Little Rock School District advocates, it's likely charter schools will be asked in the future to demonstrate the achievement level of children they receive from conventional school districts. Were they already achieving? Did those who fell short achieve proficiency after transferring to charter schools? These are important things to know if charter schools are to be considered laboratories of innovation, not merely a means for  cherry picking — either of students by schools or of schools by parents.

I learned of the possibility that Bacon would be submitting a letter from an article by Steve Brawner at Talk Business.

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