Friendship charter school clears first hurdle for 2018 start date in Little Rock | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Friendship charter school clears first hurdle for 2018 start date in Little Rock

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2018 at 7:12 PM

click to enlarge NEW OPERATOR: The Garland School building.
  • NEW OPERATOR: The Garland School building.

On Thursday, the Education Department’s charter authorizing panel cleared the way for Friendship Public Charter Schools to open a facility in Little Rock in fall 2018 — one year ahead of schedule — over the objections of Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore.

The panel’s decision could still be reversed by the state Board of Education at its next meeting, on June 14. That would be a surprise, considering the state board's highly favorable treatment of charter applications in recent years.

Last fall, the state board gave Friendship, a D.C.-based charter operator, the final go-ahead to open a school in Southwest Little Rock in the 2019-20 school year and a school in Pine Bluff in 2018-19. But in March, another charter operator that had planned to begin operations in Little Rock abruptly canceled its planned 2018-19 opening due to financial problems. Einstein Charter Schools was going to open shop in the old Garland School building, which was purchased from the LRSD by a company owned by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation's largest supporters of charter schools. Einstein's withdrawal left the Walton Foundation without an occupant for the upcoming school year.

With the Walton Foundation's blessing, Friendship then proposed an amendment to move up its schedule by a year and occupy the Garland building, which is being renovated. Today, the charter authorizing panel signed off on those plans. With school starting on August 13, that gives Friendship just three months to recruit teachers, staff and families, along with everything else that goes into creating a new school — or two months, if one counts from the June 14 date at which the charter operator is likely to get final state board approval.

(Worth noting: One of the seven members of the charter authorizing panel is Naccaman Williams, who is also director of special projects at the Walton Family Foundation.)

Originally, Friendship had tried to get the charter panel to approve its amendment in April, with virtually no notice given to the public or the LRSD beforehand. That would have required waivers from Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who refused to do so on such an extraordinarily compressed timeframe.

I wasn't at today's meeting, but at the April meeting, I spoke with Joe Harris, a founding member of Friendship who is listed as the school's leader on its amendment application. Parents can begin applying online at any time, he said. Harris said Friendship had already recruited an operations leader and a principal, "both of whom are former Einstein employees. They have the experience and knowledge and are in place to ensure that …
We will be able to follow through with that commitment from a capacity standpoint."

Between having senior staff and having a new facility ready to go, Harris said he was "confident we will be able to open our school on August 13." Friendship is looking for teachers now, he said. The school will serve 100 kindergarten students in its first year and add one grade and roughly 100 students per year until it reaches K-5.

Harris defended the rushed timeline, saying it was necessary to open in time for the 2018-19 year. "Because Einstein withdrew their application, not having a school here is really a disservice to the parents and children in Little Rock and in that neighborhood," he said in April.

When I spoke to LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore after the panel's decision today, he disagreed. Poore said Einstein's abrupt withdrawal in March should demonstrate the need to carefully evaluate future charter applications, rather than charging ahead with another proposal as quickly as possible.

"We missed the boat on Einstein, because it was failing financially," he said. Policymakers need to have deep conversations about each charter proposal and the community should be involved, he said. "I don’t think either of those things have really happened to the degree that they need to."

Poore pointed out that the Education Department's rules say charter applications are to be reviewed in February and October. (The commissioner waived a rule to allow consideration of Friendship's amendment.) "I don’t think it’s led to good decision making when they’ve compressed the timeline in the past. ... You know, we have a teacher shortage in Arkansas. … So when you say you’re going to be able to hire this top-notch staff, I just don’t see how that can happen without getting waivers." Charters often seek waviers to allow them to hire non-certified staff to serve as teachers, but Friendship hasn't yet applied for such a waiver, Poore said.

Poore also defended the LRSD campuses in central Little Rock that Friendship says are not serving students — specifically, nearby Stephens Elementary, which recently opened a clinic in collaboration with Childrens Hospital and partners with First Security Bank to teach students financial literacy. "They talk about how their building is going to be a community building ... but don’t take into account how Stephens is an amazing community building," he said.

"All these charters always say they’re going to collaborate with the Little Rock district, but they’ve never reached out," Poore said.

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