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Strong roots for e-Stem 

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.

The economic differences are important in evaluating results. Kids from better economic backgrounds tend to do better on standardized tests.

The schools' name, e-Stem, stands for the economics of science, technology, engineering and math — subjects the schools' charters say are to be emphasized in their curricula. 

Bacon said the schools' push in the sciences and math may have dissuaded some students, and said the administration will work to get the message out that the school is not teaching those subjects “at the expense of the arts and languages.”

Each of the e-Stem schools was created as a district to take advantage of state charter aid to districts. Classes are kindergarten through ninth grade; the high school will add a higher grade in each of the next three years. All are majority black, but well below the percentage of black students in the Little Rock School District: 52.7 percent of the elementary school's 360 students, 59.3 percent of the middle school's 396 students and 60 percent of the high school's 83 students. (By comparison, the Little Rock School District is 68 percent black.)

Mittiga said 53 percent of the students transferred from the Little Rock School District, 17 percent from Pulaski County public schools, 6 percent from North Little Rock public schools, 1.6 percent from public schools outside Pulaski County and 4.3 percent came from another charter school.

Private schools account for 13.9 percent of e-Stem's students; 2.1 percent were home schooled. Information wasn't provided by 2.1 percent.

Two of the three e-Stem schools have a higher percentage of Asian students than the LRSD. LRSD's overall Asian enrollment is 1.2 percent; e-Stem elementary is 4 percent, e-Stem middle is 1.1 percent and e-Stem high school is 2.7 percent. The schools' Hispanic population is slightly lower as a percentage than the LRSD's — 2.9 percent in the elementary, 3.6 in middle school and 5.3 in the high school, compared with 6.1 percent in the LRSD.

This year, the special courses the charter application said would be required are, at the ninth grade level, not being taught as full-year courses. Rather, they are being taught for one semester by core course teachers — rhetoric by the English teacher, pre-engineering by the algebra teacher, economics by the civics teacher, and scientific research by the biology teacher. Bacon said e-Stem decided to offer Spanish in high school as well as Mandarin Chinese since so many incoming students had studied Spanish. The charters originally intended to offer Latin in elementary, Spanish in middle school and Chinese in high school. 

The school opened with a waiting list for all grades but ninth, Mittiga said. The children of teachers, administrators and members of the schools' boards were given admission preference, but the rest of the students were chosen by a random lottery as required by state law. Siblings of students selected in the lottery were also admitted.

Bacon, the former principal of Hall High School, said he's enjoying working with a much smaller group of students. “It's heaven,” he said. The size is allowing him to adapt more quickly to their needs, he said — for instance, he and two other faculty members started team-teaching a special remedial algebra class for half a dozen ninth-graders who were clearly struggling to keep up with their classmates.

Bacon also touted the 30-minute advisory program in the middle and high schools that offers students help in organization, study skills, social skills and other areas that will help them succeed academically, a program that has no counterpart in the county's traditional schools.

Bacon said early testing at e-Stem is establishing a baseline against which it can chart improvement. There will be quarterly computerized tests in math, language, language usage and reading “so our teachers will be able to compare apples to apples.”

Students at the schools will still take the state's benchmark and end of course exams as well.

Results from those assessments will be used in the schools' merit pay system for teachers as well. Teachers can earn up to $10,000 more per year based on three performance measures: Student growth on the quarterly assessment (50 percent), student growth on the benchmark and end of course exams (25 percent) and a performance appraisal (25 percent).

Teachers' baseline pay is competitive with the Little Rock School District for entry-level teachers, Bacon said, but becomes less so for more experienced educators. Salaries for full-time teachers range from $39,129 (in biology) to $65,000 (counselor) in the high school; $28,000 (PE) to $54,376 (8th grade) in the middle school, and $32,486 (first and second grades) to $50,876 (specialist) in the elementary school. Bacon, who is principal of the high school as well as executive director, is paid $110,000.

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