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The LISA Academy succeeds with students. But does it succeed in meeting the terms of state charter school law?

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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.

That location fell through, however — Dagtas said one major problem was that they discovered another tenant in the building had a liquor permit, and they didn’t think the state board would approve the location for that reason. They also could not reach an agreement with the building’s owner about renovations.

So the school wound up renting a building in an office park near Markham and Shackleford — making it the farthest-west public middle or high school in the city.

This year, its student body is 53 percent white, 28 percent black, 16 percent Asian and 3 percent other, and 22 percent of students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The Little Rock School District is 24 percent white, 68 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian; 61 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“It doesn’t appear to me that they’re fulfilling the charge they announced when they announced the academy to being with,” said Baker Kurrus, a member of the Little Rock School Board, which opposed the approval of LISA Academy’s charter. “I’m not opposed to charter schools — I’ve been involved in several. There’s room for charter schools but they need to be innovative and address kids with the greatest need.”

LISA’s principal, Bilgehan Yasar, acknowledged that the location may be one reason LISA Academy has attracted relatively small numbers of low-income and black students.

“In our second year we went to some places to recruit disadvantaged students,” he said, including the annual Black Expo. “We are doing our best to recruit those students.”

Jesse Mason, director of UALR’s cooperative education department and a candidate for Little Rock mayor last year, was on LISA’s original school board. He said the board at that time looked at locations in other areas — including the old Main Library downtown, and a building at Kanis and John Barrow — but that the West Little Rock location was the only one the school could afford that was suitable.

Mason, who is black, said he believes the school’s administrators have done everything they can to attract black students.

“There was an all-out effort from the very beginning to attract minority students, as many as possible,” he said. “Every effort was made to reach out to the community. When it finally happened, the enrollment was what it was. Every effort is continuing to be made.

“LISA Academy has not reached that goal of the numbers that they wanted, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t continuing to try and do that.”

Caroline Proctor, head of the Walton Foundation-funded Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at the University of Arkansas and former director of Maumelle’s Academics Plus Charter School, said she is “in 100 percent agreement” with the idea that charter schools should ideally serve low-achieving students, but that “every parent deserves choice.”

Academics Plus currently has no students who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, according to state Department of Education statistics. Proctor said the percentage was 28 percent when she headed the school, but that it was a challenge to recruit kids from less affluent areas to travel all the way to Maumelle.

Proctor said she worked with the Central Arkansas Transit Authority to get an express bus to run from CATA’s downtown hub to Maumelle.

“We were able to offer the school to kids that never would have had the opportunity,” she said. “You have to work at it, though, and you have to want it.”

(By comparison, of Arkansas’s six other charter schools, Hass Hall Academy in Farmington also has no low-income students; Benton County School of the Arts in Rogers has 19 percent; Arise Charter School in Monticello has 95 percent; FOCUS Learning Academy in Conway has 84 percent; Imboden Area Charter School has 79 percent and KIPP Delta College Preparatory School in Helena has 89 percent. Family income is strongly correlated with student achievement.)

It’s difficult to know exactly what effect LISA has had on the Little Rock School District’s enrollment, because the district doesn’t keep statistics on how many students have left to go to LISA. Yasar said that the first year LISA was open, many students came from home-schooling situations. But the second and third years, he said, he estimates they were split about evenly between public schools, private schools and home schools. Students also come from North Little Rock, Conway and Greenbrier, he said.

Despite the relatively low percentage of black students, diversity is not actually in short supply at LISA. Of the 53 percent of students identified as white, a good number are of Middle Eastern descent. Several dozen students speak languages other than English at home.

“We have students from all over the world,” Yasar said. “We are an international potluck.”

Attesting to the international flavor is the fact that the school is governed entirely by Turkish immigrants. All five of the school board members are Turkish; three are doctoral students at UALR, and a fourth is employed by the school. The superintendent and principal are Turkish. The two founders were Turkish. Seven of the 27 teachers are Turkish.

Board President Mutlu Mete, along with the other board members, say that’s not intentional — founders Dagtas and Duyar are Turkish, and other Turkish people came to be involved in the school through community contacts. Yasar taught at an Oklahoma charter school under the man who was recruited to be LISA’s first principal; he brought several teachers from that school with him.

Two of the four original board members were not Turkish, Dagtas said. None of them, including Dagtas and Duyar, are involved formally with the school now. When a board member resigns, the remaining members nominate and elect a new member themselves.

“When this thing was first being developed, I sent out some e-mail messages and ran some newspaper ads, and also e-mailed some colleagues. Of the people who responded, some were Turkish, some not,” Dagtas said.

Today, “It’s true that compared to other schools, there’s a much higher percentage of Turkish-background people, but these are very highly qualified people,” he said. “They come from engineering backgrounds. You can tell this from the results, especially from the science competitions.”

So what about those results?

LISA Academy has become a dominant force in the state’s math and science contests. The school’s first year, students won 35 science fair awards; last year that number doubled, Yasar said, and included 11 first-place awards. Last year’s state Mathcounts champion was from LISA.

“This year our goal is to get students into the top 10 nationally,” Yasar said.

The school puts an enormous emphasis on preparing for and competing in these contests, Yasar said.

“One of the parents said, ‘Your prom is your science fair,’ ” Yasar said. “It’s like that.”

It’s not just to bring home awards, he said — participating in science fairs forces students to put what they learn into practice, and work on their projects is integrated into classes other than science. Students work on their written reports with their English teachers, for instance, and on their visual presentations in art class.

(It’s worth pointing out that students from Little Rock public schools — including magnet Dunbar Middle School — also win many awards at science and math contests, and offer rigorous academic work in those subjects.)

Standardized tests are also both a major source of pride and a major area of emphasis. Students take practice Benchmark exams once a month, and students who score basic or below must attend mandatory after-school tutoring twice a week.

On average, LISA’s students outscore their peers in Central Arkansas and statewide on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the state Benchmark Exams and end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and literacy.

At the same time, the achievement gap that plagues public schools across the country is evident in LISA’s scores as well. Black students at LISA do better than black students elsewhere, but they lag behind the school’s white students by about 25 percentile points on the Benchmark Exams. The gap is similar for low-income students.

However, scores for black and low-income students showed marked improvement from 2005 to 2006 — the percentage of black students who scored proficient or higher in math more than doubled, for instance — while white students’ scores actually declined modestly.

The school itself is bright and orderly, with well equipped science and computer labs. The small library is stocked with books donated by students. Students use the computers heavily — with online textbooks and tests, and to learn computer science skills. They are probably also the only students in the state, if not the region, who can take Turkish language classes (taught, however, by a teacher who doesn’t speak English). Students wear uniforms, and parent volunteers serve lunch each day.

One of those parent volunteers is Melissa Hardeman, whose daughter Margaret is in the ninth grade. Her path to LISA was circuitous — Margaret attended Bale Elementary originally, but problems there prompted a move to a branch campus of Central Arkansas Christian Schools. When that branch closed at the end of Margaret’s fifth-grade year, the Hardemans — who live in what was the Southwest Middle School zone, a school Hardeman said wasn’t acceptable (it’s now an alternative school) — first looked at Little Rock’s magnet schools, but none had open slots. So they enrolled Margaret at Academics Plus, but moved her to LISA when it opened the following year because it was much closer to their home.

“Their science and math emphasis really interested me because I’m a math teacher at UALR,” Hardeman said. “I’ve been very pleased with the curriculum and the smallness of the environment. This has been a good fit for her.”

Hardeman said her daughter gets feedback and interaction with teachers that she wouldn’t get at a much larger school.

And she said the Turkish teachers and administrators have provided “a great opportunity to learn another culture, to really be almost immersed in another culture.”

LISA Academy hasn’t run into the financial problems that have plagued some other charter schools — most notably Academics Plus, which almost closed last summer because of lack of funds. Charter schools receive about $5,400 in funding from the state for each student, and can also raise money privately and apply for federal and private grants. (The Walton Foundation is a major supplier of start-up funds for charter schools in Arkansas and across the country; it gave LISA a $150,000 grant in its first year.)

LISA’s student population has grown each year, and the school has added a grade each year as envisioned in the original charter application. Last year the school bought a portable classroom building to house the increasing numbers of students.

But it has had some growing pains. Last spring, administrators did not renew the contracts of three popular teachers and the school’s nurse, prompting a firestorm of critical comments on the Arkansas Times’ blog. Some implied that the Turkish administrators targeted non-Turkish teachers for dismissal, and criticized administrators for not understanding American culture. About 40 students left the school at the end of the year, Yasar said, although he thinks many of those were students going into the ninth grade who wanted to return to a more traditional high school. The school’s then-principal also did not return; Yasar said he took a job advising charter schools in the New York/New Jersey area.

Some people who commented also complained that administrators favored LISA’s highest-achieving students.

That’s been the experience of parent Caron Higgins, whose daughter, Janay, is in the seventh grade at LISA.

Higgins said she’s been pleased overall with the school and with the education her daughter has received there. She’ll probably stay through the eighth grade, Higgins said, but wants to attend a high school that offers a wider variety of extracurricular activities.

The school divides students into different groups based on their math abilities. Each group then stays together through all its core classes, Yasar said.

Higgins’ daughter is in the second-highest of the four classifications, she said, but she believes the students in the highest group are favored.

“You can just tell a difference in the way the teachers interact with them,” Higgins said. It bothered her daughter at first, she said, but she’s done well and isn’t concerned about it now.

“She has not been harmed,” Higgins said.

Higgins, who lives in West Little Rock, said her daughter attended a public elementary school through fifth grade, but that she and her husband chose LISA Academy because they didn’t like their public-school options for middle school.

Janay Higgins was also a good student in elementary school, her mother said.

And that’s the major problem Little Rock board member Kurrus has with the attention that’s been given to LISA Academy’s successes.

“It’s really not about the people out there — they’re probably super-nice folks,” Kurrus said. “The question is, if we all did that — recruited only the kids we want — where would the system be?”

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