Charting a New Course: Charter Schools Continue to Grow and Expand Across Arkansas
Theresa Timmons, executive director for Westwind School of Performing Arts in North Little Rock, can feel the questions before they’re even out of a person’s mouth. Even though the arts magnet junior high has only one year under its belt, Timmons has talked to enough prospective families, as well as people on the street, to know what’s coming.
“So, are you guys a private school?”
(We’re a public charter school.)
“All you do is teach art, singing and dancing, then?
(No, we teach all of the regular coursework, too.)
“You don’t have to answer to anybody, though, do you?” (We are accountable to the Arkansas Department of Education and are accredited just like any other school.”)
Timmons doesn’t get frustrated with the familiar line of questions — after all, every person she can talk to is someone who gains a better understanding of what charter schools are and the role they play. Which, not surprisingly, she believes is an effective and dynamic education option for families.
“All kids don’t learn the same, so this allows them to be in a place that supports their unique type of learning,” she said. “Many charter schools have unique models, and the unique model is what differentiates charter schools from some other schools. In our case, it’s the arts. Unfortunately, art is one of the things that has been affected in many schools and school districts. We are bridging that gap, and allowing our students and our creatives to come to a place where they’re able to be exposed to and learn through the arts, which is a totally different model.
“I think if more people took the time to come and tour and visit with not only the leadership and the staff, but the students, they’d immediately feel the difference.”
Throughout the state, charter schools are providing parents with educational choice and unique learning environments. State funded, a charter school does not cost anything to attend. Nor is it limited to any one school district, and it can accept students from anywhere, including students with physical challenges, learning disabilities or who have struggled in traditional public school settings.
“Westwind is its own school district,” Timmons said. “We accept all students regardless of where they live, and we have different departments and special education teachers who support those efforts. Students who have learning or physical disabilities, our school is equipped to educate them.”
Statistics show that charter schools are becoming more popular. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) released data last fall that indicated that among 42 states and the District of Columbia (seven states don’t have charter schools, and two other states didn’t submit usable data) enrollment increased in both the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-2021 school year; Charter schools gained 240,000 students overall, a 7% jump.
Four states posted charter school growth of 20% or better, including Oklahoma (almost 78%), Alabama (65%), Idaho (24%) and Oregon (20%). Only three states — Illinois, Iowa and Wyoming — saw a decrease in charter enrollment.
Meanwhile, public schools lost 1.45 million students across all 42 states surveyed during the same time period. California’s district schools lost the most students — 175,761 — while Texas lost 151,393. In all, 21 states saw district enrollment losses of more than 25,000 students.
Academics Plus Charter School, which operates in Maumelle and Scott, is a poster child for parents voting with their feet when it comes to school choice. The organization operates Maumelle Charter Elementary School, Maumelle Charter High School and Scott Charter School.
“At the time that the charter school was started, the option for students in Maumelle was to go to Oak Grove, and a lot of parents in Maumelle did not want their children to go to Oak Grove for whatever reason,” said Rob McGill, Academics Plus CEO.
“In Scott, the Pulaski County Special School District decided to close the K-5 school there. Then, with communication with community members in Scott, we saw a need. It’s a growing area that has a lot of potential, and we felt we could meet that need for the students there.”
In the first decade since it opened in 2001, Maumelle Charter school grew to 535 students. In a little more than a decade since, that enrollment number has swelled to 1,600 and is expected to reach 2,000 students in the next few years. Scott forecasts similar growth on the horizon; once the school hits 400 students, the organization has plans to build a new elementary school, and once it hits 800, a new high school will be constructed.
It’s interesting to note that over that same time frame, the Maumelle school district built a brand-new middle school and high school, but even those sparkling behemoths haven’t been enough to slow down the charter school’s growth.
“We have a waiting list; some people have waited on the list two, three, four years before they actually get into the school,” McGill said. “It’s seen as a privilege to be able to get in here.”
It’s not just prestige, either. As is the case with many charter school families, parents like having a measure of choice in where and how their children are educated. Maumelle’s charter schools’ outstanding track record doesn’t hurt, either.
“We are college preparatory, so we’ve consistently tried to stay on that track,” McGill said. “This year in Maumelle, we had 100% of our graduating seniors accepted to college and a lot of scholarships received. I think parents recognize that they’re sending their kids to a safe environment that is also a rigorous environment. We’re trying to prepare them for the next step of their life.”
A nearby charter school, Premier High School, can say the same, serving both high achievers and students who, were it not for the school’s highly individualized approach and small class size, would likely not finish high school at all.
“We’ve got students who are high achievement students who are really trying to finish high school early and start on some of those post-secondary goals,” said State Director Dennis Felton Jr. “We’re also helping students graduate high school with an industry-based certification that allows them to enter the workforce. You think about welding, diesel technology or medical professions like certified nursing assistant or phlebotomist, and a lot of these jobs only require a year or two of certification, and you can come out making $40, $50, $60,000 a year.
“So, we facilitate post-secondary goals, whether it’s getting a student enrolled in college courses in high school, or whether we’re getting them in an industry-based certification program, or something as simple as getting them an internship and doing some job shadowing. We try to take on that charge of how do we not only give them a high school diploma but something else as well.”
Texas-based Premier, which has been operating in Arkansas since 2013, has campuses in Little Rock and North Little Rock, with 140 and 170 students, respectively. A newer school in Springdale, opened last year, currently serves 85 students. New campuses in Texarkana and Fort Smith are slated to open this year as well.
Felton said establishing a charter school takes a multilayered approval process, starting with communicating with leaders in the community and progressing to building a case for a state approval board, showing how the school augments existing educational offerings. During this process, Felton often gets the chance to address many misconceptions head on, and sets the record straight on what a charter school is and what it is not.
“There’s still the population out there that considers us a private school or a competitor to the local public school district,” he said. “I try to stress to people that we have no interest in being a competitor with the local ISD or any other charter school. One of the things we’re trying to do is come into a community to fill a niche and give parents and students another choice. It’s another educational option, another educational entity to be able to explore.
“People in the charter school world like to think the concept is old, but the whole charter movement is really pretty recent. When you see here lately that charter schools have started to take off in certain states, including Arkansas, it tells me the public has become more supportive and more open to charter options. When you look across the state now, you don’t have a lot of people fighting charter schools, they’ve become educated on what charter schools are. The more people become educated on what charter schools are and what they’re doing and the impact they’re having, the more receptive they’re being to the quality of the education.”