Officials with eStem Public Charter Schools, joined by Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, cut the ribbon Saturday to open their new high school location on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, perhaps the first charter school on the campus of a public university in the nation.
"The future is here; the future is today," said eStem CEO John Bacon in christening the new, approximately 33,000-square-foot building.
Later, Bacon told KUAR he has not found another such arrangement in the U.S. He says some universities operate their own private, preparatory schools on campuses, but he knows of no other public charter/public university partnership like this one.
About half of the building is the old Larson Hall, one of the original buildings on what was Little Rock University. The other half is new construction that joins with the old building and features a mat-black facade facing south on the campus's southwest corner.
"The partnership between UA-Little Rock and the eStem public charter, I think, is a great marriage," Stodola told the crowd before the ribbon-cutting. "Being around an academic environment can only help to make (eStem students) the best and the brightest because they're going to be the ones that lead this city, lead this state and, indeed, lead this country."
The partnership will enable eStem students to earn college credits while in high school. The move is already paying off in growth. Bacon said eStem in all grades is growing from about 1,500 students to almost 2,000 this year.
A new campus for lower grades is opening next year in the East Village area of Little Rock, allowing eStem to serve a total of about 3,800 students within five years.
About 750 students will attend the new high school this school year. Bacon said when the school grows, they'll expand to take over a floor of Ross Hall, just to the north of the high school.
Bacon expects to top 1,000 students within two-to-three years, placing eStem right behind the Little Rock School District's Central High School in enrollment among city high schools.
School choice critics say charter schools takes students -- and hence, resources -- away from conventional public schools. But parents of eStem students, who span the socio-economic spectrum, are sold on the concept.
"Some people think a charter school is a private school. It's not," said Tony Ramick, whose daughter earned a full college scholarship at eStem and whose son, Axton, hopes to do the same as a senior this year.
"Anyone that wants to attend a public school can," Ramick said. "EStem has had a waiting list. Why is that? I think it's because they have an extended school day, an extended year, and they're focus is on academics, not athletics."
"We are a school like any other school," eStem Principal Johnecia Howard said. "We want children to be educated, not just the ones who choose to come here, but all kids. The resources we are given, we're applying right back to the classroom, just like every other school is."
KUAR is licensed to the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas System.