eStem Public Charter School To Slow Growth Strategy, Still Pursue UALR Partnership

UALR Provost Zulma Toro, Estem CEO John Bacon and UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson at the announcement in August of a collaboration between UALR and eStem.
Credit David Monteith / KUAR News

Little Rock’s eStem Public Charter Schools is sending a letter to the Arkansas Department of Education’s Charter Authorizing Panel informing it that it will delay until February its application for a multi-school setup meant to reduce its 6,000-student waiting list.

The school had intended to make its application before the panel next Tuesday, said CEO John Bacon, but has decided to slow the process and be less aggressive in its approach.

eStem is an open enrollment charter school, meaning it’s a public school created by a private, nonreligious organization. Open since 2008, it focuses on STEM lessons – science, technology, engineering and math – that are woven into the rest of the curriculum. For example, kindergarten students have a science lab. It educates about 1,462 students and graduates 120-125 seniors each year. It has a 97% graduation rate and a 95% college-going rate.

In August, the school announced a partnership where in 2017 it will open a high school on UALR’s campus that will give its students access to UALR’s offerings while providing training opportunities for college students such as education majors.

Those plans have not changed, Bacon said. The school still intends to renovate UALR’s now-empty Larson Hall and still plans to build another facility on 28th Street and Fair Park on the campus’ edge. Classes will be offered for grades 11-12 or 10-12 by 2017. That will free space at the current 3rd Street location for 400-500 additional K-8 students.

The plans have been approved by UALR’s board of trustees and eStem’s board of directors but must still be approved by the Arkansas Department of Education’s Charter Authorizing Panel, with the State Board of Education empowered to review the decision.

Meanwhile, the eStem school has a contract to purchase for $1.8 million a 110,000-120,000-square-foot building owned by CareLink at 400 Shall St., near the Heifer International headquarters. The contract is set to close prior to Dec. 31. That K-8 school would educate 1,100-1,200 students and would open in 2018 under eStem’s new plans. It along with the school’s current 3rd Street location will feed into the new high school at UALR.

Previously, eStem had hoped to open all of those facilities in 2017. It’s goal is to serve 5,000 students by 2025. That would require the opening of a third K-8 school somewhere in Little Rock in the 2020-21 time range.

“We know the students are there,” Bacon said. “They’ve been on our waiting list for years in some cases. Even at the completion of this project, if we end up with the goal of 5,000 students, we’ve only added 3,500. There’s 6,000 on the waiting list, and we hope to recruit a whole new pool of people, so it’s not like that solves the problem of the waiting list. But I think what’s happened is we really want to make sure that we do it with fidelity and maintain the high quality that we have right here.”

Bacon said the UALR partnership is unique nationally.

“There’s not another charter-university partnership that we’ve been able to see on the scope of what we’re trying to create that we could find. … We’ve really just kind of decided, let’s focus on one piece at a time rather than trying to go all-in at once,” he said.

eStem’s growth is occurring at the same time that the Little Rock School District is under state takeover. The Little Rock School District loses state funding for every student attending eStem and faces the impending loss of desegregation funds in 2017.

Students are selected for the eStem school by random lottery, with any Arkansan eligible and only siblings given special preference. At eStem, about 8% are in special education, and 5% receive some time of therapy at school. Bacon said the racial makeup of the school is 48% African-American and 42% white. Its percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch prices is about 33%-34%.

At the Little Rock School District, the racial makeup was 66.6% African-American and 19.3% white in 2013, according to the district’s website. Meanwhile, 71% were low-income – about twice that of eStem – and 11% received special education.

Students at eStem cost about $7,500 per year to educate, Bacon said. The school does not have a football team or its own basketball gym. According to the Little Rock School District’s website, average per pupil spending in 2013 was $13,486 annually.

Bacon, a former principal at Little Rock’s Dunbar Magnet Middle School and Hall High School, said one of eStem’s purpose is to try to determine how much is needed to educate students.

“What’s the right number? What does it really take, and what should it take to educate every child, and how do we do that as efficiently as possible so that we’re responsible with the tax money that we’re given that the citizens and people in our community give us, but how do we also make sure that we’re getting the result?” he said.

Bacon said eStem does not want an adversarial relationship with the district. Instead, it hopes its partnership with UALR, including the training that will be offered to education majors, will benefit other central Arkansas school districts.

“The thing that we really want to do is to show how we can be part of the solution for public education in the community,” he said. “We’re not about either-or. It’s not just us vs. them, or us or them. … We believe that there’s a place for what we’re trying to do, but there’s also a place to strengthen the Little Rock School District at the same time.”