Little Rock Charter School & UALR Reveal Plans For High School

UALR Provost Zulma Toro, Estem CEO John Bacon and UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson.
Credit David Monteith / KUAR News

UALR and eStem Public Charter Schools announced a partnership Monday where eStem will educate students in grades 9-12 on UALR’s campus, where they will have the opportunity to earn a two-year associate’s degree. University officials said it’s an arrangement unlike any other in the nation.

The announcement came shortly after the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees’ Building and Grounds Committee approved the $50,000 sale of three lots on 28th Street where eStem will build a 60,000-square-foot facility. Classes will be held there for grades 9-10 starting in July 2017. For grades 11-12, eStem will renovate UALR’s Larson Hall, one of two original campus buildings not currently in use because of its condition. The cost to renovate the building is about $3.5 million.

The arrangement still must be approved by the Department of Education’s charter authorizing panel.

eStem is a tuition-free, open enrollment public charter school formed in 2008 that is currently located in downtown Little Rock and focuses on STEM classes – science, technology, engineering and math. It currently enrolls 1,462 students chosen by lottery and has a waiting list of more than 5,200. It has a 97% graduation rate and a 95% college-going rate.

UALR Chancellor Dr. Joel Anderson said the arrangement will help Arkansas produce more graduates in science and math-related fields, which is a national priority. eStem students will be able to take college courses on UALR’s campus and graduate high school with both a diploma and an associate’s degree. A curriculum will be created for students from elementary school through college. Tuition costs have not been determined.

UALR Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dr. Zulma Toro said this arrangement will be the first of its kind.

“What we are announcing today is the first step in the implementation of a comprehensive model that after almost 30 years in higher education in the STEM disciplines I have not seen,” Toro said. “When the whole model is implemented, it will be a very unique model.”

John Bacon, eStem CEO, said the high school is expected to enroll 725 students its first year on campus, with a long-term goal of reaching 1,500 high school students and 5,000 total eStem students by 2025. The current downtown high school will be used for K-8 classes. Bacon said eStem is looking to develop three more K-8 campuses in central Arkansas that will serve as feeder schools.

“We’re not trying to take over the school world and make them all charters,” he said. “We want to be able to serve more students, but we also want to work on new approaches that can then become part of what becomes the new norm of how we look at teaching and learning.”

UALR already offers associate’s degrees to high school students at Greenbrier. This past spring, five graduating seniors from that school concurrently received those degrees with their diplomas.

Anderson said the arrangement with eStem will provide a laboratory for the university to develop programs for other schools. The partnership also will provide experiential opportunities for a variety of students at UALR, such as education majors. It also will help high school students become more comfortable in a college environment, easing the transition to their next level of education.