EStem Public Charter Schools and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock held a groundbreaking ceremony this morning for eStem’s new high school at the UALR campus, which is planned to open for the 2017-18 school year.
The Walton Family Foundation is financing the construction with a $11.4 million no-interest loan, eStem CEO John Bacon told reporters after the ceremony. It must be repaid in 20 years. The WFF advocates for and helps finance charter schools around the nation, and the foundation announced in June that it was committing $250 million to help construct new charter facilities in 17 cities around the country, including Little Rock. (It’s not immediately clear if the $11.4 million loan to eStem is part of that $250 million commitment or not.)
The high school will occupy the old Larson Hall building near UALR’s main entrance on University Avenue, plus a sizable new addition to be built on the front of that structure. Bacon said the high school will contain some 30 classrooms spread over 50,000
44,000 square feet of space when it’s finished — plus an additional 15,000 square feet of classroom space to be shared with UALR in adjoining Ross Hall. (The charter school will lease this space from the university during the day, and UALR will likely use the space for classes during the evening, Bacon said.) Here’s a campus map for reference.
Bacon said the building should be open by next fall and ready to house eStem’s grades 10-12. Relocating those grades from eStem’s current K-12 campus in downtown Little Rock will free up classroom space and allow the charter school to add about 500 new seats in grades K-9 in its existing space. (Originally, eStem intended grades 9-10 to be housed in a separate building to be constructed on land owned by UALR across campus, but those plans have been shelved for the time being; grade 9 is staying downtown for the foreseeable future.) Bacon said the new high school campus should hold about 450 students in the 2017-18 school year, which amounts to a growth of 50-75 seats in grades 10-12.
Eventually, though, the high school will grow to around 1,100 students, Bacon said. EStem is also working on a second expansion for K-8 at Shall Street, near the Clinton Library in east Little Rock. Bacon said he hopes that facility will be open by 2018-19.
The eStem expansion has been a point of major controversy in public education circles since it was first announced last fall. On the one hand, it’s an innovative project that could open new opportunities for hundreds of students. On the other, it will almost certainly harm the Little Rock School District and, as a result, the many thousands of students left in district schools.
Former LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus urged the state Board of Education in March not to approve the expansion plans, arguing that the growth of eStem (and fellow Little Rock charter school LISA Academy, which is also expanding) would deal a blow to the district and have a net segregative effect. Although eStem’s student body is by no means homogeneously white or high-income, its percentage of minority and low-income students (and special education students, and English language learners) is far lower than that of the LRSD. The state board approved the expansion on March 31. A few weeks later, Kurrus was fired by state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who is a longtime advocate of expanding charter schools.
Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, another charter advocate, was in attendance at the ceremony today.