EStem Provides a Public Alternative

EStem Charter Schools, which debuted last month in downtown Little Rock as a public alternative to private schools and public school districts, is already bucking several trends.

As an "open enrollment" charter school – actually, three charter schools in one building – eStem sidesteps many of the bureaucratic constraints present in traditional public school districts.

Since it is free from most of the ties of a public school district, eStem has taken a fresh look at the educational model and adapted it within the context of an increasingly global and technologically savvy workplace.

(To see a pie chart depicting eStem's financials, click here.)

Chief Executive Officer Roy Brooks said eStem focuses "on those skills that youngsters are going to have to have to be successful in the 21st century – science, technology, engineering and math. But then it takes it a step further by focusing in on the economics as it relates to those fields."

EStem's name is an acronym for economics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"And if you really can apply economics to the fields of the future," Brooks said, "I think you give the children that are attending our schools a very certain advantage in the global competition that they're going to face to get jobs."

Of the approximately 2,100 applications, eStem has accepted 848, just shy of its maximum capacity. Of those, 64 percent are minority students, said Brooks, whose contract as superintendent of the Little Rock School District was bought out last year.

EStem not only has a longer school day – 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for the elementary and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the middle and high schools – but it also has a longer academic year. EStem's 198-day academic year runs about 20 school days longer than an average school year, and the summer vacation is shorter while longer breaks are scattered through the year.

When a break runs longer than about five weeks, Brooks said, students start to regress. Teachers then waste several weeks helping them catch up.

The foreign language program includes the traditional Spanish and Latin electives and the not-so-traditional Mandarin Chinese.

"No longer are you competing against just a youngster in Pittsburgh or Orlando or Miami or Seattle, but you're competing against youngsters across the ocean on a different continent," Brooks said. "And you're going to have to be able to match their skills."

EStem also aims to cultivate entrepreneurship, Brooks said, adding that this focus is lacking in the traditional school model.

Another notable difference between eStem and most other public schools and private schools is its state-of-the-art testing system.

EStem uses the Northwest Education Association's system of computerized adaptive testing called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, tests. MAP tests identify the skills and concepts a student has learned, diagnose a student's instructional needs, monitor academic growth and provide teachers with detailed reports that reveal exactly what a child knows and what he needs to learn.

The tests are adaptive because each succeeding question depends on how a student answered the previous question. If he answers the question correctly, the next question will be more difficult. If he answers a question incorrectly, the next question will be easier.

What's more, the results are immediate.

The MAP testing system costs between $12.50 and $13.50 per student per school year, depending on the number of students being tested, according to Tracy Jones, a public relations representative for the Northwest Education Association.

In Arkansas, the MAP system is in use by only seven public school districts – Arkadelphia, Benton, Blytheville, Hot Springs, Springdale, Texarkana and Trumann – and the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at Fayetteville, a support organization for charter schools.

Each eStem student will be assessed four times during the year, and teachers will get performance pay based on the results.

"And our teachers are excited about it," Brooks said, "because what business – and education is a business – does not have incentives for productivity? And in the traditional school setting, they are convinced that seniority and years of experience ought to dictate your salary, rather than what you can actually produce through results. So the performance-pay model that we're going to have, I believe, has attracted some of the best teachers."

Even the school's location separates it from the pack. EStem operates in a newly renovated building in the heart of downtown Little Rock. Walter Hussman, president and CEO of Wehco Media Inc., which owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the Walton Foundation financed the $6.4 million renovation of the school's location in the historic Arkansas Gazette building in the block bounded on the east and west by Main and Louisiana streets and by Second and Third streets on the north and south.

And the irony of a technologically-savvy school reviving a ghostly, outdated building that was once home to print journalism and a printing press is palpable from several blocks away.