by Jamie Walden
Posted 8/18/2008 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
(To read the stats on the private schools in Pulaski County, please click here.)
While enrollment in Pulaski County's three public school districts remains stagnant, the county's private and charter schools are preparing for a flood of new students.
More than $71 million worth of new construction, some of it just starting and some of it completed, will increase student capacity in private and charter schools in the county by about 3,200 seats.
Interest in charter schools, which are tuition-free, is driving this growth. Private schools in the county actually saw a slight decline in attendance in the academic year that ended in 2008 compared with the previous year. However, officials at some private schools say, that drop is misleading. Private schools are expanding their facilities because they've outgrown them.
What's behind this building boom, particularly at the private schools? Competition for students appears to play a role, though private school officials declined to address the issue.
Why this interest in alternatives to public schools? Parents and educators say it comes down to choice.
But first, some numbers.
About 13,007 students in Pulaski County attended private schools in the academic year ending in 2008, which reflects a drop of about 50 students from the previous year. Charter school students for the same year totaled 1,749, a growth of about 80 students from the previous year.
However, expected enrollment for charter schools for the 2008-09 school year, counting the new eStem Charter Schools and the Lisa Academy campus in North Little Rock, shows a hefty growth to 3,016 students. The figures for expected enrollment, which were gathered nearly two weeks ago, are more accurate than those for private schools because charter schools tend to start school earlier.
Enrollment in the North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts dropped by about 360 students each between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 academic years. The Little Rock School District, the state's largest with 25,738 students, grew by 238 students last year - but lost almost twice that many to the eStem Charter Schools that opened last month.
- Arkansas Baptist School System broke ground July 1 on the first phase of a $6.5 million expansion that will provide room for about 130 more students at its seventh-grade through 12th-grade campus.
- Episcopal Collegiate School started construction in May on its $17.5 million elementary school, which will accommodate 500 youngsters.
- The Cathedral School is currently enrolling infants and toddlers in a new early childhood education center. The maximum capacity is 38 students.
- Little Rock Christian Academy is more than halfway to a $9 million capital campaign goal for a new high school, adding about 500 seats.
- Pulaski Academy purchased the adjacent Fellowship Bible Church campus for $18 million, then spent $3 million getting it ready for school. The campus added about 650 spots.
- EStem Charter Schools opened in July in the historic home of the Arkansas Gazette, which underwent a $6.4 million renovation. EStem created 856 more public school seats.
- Lisa Academy is set to open its new kindergarten through eighth-grade campus in Sherwood set for this Monday, Aug. 18. The new campus will add 500 spots.
- Central Arkansas Christian Schools launched in 2006 a three-year, $3.6 million capital campaign for renovations, a new 11,000-SF science center and a new atrium. The renovations do not add to the schools' maximum capacity. Separate from the campaign, CAC added an early childhood education center at the Windsong Church of Christ facilities, adding about 24 seats.
- Mount St. Mary Academy has kicked off its $7.7 million expansion and renovation project, which will add about 60 seats among other upgrades.
Administrators of these schools say they have outgrown their old facilities and are responding to parent demand for educational alternatives.
Arkansas Baptist's 30,000-SF expansion is the largest capital project in the school's 27-year history. Superintendent Arthur Bennett said the existing campus, at 62 Pleasant Valley Drive in west Little Rock, was originally built to comfortably hold about 320 students, but enrollment has now climbed to 355 students.
Bennett said that while it may not be an ideal time to expand because of high construction costs and other economic constraints, the school has simply run out of space. However, Bennett said he's certain that the economy will bounce back.
The first phase of the two-story building that will be added on to the existing building will be able to house 420. The second phase should add about another 40 spots. Bennett said that the school could fit more students in the building - and still meet fire code regulations - but prefers not to do so.
Bennett said the whole project would add about 130 seats.
By 2010, Bennett said, he expects the campus to house more than 400 students.
"We get a big influx of students from public schools in middle school," Bennett said.
In his experience with Arkansas Baptist, Bennett said that the lateral movement of students between private schools tends to even out.
Families who relocate to Little Rock contribute significantly to the school's enrollment, Bennett said. The school's Web site has been the biggest tool for attracting new families, he added.
Bennett doesn't pretend Arkansas Baptist is unscathed by the economy, though. Its enrollment has declined by 2 to 3 percent.
"I've talked to schools all across the country. All private schools are seeing parents that are pulling their students out because they can't afford to pay [tuition]. But the key is: How many new students do you bring into your school?"
The number of new students entering the school hasn't dropped, which Bennett said surprised him.
The trick of the private school trade is simple: attract more kindergartners than graduating seniors, Bennett said. To that end, Arkansas Baptist this year established a pre-K program for 3-year-olds that has added 12 students.
"The earlier you can get them, the better chance you have of keeping them in your school," he said.
Episcopal Collegiate School at 1701 Cantrell Road in Little Rock seems to share the same school of thought. Episcopal, currently limited to grades six through 12, plans to enroll about 480 students after it completes the construction of its new elementary school.
Construction began in May on the 74,000-SF facility, which will include 24 classrooms for the pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade program. The campus, which is rising on what used to be a baseball field, will have specialized music, athletic and art facilities and a 25,000-SF playground area.
The facility should be completed in August 2009, and its completion is expected to have an immediate impact on The Cathedral School, a 51-year-old operation of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Little Rock.
Cathedral, which has been a feeder school for Episcopal since Episcopal opened in 1998, has devised its own plan to get kids in the door sooner. It has cut tuition by more than 4 percent and on Sept. 2 will open an early childhood education center for children from 6 weeks to 3 years old.
Trinity Cathedral has offered a $100,000 start-up grant for salaries and will continue to fund the early childhood education center, Cathedral School Principal Diane Brownlee said.
Meanwhile, Little Rock Christian Academy, at 19010 Highway 10 in Little Rock, has raised $5.5 million toward a $9 million high school construction project. The more than 50,000-SF high school will have a maximum capacity of 450 to 500 students. The school has a few students on its waiting list. The school expects the students to come from its existing market in central Arkansas. Director of Development Jason Carson said the school has had many families display interest, but LRCA didn't have the space to house all of the potential students.
The largest capital expansion in the central Arkansas private schools sector was Pulaski Academy's purchase of the Fellowship Bible Church campus at the southwest corner of Napa Valley Drive and Hinson Road for $18 million. Interim President Joe Hatcher said the school spent about $3 million renovating the five facilities, which total about 162,500 SF.
EStem Charter Schools started its first year on July 21 in the newly renovated Gazette building at Third and Louisiana streets. Water E. Hussman, president and chief executive officer of Wehco Media Inc., which owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the Walton Foundation funded the $6.4 million renovation. The school currently has 848 students, just eight short of its maximum capacity. The school received more than 2,000 applications.
Lisa Academy's Sherwood expansion campus for kindergarten through eighth-grade students is in the 45,000-SF former Best Buy location on Landers Road. The facility has been renovated for the school's use; however, Principal Emin Cavusoglu did not know the cost of the renovation. The campus will add grades nine through 12 - one grade each year.
Central Arkansas Christian Schools has completed construction of its new science center and is still doing some renovations to its main campus. The improvements, spokesman Casey Neese said, won't add to the schools' 1,200 student capacity, but CAC hopes the renovations will attract new students. CAC has so far raised $2.1 million.
Mount St. Mary Academy expects to complete its $7.7 million expansion and renovation project by September 2009. The expansion will add about 6,400 SF, creating about 60 seats.
The renovations will affect the "1953 building" and the "1977 building," named after the years they were built.
The addition includes an expanded library and media center, an enlarged theater arts and family and consumer science classrooms, development offices and multipurpose meeting rooms.
The project will also update technology capabilities in all the classrooms.
(Click here to seen a rendering of Mt. St. Mary's expansion.)
One Size Doesn't Fit All
What is fueling this interest in alternative education that has stimulated such growth, especially in an economy with sky-high construction costs and constricting family budgets?
"I think the real driver is that not every setting is right for every child," said Steve Hickman, superintendent of Episcopal Collegiate. "I think that is becoming more and more conventional wisdom, that different children thrive in different environments.
"And I think that's why you're seeing this growth in different options. And I think another tie is most of these options - whether it's privately or publicly funded, charter or magnet, independent schools - one common element is most of them are relatively small. And I think many families consider that a strength for their child."
Hickman said he is confident Episcopal will be able to fill the seats from its existing market. He also said many families who already have a student in the sixth-through-12th-grade campus have expressed an interest in sending their younger children to Episcopal. Hickman wouldn't quantify the number.
Asked if the expansion stemmed from competition for students, Hickman said the expansion is more about providing families with an uninterrupted, consistent education in terms of curriculum and religious training.
Some families are willing to find a way to pay an extra $900 a month, which is roughly the tuition at Episcopal. About 20 percent of Episcopal Collegiate students receive financial aid, Hickman said.
The voracious interest of public school parents in eStem Charter Schools, however, perhaps most effectively demonstrates the attraction of alternative education.
About 450 students transferred to eStem this year from the Little Rock School District, a loss that almost doubles its enrollment increase the year before. And that doesn't count the 472 Little Rock School District students on the waiting list.
Altogether, eStem has attracted 1,361 public school students from the three districts in Pulaski County, counting the enrolled students and students on the waiting list.
"If [traditional public schools] don't get better, we are going to absorb more of the market share," eStem Chief Executive Officer Roy Brooks said.
It should be noted that eStem's initial enrollment includes 119 students who transferred from private schools, and another 194 private school students are on the waiting list.
Charter schools, because they have no tuition costs, can act as a stronger catalyst to statewide educational betterment because any student, despite his financial situation, can move to a charter school, supporters say.
For public schools, even one migrating student is not a small issue. A public school can lose $6,000 or more per student in state support, depending on the student and the school. Competition breeds quality, Brooks said.
Brian Gould, who recently moved his two children to eStem Charter Schools from the Little Rock School District, detailed his reasoning.
"I guess the first thing would be the inconsistency and the quality of the teachers," Gould said. "In one class they get a dedicated, educated, motivated, good teacher and the next class they get a place holder, a desk warmer."
Gould also said that large institutions like public schools tend to be too susceptible to outside interests.
"There are too many outside issues that come into public schools, and they don't have the option of a charter school of saying: 'You do it our way or you hit the road,'" he said.
"Mostly, I just like the idea of my kids being in an environment where the only common element that matters is that all the other parents think that education is pretty important and that the extraneous nonsense won't be tolerated."
Gould added: "It wasn't that we were fleeing anything really terribly bad; it was just trying to find an arrangement that we were in a community of like-minded parents."
The bottom line, Brooks said, is that parents are hungry for educational choices that will provide each child with a quality education.
Think of it this way: Stand this publication up on its end. The stack of 2,100 applications for eStem Charter Schools stands about 4 inches taller.