HEADED WEST: eStem high schoolers may soon be moving to the UALR campus. Brian Chilson

The college that we now know as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock came into being in 1927 as the brainchild of Central High Principal John A. Larson — although at the time the college was named Little Rock Junior College, and Central, which had been completed that same year, was simply called Little Rock High School. College classes met in unused space at the massive new high school building with the blessing of the board of the Little Rock School District. (The school board, college and high school all were, of course, exclusively white institutions.) It wasn’t until 1949, as postwar enrollment exploded, that the fledgling college moved across town into a pair of newly constructed buildings on Hayes Street — later renamed University Avenue — one of which was named after its founder. Larson Hall, laden with asbestos, today sits vacant while a bustling, diverse campus has sprung up around it.

Now, some 65 years after the LRSD birthed the university, some fear UALR may soon play a major role in the district’s unraveling, even if motivated by the best of intentions.


In August, UALR and leaders of eStem Public Charter Schools announced a plan to relocate eStem’s high school from downtown Little Rock to the UALR campus. Grades 11 and 12 would be housed in a renovated Larson Hall, and a new facility for ninth- and 10th-graders would be built on the corner of 28th Street and Fair Park, at UALR’s northeastern corner. eStem hopes to have both schools up and running by the 2017-18 school year.

The move would eventually allow the charter operator to triple its high school enrollment, from 500 students this school year to an eventual 1,500 in 10 years. And that’s only for grades 9-12. After the high school moves out of its current downtown location at the Federal Reserve Bank Building, that space could be used for additional elementary and middle school classrooms; and, in September, eStem announced plans to further enlarge its K-8 footprint with the purchase of a new building near the Clinton Presidential Center. Its goal is to reach a total of 5,000 K-12 students by 2025, some 20 percent of the 2015 student population of the LRSD. If achieved, that would place eStem among the 20 largest school districts in Arkansas.


Meanwhile, the LRSD soldiers on, providing a quality education to many thousands of students even while many thousands of others — especially those in schools at or near the “academic distress” line established by the state Education Department — are being failed by the district. The nine-person state Board of Education voted 5-4 in January to dissolve the local school board and take over the LRSD because the district contained six academically distressed schools in 2014, out of 48 districtwide. The distress designation means fewer than 49.5 percent of students in those schools performed “proficient” or above on standardized testing in math and literacy over the past three-year period. The new LRSD superintendent, Baker Kurrus, was appointed by Education Commissioner Johnny Key in May to turn things around, a daunting task made even harder by an array of fiscal and political challenges. Against that woeful backdrop, increasingly aggressive competition from charters like eStem could pose an existential threat to the Little Rock School District. If the district suffers, the children it serves suffer.

At the same time, eStem’s expansion into UALR has the potential to benefit some of the very children among the most underserved by the LRSD. The charter operator currently serves a much smaller percentage of poor and minority students than does the district, but it still contains a diverse mix: About 34 percent of eStem’s current enrollment comes from low-income homes and about 45 percent of its student body is African American, according to Education Department data for the 2013-14 school year (the latest year for which testing data is fully available). For the LRSD as a whole, 72 percent of students are low-income and 66 percent are black. Another 12 percent of LRSD students are Hispanic, compared to only 6 percent of eStem students. Over half the students at eStem come from families in which their parents did not attend college, eStem CEO John Bacon said.


Bacon said that the move to UALR is driven in part by a desire to reach more kids in Southwest Little Rock, which is home to most of the city’s Latino population, as well as the predominately African-American neighborhoods near the university.

“I believe that it’s important that we take schools to where families are, rather than building a school over here [in downtown] and helping them figure out how to get to it,” Bacon told the Arkansas Times. “We think that by recruiting families from that area, and [with] the ease of public transit from anywhere in the city to the [UALR] campus … we’ll be able to attract an even more diverse population than what we currently have.”

Does the potential benefit that eStem might bring to those children outweigh the potential harm its expansion may inflict upon the LRSD and its students? This is the key question facing the state Board of Education, which may vote on approval of the charter’s growth plan as soon as December, less than a year after the LRSD takeover. If one focuses on eStem alone, the expansion looks impressive. Broaden the focus to include Little Rock as a whole, however, and things become more complicated.


‘Proximity matters’

UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson began his career at the university in Larson Hall in 1971, teaching political science. When he retires this June after 13 years as chancellor, he’ll leave his successor an unprecedented partnership. “To our knowledge, there’s no other place in the country where this is happening,” he told the Times. College-charter partnerships, yes; installing a high school on a college campus, no.

“My own reaction to charter schools through the years has been one of reservation and tentativeness. … My general impression is that there are a handful of them that are very good, and then there are a good number that are working hard but aren’t necessarily strong schools. By and large, that’s still my perception.”

However, when eStem’s leaders approached UALR at the beginning of the year, several things caught Anderson’s attention. First, there was John Bacon’s stated intent to serve kids from Central and Southwest Little Rock. Second, Anderson said, the school’s emphasis on the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — was attractive, because state and national leaders alike have long exhorted higher education to produce more graduates in those fields. (The extra “e” in “eStem” stands for “economics.”) Third, the chancellor sees unprecedented opportunities to create a “seamless transition from high school to college” in terms of the curricula of both institutions.

“Proximity matters,” Anderson said. “The two faculties can actually get to know each other and can jointly determine what [students are] going to do in high school.” If those seniors matriculate into UALR upon graduating, that should provide the university with students better prepared for college. “If we have close cooperation, we should see students who come to [UALR] from eStem do better in terms of retention, graduation rates [and] time to degree, and the result would be a decreased cost to the student, to their family and also to the state.”

And, he added, “having a school with the freedom and flexibility of a charter school is a plus there,” because charters can seek waivers from state law and regulations, allowing more experimentation.

Bacon echoed those thoughts from the K-12 perspective. “Even in our best high schools” — he listed the LRSD’s Central and Parkview as examples, and North Little Rock High — “when [students] make this transition to college, you hear over and over again about how difficult it is when they get out on their own. … We wanted to figure out, how do we prepare them for that now? … So that’s when we approached UALR and talked about how to do some programming.”

It’s likely that some eStem students will actually take UALR classes. That leads to questions about costs, logistics and public safety. Will eStem pay college tuition for those students? How freely will they travel around campus? And will eStem students (who are mostly minors, after all) be allowed to mingle and socialize with their older counterparts?

Anderson is confident an arrangement on tuition can be worked out, considering UALR already offers reduced-cost concurrent enrollment to several high schools, including eStem and Central. Under that model, UALR allows a high school teacher with an advanced degree to teach an approved college-level curriculum at the high school; the student receives both high school and college credit. As for safety, he said, “we’re certainly going to need to plan far in advance and make sure the right people are trained. Our chief of police here on campus has already been training our officers for dealing with teenagers.” But, he added, UALR is used to having minors on campus, from summertime basketball camps to academic programs. “We’re already very much conversant in legal expectations and dealing with that.”


Bacon emphasized that the lower grades will be set well apart from the rest of campus, in their own self-contained building. “Generally, ninth- and 10th-graders will not be mixing with college students. If they are moving on the campus, it’ll most likely be as a group — a class going to the gym, or to the auditorium.” With 11th- and 12th- graders, “we’ll want to do … expectation-setting on the front end, making sure guidance counselors are talking with students.”

To pay for construction and renovation at both UALR and the site near the Clinton Center, eStem plans to issue some $50 million in bonds, an unusual move for a charter school. “It’s an option that not many people have taken advantage of,” Bacon said. eStem has also received a $1.7 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation for expanding its administrative office space in the Arkansas Capital Commerce Building downtown, adding central office positions and designing and planning the new school facilities.

Joe Busby is president of the University District Neighborhoods Association, a coalition of civic groups in the UALR area. He’s heard concerns about increased road traffic and the charter school’s potential impact on the LRSD, but most nearby residents seem to support the expansion. Still, Busby cautioned that “the University District neighborhoods’ support for the eStem high school … is by no means a blanket endorsement of the charter school system.”

Busby said eStem’s success will depend on its willingness to open itself up to the community: “They can’t be an outsider standing in the neighborhood.” He was encouraged to see eStem basketball coaches attend a recent “National Night Out” event sponsored by the neighborhood association — but was disappointed that the school’s official in charge of recruitment wasn’t there.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Phillis Poche, an employee of UALR who lives on Fillmore Street. “I think people were upset that it wasn’t discussed with them before they made the announcement … but there are a number of people who were opposed to it in the beginning who are not now.”

Marsha Vault, who lives on 31st Street, sent her four sons to Little Rock public schools (first Booker, then Horace Mann, then Parkview). They’ve grown up and moved away, though, and Vault now feels skeptical about the district, which she said, “has a lot of problems.”

“Students everywhere need to benefit from the advantages that a school like [eStem] can bring,” she said. “The friends I have who have children or grandchildren in eStem like it. I am ecstatic about it being in our area.”

LRSD vs. eStem

But the potential benefits of the expansion tell only half the story.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) has strong opinions on educational matters — she was a teacher for 30 years — but the eStem expansion hits especially close to home, since she lives only a few blocks from the UALR campus.

“I think it’s going to be good for our neighborhood. It’s just, I think, a little bit further than just my neighborhood. My concern is the impact this is going to have on the school district, and on the city itself as a result. We can’t keep divvying up the students and the resources in our city and expect to have a good outcome for all of our children. Every time we take resources away from the traditional school district, that diminishes the capability of serving all of the students.”

Since the Central High desegregation crisis in 1957, private and parochial schools have bled the LRSD of a large number of middle- and upper-class families, a trend exacerbated by white flight to suburbs and nearby cities. Today, charters are drawing away even more students from the district. With them goes not only the per-pupil funding that is a public school’s lifeblood, but also a cohort of students that (generally speaking) would have buoyed the district academically, including a significant number of kids from middle-class African-American families.

While open-enrollment charter schools can’t turn students away outright, they tend to have fewer kids with special needs, including learning disabilities, and kids who grew up speaking a language besides English at home. Those children therefore concentrate in the traditional public schools. Compared to the LRSD, eStem has fewer “special education” students (11 percent of LRSD students are special-education eligible, while only 8 percent of eStem students are). There are far fewer “English language learners” at eStem — only 1 percent. LRSD is 10 percent. Moreover, critics of charters allege that they benefit from other, less-measurable advantages. Although eStem provides a monthly transit pass from Rock Region Metro, it doesn’t operate its own buses. Parents who go through the trouble of getting their children into a charter may be more motivated and engaged than average — no matter what their income level or ethnicity — leaving traditional schools drained of the sorts of highly involved parents they most need.

That siphoning effect raises the dismal prospect of a diminished Little Rock School District that, in the coming years, could contain an ever-higher density of poverty and its comorbidities: teen pregnancy, post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme behavioral problems, homelessness and on and on. The more that traditional public schools struggle to deal with those problems, the more parents will seek out charters, private schools or home school, in an unhappy feedback loop. With eStem now proposing to expand its enrollment from about 1,400 to 5,000, and another ambitious expansion proposal in the works from a different charter, West Little Rock’s LISA Academy, it’s no surprise the district feels threatened.

All of this is why LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus in August told the state Board of Education that its members should “do some thinking and … seek some data” before approving charter expansions in Little Rock.

“These are not charter schools — they’re school districts now,” he said. “They’re big, they’re powerful, they have a lot of students and they want to grow.” He didn’t mention eStem by name, but his meaning was clear: “What if we take the best students from Southwest Little Rock and we put them in a high school in a university setting? What is that going to do to the charge that you gave me, which is to get these schools out of academic distress? … Think about it. I’m not going to whine about it, and you’re going to get 100 percent from me no matter what, and our team is ready to compete, but I think the rules have to be considered.”

Kurrus’ frustration was palpable. When the Board of Education took over the district in January, its stated reasoning was that the LRSD had become too dysfunctional to govern itself. When it installed Kurrus as superintendent in May, it entrusted him as the leader who could turn the district around, a staggeringly difficult task by any measure. Charter expansions make the climb all the steeper.

Elliott put it like this: “The same state that took over the school district is now poised to give an OK to an enterprise that’s a threat to the school district and the kids who’ve been left behind? I don’t think that’s a good scenario.”

eStem submitted its proposal to the state’s Charter Authorizing Panel this month, and will appear before that body on Nov. 17. But because the panel’s decision can be appealed either way, final authority rests with the state Board of Education, which would likely take up the matter either in December or January.

Vicki Saviers, a state Board of Education member appointed by former Gov. Mike Beebe, sat on the founding board of eStem when the charter school opened for business in 2008. Perhaps surprisingly, she expressed reservations about eStem’s expansion.

“I honestly struggle with this. … I surely understand where Baker is coming from,” Saviers told the Times. “I so desperately want the LRSD to be the best that it can be, however we get there.” Saviers, who voted for the takeover in January, said she’s hoping to see Kurrus deliver some signs of improvement in the district, especially in Southwest Little Rock, but “the truth is that nobody’s really done it well, because it’s so hard … and the jury’s still out on whether eStem can do a better job with those kids.”

Et tu, UALR?

Might the LRSD and expanded charter networks be able to coexist, side by side? John Bacon says he believes they can.

“I’m excited about the work that [Kurrus is] doing and the opportunities they’re trying to create,” he said. “We want to provide opportunities to kids, but I’m proud to see LRSD stepping up, too, because we need multiple options for kids.”

Bacon worked in the LRSD for almost 14 years before moving to eStem, including as principal of Dunbar Middle School and, later, Hall High. The district might have fewer students when eStem ramps up, he acknowledged, “but the money goes with the kids, so it’s kind of the chicken and the egg. You need less teachers, less facilities.” Elliott argued that reasoning ignores the reality of running a school with declining enrollment: “If you have to hire two special education teachers, and next school year you barely have enough students [to need two teachers], you don’t get a pass on that. You still have to have two teachers.”

She’s also concerned about the advantages charters face when it comes to attracting a more motivated cohort of parents. If eStem grows, Elliott said, it should “proactively recruit the kids who are having the biggest issues with learning.” Under current state law, an open-enrollment charter can’t save seats specifically for low-income or otherwise disadvantaged students (nor can it do so for any particular group). However, that law could be changed.

“If you’re really serious about it and you want to serve the kids that we ought to be serving anyway … then make that request [to the legislature],” Elliott said. In the meantime, “the school could very proactively go after those kids with unmotivated parents and those kids who have real issues — that is very possible — to spend extra effort in those communities.”

Bacon said eStem intends to do exactly that in the neighborhoods around the university and in Southwest Little Rock: “Absolutely. … It’s just a matter of getting out into the community and letting people know what’s there.” Within about 10 days of announcing the UALR expansion plans, he said, the school had about a thousand new applicants, mostly from the neighborhoods near the school.

(Bacon said the new applications pushed the number of names on eStem’s waiting list to over 6,000, a figure often cited as proof of the public’s hunger for charters. However, it should be noted that eStem only removes a name from its waiting list if a family asks to be removed; otherwise, they’re carried forward to the next school year. Bacon said eStem sends out “clean up” emails every year to ask parents if they want to be taken off the list, but acknowledged that “there are probably some on there who aren’t interested anymore and have just been carried” from year to year.)

Although Bacon insists charters and traditional schools can live with one another, when asked about Kurrus’ statements to the Board of Education, he seemed to admit that an expanded eStem might well weaken the LRSD. “I understand where Baker’s coming from, because that’s the job he’s been given … but my job is not to fix the Little Rock School District. My goal is to fix public education in Little Rock and Central Arkansas, and I see it as a much bigger picture.

“Is our goal to save the Little Rock School District? Is that the only way that Little Rock can be successful? No. I think when we provide quality public school options for every family, then our community will be successful, and I think charter schools have to be part of that. We just have to have more options, because if you look at the long track record, as a community, we have not been getting the job done.”

Chancellor Anderson phrased it in even starker terms. “I just despair over the fact that the Little Rock Nine have grandchildren and LRSD is still struggling. Now we’re going on 60 years ago,” he said. “You’ve got division in the community and it keeps getting played out through school politics. It’s the reason many people in the community — white, and an increasing number of African Americans — despair. They’re just disillusioned about the prospects for the public schools, though that’s where their hearts are. That’s what they want to see in place and succeeding; but, you know, they’ve got kids who are growing up, and they want to do the best they can for their kids.”

Still, Anderson insisted that UALR is not turning its back on the LRSD. “Nothing could be further from the truth. eStem doesn’t have an exclusive on a partnership with the university,” he said, and cited the many ways in which UALR has contributed to the district over the years. For two decades, it’s coordinated a program with the nonprofit Children International to provide dental services, health screenings and afterschool programing for kids in the LRSD. It provides concurrent enrollment opportunities to the district’s high schoolers. Lately, UALR has invested in an ambitious summer bridge program, the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy, aimed at helping Pulaski County high school grads who need remediation before entering college. (Anderson’s three sons, who are now grown, are all graduates of the Hall High.)

Anderson said he understands the skepticism over his decision to embrace eStem. “I’ve got dear and good friends who are troubled by it, and I understand that. I am sympathetic to those concerns.” But, he continued, “if you had not had the 1995 state legislation that authorized charter schools, and if we had none today in Little Rock, I’m not at all confident that the state of affairs in the LRSD would be a bit different. … I do know that within that period of time, eStem has provided some high-quality educational opportunities to children, not all of whom would otherwise have gotten those.”

Searching for apples to apples

Yet here again, the picture is more complicated. By most measures, eStem is a good school. But, it is far less clear whether it is categorically better at educating students than is the Little Rock School District.

In a comparison of 2014 standardized test results, eStem outperforms the LRSD in aggregate numbers. For all grades, 82 percent of eStem’s students scored “proficient” or “advanced” on literacy tests compared to 65 percent for the LRSD; for math, those percentages are 77 and 60, respectively. That’s a 17-point spread in both cases.

Bacon acknowledges part of that advantage is due to socioeconomics. “In some ways when you do compare different schools — even within the LRSD, but certainly charters to Little Rock as a whole — you’re comparing apples to oranges, because you’re not comparing the same demographics of kids. I break it down to performance within subgroups. … Are poor kids performing? African-American kids? Hispanic kids?” Indeed, African-American kids at eStem score proficient/advanced more often than their counterparts in the LRSD by spreads of 15 points in literacy and 11 in math. eStem has few Hispanic students, but they perform well: 26 points higher than the LRSD in literacy, 17 in math. For students classified as “economically disadvantaged,” the spreads between eStem and LRSD students are 21 points in literacy, 13 points in math.

Critics of charter schools would be wrong to ignore those numbers, or dismiss them as solely a function of motivated parents. eStem does an impressive job educating subgroups of students often left behind. The question is why. A contributing factor may be eStem’s extended school year — the school has 190 instructional days in its academic year, 12 more than the state norm of 178 days. Having a committed, experienced leader in John Bacon surely helps. But far from demonstrating the superiority of charters vs. traditional public schools, it seems more likely that eStem delivers a good education to disadvantaged students in large part because it is integrated across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Most national studies have shown charters perform no better than traditional schools, on average. Among the nine open-enrollment charter schools operating within the geographic boundaries of the LRSD, some perform better than the LRSD and others perform worse. (“Report cards” for all charters and public schools in Arkansas can be found here.) Meanwhile, research since the 1960s has consistently confirmed that when poorer kids attend school alongside children from better-off homes, their academic prospects sharply increase. The converse is true as well: When poor children are concentrated in buildings and isolated from middle-class children, their performance usually plummets. The five middle and high schools in the LRSD labeled “academically distressed” have low-income populations ranging from 81 to 94 percent and are overwhelmingly black and Latino.

Rather than comparing subgroups from the LRSD as a whole to eStem, then, it may be more telling to compare eStem’s high school to LRSD high schools with a healthy demographic mix, such as Central and Parkview. Both of these LRSD high schools have a significantly higher percentage of students who are low-income (46 percent at Central and 50 percent at Parkview, compared to 30 percent at eStem High) and African American (56 percent and 55 percent, respectively, against eStem High’s 46 percent). Yet they have comparable performance when it comes to the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the benchmark measures reported by the state for high school in 2014, both for students in general and for disadvantaged subgroups of kids (see chart, next page).

Disturbingly, though, research also suggests that charters in general tend to increase de facto segregation by income and race. A Duke University study of North Carolina schools published earlier this year compared the changing racial makeups of charters and traditional public schools in that state from 1998 to 2014, including the percentage of students who attend highly segregated campuses (defined as schools that are either more than four-fifths white or less than one-fifth white). About 30 percent of traditional public school students in North Carolina attend highly segregated schools. The number is over 60 percent for charters in North Carolina. And the Duke researchers found the state’s charter population, in general, has become much whiter over the past 16 years. Because considerations of race and class still play an undeniably important role in consumer choice, the parent-as-consumer model that underpins charters would seem to abet the decades-old drift of white, affluent families from the traditional public schools.

eStem is a diverse school, but many other charters in Pulaski County are not. Quest Middle School, the new charter that opened last year in West Little Rock with financial backing from the Walton Family Foundation, is 63 percent white and only 14 percent low-income, and charter advocates are eager to build more schools in predominantly white West Little Rock. A number of charters in Little Rock are virtually all minority, including Covenant Keepers in Southwest Little Rock (58 percent black, 40 percent Hispanic, 2 percent white, 91 percent low-income) and Little Rock Preparatory Academy (93 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent white, 100 percent low-income). As the city’s charter schools mature, most will probably not look like eStem — but eStem’s expansion, by weakening the LRSD, creates fertile ground for charter growth in general.

The Duke University study also found evidence for the “tipping point” theory of racial balance in schools, which can be bluntly summarized like this: While most white parents are fine with a school containing a distinct minority of students of color, once the student population crosses a certain percentage threshold, they begin leaving. This is a tightrope that eStem itself will have to walk in the years ahead. If it attracts more and more kids from Southwest Little Rock and the central part of the city, will its current racial equilibrium be disrupted?

“I don’t think so,” Bacon said. “I think that one of the things that we’ve done over these eight years is to establish school environments where people see diversity. … I think the people who are still in the public schools in Little Rock completely embrace and understand that’s an advantage to their kids, that they’re going to learn how to function in a diverse society.”

That may be so — indeed, the loss of such parents is exactly what Kurrus and supporters of the LRSD fear — but what about the people who aren’t in the public schools in Little Rock? The core of the problem is that so many white families have left already, either for private schools or for other cities. Bacon is hopeful that increasing numbers of private school parents will consider eStem, too.

Elliott said that she’s particularly bothered by the fact that those who brand the Little Rock School District an unmitigated failure — which includes much of the city’s predominately white business community — are often the same people who left it behind.

“I am in no way suggesting that what’s happening in the Little Rock School District is OK … but the very reason it is not OK is that people have pulled apart. … And now that you’ve created a district that’s struggling, we’re going to point the finger back at the district and say we need to pick off this piece and this piece?

“I have nothing negative to say about parents who make the choices they make for their kid [to go to charter schools], but I have every reason to question these folks who had choices to remain with this school district and helped created this situation. You’re moving away from the city. You’re taking your kids out of the district. You’re talking the school district down. You’re not even wanting to raise taxes when we need to. … I think that is irresponsible, and I see that irresponsibility happening all across the country.

“The whole point is that we can’t keep pretending that … institutions like school districts work well when your only concern is your self-interest. This district fell apart because we stopped working together. It will get back together the way it should be and be a great school district for everybody when we start working together.”