THE ISSUE: A new charter school is being proposed in Pine Bluff. THE IMPACT: Residents would have a new educational opportunity for their children if the Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School is approved to open.

Supporters of a proposed Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School discussed this week their vision for opening a charter school in Pine Bluff.

The Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School board intends to apply to the Arkansas Department of Education for a charter to open in fall 2018. The board proposes enrolling a maximum of 220 students in grades nine to 12 in the building that currently houses Ridgway Christian High School at 1501 West 73rd Ave.

Pat Hart, president of the Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School, said First Assembly of God Church founded Ridgway Christian School in 1997 and is its underwriting entity, Hart said. The school is currently enrolling pre-schoolers to sixth graders on one campus at 3201 Ridgway Road and seventh-to-12th graders at 1501 West 73rd Ave. The seventh- and-eighth graders would return to the 3201 Ridgway Road campus if Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School comes into existence.

“Ridgway Christian School would then end with eighth grade, and the leadership of Ridgway Christian School supports the new charter,” Hart said. “Not only did First Assembly of God Church found Ridgway, it sustains Ridgway.”

Ridgway Christian School is a private entity and charges tuition. It is struggling to attract enough students in grades nine to twelve, Hart said.

Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School would not charge tuition and would be a public charter school.

“The difficulty is not that we do not desire to have a Christian high school but what can we do to make it readily available?” Hart said. “The school was started to bless the community. We are presenting another educational outlet to this community. [Private school] costs increase in high grades. It is not a merger. It is a transition.”

Hart explained that these developments reflect the reality that the number of people who can afford to pay tuition is already small and getting even smaller.

“And it is our desire to open a quality educational outlet to be inclusive,” Hart said. “We would no longer be able to place a Bible verse on the wall. But you can emphasis character without emphasizing the Bible. It is so parents have choices and students have opportunities.”

The board of directors of the proposed Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School consists of former Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, Circuit Judge Alex Guynn, Pat Hart as president, Charles Anderson as vice president, Cardell Meadows as treasurer, Michel Gutman as secretary, Linda Callaway, Louise Hickman, Dr. Joanna Edwards and Ken Thornton.

Dedrick Sims, chief executive officer and president of the Sims-Fayola Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Aurora, Colorado, is working as a consultant to Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School.

He gave a presentation about the school to about 50 people on Tuesday night at Ridgway, saying that one goal is to increase the number of females and ethnic minorities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“Sometimes in large high schools, kids get lost,” Sims said. “They fall between the cracks. If you are a teacher, you understand this. Kids sit in the back of a classroom and do not say anything and get lost. In small schools, one of the ideas behind that is family: a more personalized education, keeping up with you. Making sure we understand not only where you come from but how it attaches to where you are going.”

Sims said the charter school will use project-based learning and movement-based learning to help students master abstract concepts. He said these methods support students who have language barriers, individualized educational plans, and cognitive challenges.

“A lot of times students lose concepts because they are too abstract,” Sims said. ” … They cannot figure out how to apply concepts after four o’clock when they leave school, or especially after they graduate. They go home and do not study algebra, do not study geometry, and do not study biology.”

Sims said project-based learning teaches students how to be managers.

“Even if you are a librarian, you still have to interact with people,” Sims said. ” … A lot of times, our kiddos finish school. They have not mastered or had enough experience in the soft skills that are involved in project management.”

A native of Pine Bluff, Sims graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with a bachelor’s degree. He earned a doctorate in instructional design and development and two masters degrees from the University of South Alabama. He has worked in education for 20 years.

“The efforts around education have to be parallel to the efforts that are happening in the economy and local government,” Sims said. “If not, you are going to leave the population behind.”

Sims said the school would have high school juniors and seniors declare a major and partner with UAPB and Southeast Arkansas College with internships in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He noted they are competing with citizens from other nations for these jobs.

He said UAPB students are earning $60,000 annually in these fields currently.

Sims said charter school boards operate the charter schools. As a result, the board can make a decision regarding its operations whenever it wants.

“That means we can design the school experience and learning experience the way we think makes kids productive,” Sims said. “One of the ways we are thinking about that is summer diagnostic exams. What does that mean? Four days before school starts, we are going to bring kids in and give them assessments in math, reading, language and science. We are going to know where they are when they walk through the door and not only will it be academic knowing but also cultural. What does it mean to be a warrior? What does our crest mean? What does it mean to exude the core values that matter to us?”

Board president Pat Hart said she used to be a teacher and is a firm believer in education. She said the proposed school would not compete with other schools and asked people to bring their friends to the next meeting.

“I know the challenges of school but I also know the importance of school,” Hart said. “And having our students receive every opportunity that we can give them to prepare them for the challenges of life and not just to barely make it but to be a success and to thrive.”

“Our agenda is to offer not just a viable option but what we believe will be an awesome option,” Hart said. “I am also excited to serve with an awesome group of people. I can’t begin to tell you the expertise, skill, and experience that they bring. And because of that I have every reason to believe that not only will this school be successful it will be something Pine Bluff will be proud of.”

Hollingsworth said she visited with site locators during her four years as mayor. She noted four or five major companies who have moved or pledged to move to Jefferson County, as proof that they require science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.

“The most recent is a gas-to-liquid: a $3.7 billion industry in Jefferson County that will start soon in the construction phase,” Hollingsworth said. “All that is technology-driven. The second phase when it is completed will be $10 billion, the largest in our state.”

She also mentioned Highland Pellets, Kiswire, Southwind Milling and L&R Distributors. Hollingsworth pledged her support to Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School.

“Regardless of what the career path is for our children, we must as a community and a city prepare our children,” Hollingsworth said. “… The pipeline for our nation is not where it needs to be. We need more skilled workers. The more skilled workers we have, the more our community is attractive to investors.”

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