When Friendship Aspire Academy opens its doors for the first time Aug. 13 on the corner of 40th Avenue and Hazel Street, it will become the first of what company officials hope will be five public charter schools in Arkansas in the next few years.
A Little Rock location is planned for the fall of 2019.
Charles Woods Jr., the principal of Friendship Aspire, spoke to the Pine Bluff Kiwanis Club last week and said that he had spent 16 years in education, but this was his first time being involved with a public charter school.
“I had a traditional public school education and had a strong dislike for charter schools,” Woods said, adding that the thinking was that charter schools would take resources away from the public schools, then leave the area. “The parent option is vital because every kid deserves a chance for a good education.”
He said that Friendship Academy has nine campuses in the Washington, D.C., area, as well as in Baltimore and in Louisiana, and is the largest minority-owned charter school organization in the country.
Friendship Aspire Academy in Pine Bluff purchased the former church at 40th Avenue and Hazel Street and Woods said renovations have been going non-stop to get the buildings ready for opening day.
“It’s amazing to watch the progress,” he said. “It’s beginning to look like a school.”
Starting with kindergarten and first grade this year, the school will add one grade per year up to grade five, and Woods said he would not be surprised if a middle school is eventually added later.
Among the features Friendship Aspire Academy will offer will be two free school uniforms, free before and after school care, and a guaranteed computer in each classroom.
“Your tax dollars are paying for it,” he said.
Arkansas law creates an open-enrollment charter school facilities funding aid program and authorizes up to $20 million in funding to the program, according to the state’s education department. The funds received by a school through this program may be used only for the lease, purchase, renovation, repair, construction, installation, restoration, alteration, modification, or operation and maintenance of an approved facility that meets the eligibility requirements.
To receive funding, a school must not be in academic or fiscal distress, classified as a priority school, or placed in probationary status.
In order to be eligible for the program, virtual technology may not be the school’s primary method of delivering instruction. The state is currently providing $5 million in funding to this program.
Woods said the opening of the school this month will be “an exciting time to see those five to 7-year-old faces light up.”
“A lot of good things are happening here and we’re excited to be here,” he said.
Friendship Aspire Academy will take a holistic approach, Woods said, focusing not just on academics but also on socialization and coping skills.
He said the school has tried to align itself as closely as possible to the Pine Bluff School District calendar because he realizes that on some breaks, older kids will take care of younger kids. But Aspire’s school year will be longer — 183 days for students and 190 for teachers.
Regarding teachers, Woods said all of them are from the Pine Bluff area and represent a mixture of veterans and younger teachers. Classroom sizes will be small, he said, with a maximum of 24 students per class.
An open house and parent orientation is set for Aug. 11, two days before the school officially opens.
Friendship has had success with their schools in Washington DC, Baltimore, Maryland, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to school officials, and they said they are sure that they “will be successful in Arkansas as well.”
Friendship has been in existence for more than 20 years and has more than 5,000 students in 15 schools nationwide, along with a 100 percent college acceptance rate, according to school officials.