Come July 1, Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School will become Friendship Aspire Southeast Pine Bluff. The struggling school was given another chance to stay open after the state Board of Education voted to unanimously keep the charter school afloat.

Come July 1, Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School will become Friendship Aspire Southeast Pine Bluff. The struggling school was given another chance to stay open after the state Board of Education voted to unanimously keep the charter school afloat.

“Friendship Aspire through the Friendship Education Foundation was recently approved to oversee the transition of Southeast Prep,” said Joe Harris, CEO of Friendship Education Foundation, a non-profit charter management organization based out of D.C. with offices in Little Rock. “So, we’re managing the school through the end of the school year.”

Back in January, the state Board of Education voted to keep the high school open even after the Charter Authorizing Panel unanimously voted to revoke the school’s state-issued charter in November after experiencing financial and academic problems. With the reprieve, the school obtained an order to meet certain conditions set forth by the state board to be reviewed in March including seeking assistance from an outside organization to prevent the charter school from closing.

“We’re working with them to ensure that the current seniors have a pathway to graduation as well as ensure there’s a smooth transition, so that the school doesn’t close and we phase out Southeast Prep and Friendship takes over the school,” said Harris.

“We see ourselves as long-term education partner in Pine Bluff.”

In the month of October, the Arkansas Department of Education released letter grades as part of the 2019 State and Federal Accountability Reports. Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School received an F for the 2018-2019 school year. When Jeremy Cegers, who was the school’s superintendent and principal at the time, went before the board in January, he detailed his plans to turn Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School around. Upon his return on March 12, the school’s initial negative-year-end-balance of $3, 414.00 stood at a projected end-of-the-year balance of $70,000.

“Our finances were -- yeah, they were pretty bad,” Cegers said. “The projection was that we wouldn't be able to end 2019 in the black. I am proud to say that we have improved financially every month since then. We've gone from not being able to finish the school year to actually having more money budgeted -- well, projected at the end of the year now than what we started with.”

As for the future of Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School, Harris and his foundation have big ideas for the students in the community.

“The decision to support the transition of Southeast Prep, one, comes out of the interest of parents to ensure they have a school option at the middle school level,” he said. “It also for us allows us to work with the parents, the kids and the city to ensure that this school remains open. No one wants to see another school close.”

By 2023, Harris proposes adding a middle school to the campus. But, in the meantime, he declares the focus remains on the current students and providing them the best education possible to succeed past graduation.

“Our priority is to graduate the current ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders,” he said. “In that last year we will be adding our middle school. Friendship has a slow growth model. So, we will be growing a grade level a year starting with 100 sixth graders and then we will grow to a full capacity of 750--- grades sixth through twelfth grade on that site.”

In comparison to Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School’s current education model, Harris aims to implement one that puts them ahead of the curve.

“What this pandemic has brought about is all schools having to think about what the new normal is going to be,” he said. “I’m of the belief that the traditional school structure will not return. All schools are going to have to begin to look at how they incorporate distance-learning into their educational school philosophy.”

With a strategy to infuse technology into education for students, distance-learning will play a key component in the foundation’s ability to do so.

“What makes Friendship unique is that we have direct experience in doing that,” he said. “We have a distance-learning school in the Friendship network as well as an online school that will serve as our model for creating this blended school model.”

Support from the City of Pine Bluff mayor Shirley Washington along with area businesses has helped in Friendship Education Foundation’s goal to be a life-long community partner, according to Harris. Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School’s soon-to-be sister school, Friendship Aspire Academy Public Charter School- Pine Bluff Campus has an enrollment of more than 100 students.

“The community has been very welcoming,” Harris said. “We garnered the trust of our families and that is reflected in the fact that parents think enough of us to send their kids to us. They know that we create a safe and nurturing environment for their kids and the academic rigor of our program supports the larger development and goals that parents have for their kids.”