Officials of eStem Public Charter Schools, joined by Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, cut the ribbon Sat. morning to open their new location on the campus of UA-Little Rock, perhaps the first public charter school on the campus of a public university in the nation.
"The future is here; the future is today," said eStem CEO John Bacon in christening the new, approximately 33,000-square-foot building.
Later, Bacon told KUAR he has not found another such arrangement in the U.S. He says some universities operate their own private, preparatory schools on campus, but he knows of no other public charter/public university partnership such as this one.
About half of it is the old Larson Hall, one of the original buildings on the UA-Little Rock campus. The other half is new construction that joins with the old building and features a mat-black facade facing south on the campus's southwest corner.
"The partnership between UA-Little Rock and the eStem public charter, I think, is a great marriage," Stodola told the crowd before the ribbon-cutting. "Being around an academic environment can only help to make (eStem students) the best and the brightest because they're going to be the ones that lead this city, lead this state and, indeed, lead this country."
The move is already paying off in growth. Bacon said eStem in all grades is growing from about 1,500 students to almost 2,000 this year.
A new campus for lower grades is opening next year in the East Village area of Little Rock, allowing eStem to serve a total of about 3,800 students within five years.
About 750 students will attend the new high school this year. Bacon said when the school grows, they'll expand to take over a floor of Ross Hall, just to the north of the high school.
Bacon expects to top 1,000 students within two-to-three years, placing eStem right behind Little Rock Central in enrollment among city high schools.
School-choice critics say charter schools takes students--and hence, resources--away from conventional public schools. But parents of eStem students, who span the socio-economic spectrum, are sold on the concept.
"Some people think a charter school is a private school. It's not," said Tony Ramick, whose daughter earned a full college scholarship at eStem and whose son, Axton, hopes to do the same as a senior this year.
"Anyone that wants to attend a public school, can," Ramick said. "EStem has had a waiting list. Why is that? I think it's because they have an extended school day, an extended year, and they're focus is on academics, not athletics."
"We are a school like any other school," eStem Principal Johnecia Howard said. "We want children to be educated, not just the ones who choose to come here, but all kids. The resources we are given, we're applying right back to the classroom, just like every other school is."