The 2019-2020 school year might not have panned out according to anyone’s expectations, but there is at least one school in Central Arkansas where the year surpassed the faculty’s and staff’s wildest dreams.
Premier High School in North Little Rock graduated 15 students last school year – its first in Arkansas. It wasn’t the number of graduates in the inaugural class that impresses, but the trials those young adults had overcome to get to that moment. For some, it was balancing responsibilities as an unplanned teenage parent. For others, it was overcoming academic and deportment problems that had expelled them from previous schools. For still others, it was run-ins with the law, up–to and including time in the juvenile justice system.
“In a snapshot, what we like to say is, we provide hope to students through an innovative and encouraging learning environment,” said Dennis Felton Jr., state director of Premier High School and state director of School Innovation and Expansion. “As an organization, we like to say that we’re aiming to serve the needs of the community.”
The North Little Rock campus, serving grades 9-12, is one of several Arkansas schools operated by Texas-based non-profit charter school management company Responsive Education Solutions. In 2013, the company opened Premier High School of Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas Scholastic Academy in Bentonville, the latter serving grades K-12. The following year, the company opened Quest Academy in West Little Rock, serving grades 6-12.
All told, Responsive Education Solutions has grown from 10 Premier High Schools in Texas in 1999 to 70 total schools today in Texas and Arkansas with eyes on future expansion in these markets as well as Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee.
The company’s campuses are separated into various curriculums that serve different populations, with Premier High Schools focused entirely on helping kids who are behind due to various life challenges.
“The Premier model was designed for the student that has become disengaged in the learning process,” Felton said. “Whether that student has a disciplinary history, academic issues, got behind or been retained or have a lack of credit; whether they’re a teen parent who’s become disengaged in the process because of lack of attendance or whether they’re a full-time student and has become disengaged, we try to get them back on track to graduate and receive a high school diploma.”
Damon Teas, North Little Rock campus director, said the difference between the Premier system and other schools is the intentionality of keeping head count low and providing hyper-personalized attention to students, starting with their schedule.
“In our program, everybody has their own, individualized growth plan,” he said. “There’s no master schedule at Premier like there is at a traditional school. Every schedule is, essentially, detailed in length for each individual student’s needs. So, nobody’s going to have to have the same schedule that you have.
“The other thing is, we’re a content-mastery program. You have to reach certain milestones to move on to the next chapter, the next unit, the next section. That way, kids aren’t just memorizing a couple of answers and putting them on a piece of paper while never being able to retain or use the information. That’s not educating a kid, that’s memorization.
“Finally, we provide tutoring where if you need extra help, you can go across the hall and see a Content Specialist and they’ll sit down with you one-on-one. We are self-paced and you can make up a lot of ground in a hurry.”
The Premier model has proven very successful and as a free public charter school, very attractive to boot. Enrollment tripled at the North Little Rock campus over the course of its first academic year and the Bentonville academy has almost as many on its waiting list (800) as it has students (900). Such demand is prompting a second academy in Rogers as well as a Premier High School campus in Springdale in 2021.
“There’s a huge demand and that demand speaks volumes to us about the community in which we’re trying to catch up,” Felton said. “We don’t want that many kids on the waiting list because that’s that many kids who are interested in an educational opportunity and not able to participate. That keeps us up at night. We want to continue to grow to meet the demand that we see.”