GUEST BLOG: Families should be able to access the resources their children need, including private schooling, regardless of income.

Miranda Cavaness is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and has worked in the field of applied behavior analysis since 2014. She operates Arrows Academy, a microschool in Paragould.

Having grown up with both parents working in public education, and having attended public school myself, I understand why Gwen Faulkenberry wrote so passionately about the need to protect public schools in “In this together: Vouching for public schools.” 

However, I have learned from both personal and professional experience, that education isn’t one size fits all. I have seen the need for additional education options beyond traditional public schools.

My son, Carter, has ASD, dyslexia, PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. He started out in public school and functioned relatively well until third grade. Then, he started falling further and further behind in reading and having more and more panic attacks at school. The large class sizes were too much for him, and he was being bullied. He started skipping breakfast in the cafeteria because it caused him too much stress.

We could not afford to send him to a private school, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to educate my child and continue working full time. Overwhelmed, I spent substantial time and money searching for materials to begin homeschooling him. 

Fortunately, I found a local homeschool group with more than 100 children enrolled, and then found programs and materials through the Prenda microschool model. We opened Arrows Academy in August to help other families in similar situations, and it filled up immediately. 

From a professional perspective, I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology and am a board-certified behavior analyst. Through my work with children on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities, I have learned some school districts are simply not equipped to tend all students, especially those with significant behavioral issues.  

We currently have two schools paying for children to come to Arrows Academy due to significant maladaptive behaviors that the school is unable to address safely. I also serve several other children whom the school has placed in homebound service, which usually consists of a paraprofessional coming to the home 30 minutes to an hour a week to “educate” the children. Where public schools — by their own admission — could not help these students, Arrows Academy has given them a learning environment designed to fit their needs.  There is no good reason for the state to pay more than $100,000 to “socially promote” a child to graduation, when it can pay a fraction of that cost with a better outcome for the child. 

As for Carter, he is flourishing in the microschool. He is now reading on grade level and has made significant progress in math. His anxiety levels have calmed to the point where he is able to speak in front of gatherings and lead prayers. He even acted in a local production of The Lion King Jr.! 

So, I support programs that give families access to alternative education options. It’s not a scam, and no one is trying to defund public schools. I just know there is no worse feeling for a special needs parent, or really any parent, than knowing there are resources available to get your kids the best care, education and future possible, but not being able to access them. Families should be able to access the resources their children need, including private schooling, regardless of income.


GUEST BLOG: Nothing is more stifling to education than limiting opportunities

Amanda Escue lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas, with her husband, Jeremy, and children. Through her work as a speech language pathologist, and also as a parent of a child with special needs, Amanda saw how students struggle when they are trapped in a learning environment not suitable for them. So, she and Jeremy opened the Lighthouse Homeschool Cooperative four years ago to give these students (and their families) help and hope. Last year, Lighthouse adopted the Prenda microschool model of learning. 

Nothing is more stifling to education than limiting opportunities. The unyielding labor to control education in our state is glaring. Parents of struggling learners have a handful of options. They can surrender their children to a school system that may or may not be able to satisfy their educational needs, pay burdensome out-of-pocket tuitions for private school, or homeschool. For obvious reasons, the latter two options are often not feasible, leaving families with what seems to be the only choice, settling for an inadequate educational experience provided by the local school district.

There is no overstating my appreciation for teachers. Anyone with a heart for education is a special person, indeed. Any teacher able to navigate the current educational system without losing passion and focus on individualized education is, no doubt, a superhero. Some teachers even support school choice initiatives: 56% of teachers in the Arkansas State Teachers Association, a nonpartisan and nonunion education association, supported HB1371, recent legislation that would have provided funding for both private school scholarships and public school grants.

The need for educational reform in the state of Arkansas is a point that is rarely denied. The process by which reform is to occur is widely debated, and in some cases, vehemently controverted. The opposition to educational freedoms resort to personal attack, claims of racism and accusations of corruption as routine responses to educational choice. This inability to provide logical indictment against educational choice in Arkansas is a clear sign of a weak cohort.

The knee-jerk reaction from school administration is understandable. For many rural communities in Arkansas, the local school district is the primary source of jobs and social opportunities for families. It is no surprise that accusations of the local school being inept to provide for the needs of struggling students triggers strong emotions. In nearly every district, though, there are families who feel their children are being overlooked and are suffering due to the school’s shortcomings. Our children are too precious to allow our feelings to close our eyes and ears to the reality that exists for thousands of students in our state. It is past time to start really listening to their stories and asking what we need to do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look far for solutions. Other states have already begun this work of implementing alternative learning environments. In a study of three voucher programs and five privately funded scholarship programs across five states and D.C., EdChoice found that a vast majority of the research (11 out of 17)  showed positive outcomes for program participant test scores. Beyond  that, research from the University of Arkansas showed that expansion of school choice programs has led to higher NAEP achievement levels and higher NAEP achievement gains among public school students as well.

I write this as one who has also done the work to establish an alternative learning environment in our community. My husband and I made the decision to homeschool 12 years ago when our son with autism needed a different learning environment than we felt our local school district would not provide. For years, we have felt the options for him were too limiting. Four years ago, we created a school for other children in our area with similar needs. Now these students have a community in which they thrive, and when children thrive, they learn. They receive      therapeutic interventions and are given customized educational experiences that allow them to work at their pace with a diverse peer-focused atmosphere. It is beautiful, and it works. However, it isn’t cheap.

Current educational options are often too expensive for the families who need them most. These families are eligible for the same guarantees of a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for their children, provided under the federal IDEA law. Yet these families are not able to access their child’s appropriated funds to provide them an education that is appropriate for their child because our legislators refuse to allow more educational freedoms to our students. Currently, public school districts retain funds for students who enroll in private school or are being homeschooled, creating even more incentive for these districts to fail to provide for the needs of these students.

Our state’s legislators have had several opportunities over the past decade to open the door for educational choice for struggling learners in Arkansas. Again, and again, the door is closed. I question why our representative electors are not considering this wealth of research substantiating that broader options for education leads to better educational, health and economic outcomes for students. It is clear that educational choice is the path to a better Arkansas.

 


GUEST BLOG: Examining the foundation of our education system in the wake of the pandemic

Alexis Cauthen lives in Vilonia, Arkansas, with her husband, Shane, and two boys, Drake and Casen. Alexis attended the University of Central Arkansas where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Education as an English major. She was a public school educator with the Cabot School District for seven years before she left the classroom to pursue a calling to open a childcare facility in Vilonia. 
 
She opened Central Christian Academy of Vilonia in January of 2015 after rebuilding her own home that was destroyed in the EF4 tornado the previous year. Her childcare center serves approximately 135 families each year in the Vilonia community. Along with being a preschool owner and director, she is also a worship leader, avid reader, program director and pioneer of a new microschool. Her passion, her faith and her background in education all fuel her to advocate for the educational rights of children and families.  

In 2014, the small town of Vilonia was devastated by an EF4 tornado. Many homes were completely decimated, and some families were forced to examine the foundation that was left after the debris and rubble were cleared to determine if they could rebuild on the same foundation or if they would need to start over somewhere new.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many families faced with a similar choice. The foundations of our society are laying bare for the world, and families are starting to assess these foundations from a new perspective. Many are now seeing cracks they couldn’t see before the storm.

The foundation that is receiving the closest examination is that of our educational system. After months of homeschooling, many parents came out of isolation with a greater admiration for educators. Many also came out with a greater understanding of their child’s diverse needs and individual learning styles, and as a result, have started considering new education options that would better suit these needs.

In the tiny town of Vilonia, one such option is available. The highly ranked Vilonia School District is the heart of the town and is the main industry in that area. Still, while most agree that Vilonia is rich with quality public school educators and administrators, many feel that another option is best for their children. This sentiment had been shared so often, especially since the pandemic began, that another option was created. A small “microschool” opened in the heart of Vilonia. This new educational concept began as a way to blend the rigor, social engagement, and structure of a public-school setting with the freedom, involvement and flexibility of the homeschool setting.

In these new educational environments, children, teachers and parents are discovering new possibilities for how they do school and do life. Parents, even those with full-time careers, can have more say-so in their children’s education. Parents also have the flexibility to travel with their children any time of year and spend as much time with their children as they are able without fear of attendance non-compliance.

Some families signed up for the microschool because it accommodates medical conditions better than traditional options. For example, Carmen Martin said she enrolled her child at the new microschool “because he is diabetic. He has to be very closely monitored, and I was getting calls multiple times a week from the school because he was not allowed to stay if his blood sugar went above or below a certain level, and they were not allowed to do what was required to change his site or adjust his insulin. I was having to leave work sometimes multiple times a week, and he was missing so much instructional time.”

In addition, many microschools and private schools place as much or more emphasis on physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual health and development. Even the name of this microschool in Vilonia reflects this focus. Arukah is Hebrew for “wholeness.” The focus and vision of this program is the growth, health and development of the whole child.

“With our oldest going into kindergarten, my husband and I debated on public school. We both knew that our son would thrive socially, emotionally and even intellectually anywhere he was a student, but we also wanted him to grow spiritually and morally as well,” Krystal Grimes said. “Our choice to enroll him in a private option has provided a continuity of care and enforcement of values. When my son told his teachers of an idea he had to ensure the homeless had food, they helped his idea become a reality by hosting a food drive. This taught him so many life lessons, especially how he can make a difference in the world.”

Ultimately though, the most important thing to remember is that a variety of options to meet the varied needs of children is always a good thing. Doing what is best for children should always take precedence over what is best for the system.

Ashley Echols, another parent who enrolled her child in a private educational option, said this, “Every child is different and has different educational needs. An environment, learning style and curriculum that is good for one child isn’t necessarily the best for another child.”


GUEST BLOG: It's all about the children

Jherrithan Dukes is a Little Rock native. His passion for music paved the way for him to receive a full band scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He graduated with honors from UAPB with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and went to work for the Little Rock School District.

Dukes went on to serve as assistant principal at eStem Public Charter Schools. He is now the principal at Friendship Aspire Academy Pine Bluff.

Dukes now holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and Supervision from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is pursuing an Educational Doctorate in Transformational Leadership.

It’s all about the children.

Adults can debate education policy endlessly, but at the end of the day, we need to remember that learning institutions share the same purpose: to educate children and make sure their needs are met.

Growing up in Little Rock, I attended traditional public schools, and I really enjoyed that experience. I played with our school’s band and received a full band scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I taught music in the traditional public school system in Little Rock. So, I’m not here to say anything negative about traditional public schools.

What I am saying is this: Parents know their children, and they need to be able to choose the learning environments that best align with their children’s needs.

After teaching in the Little Rock School District, I went on to serve as the assistant principal at eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock. Now, I am the principal of Friendship Aspire Academy Public Charter School in Pine Bluff. When I first left the traditional public school system, a lot of people were unhappy with me because there are lot of things that people don’t understand (or misunderstand) about charter schools.

It’s true that as an employee of a charter school, I have more freedom in the classroom. I have the resources that I need and the autonomy that I want to be able to lead, based on research and based on experience. I have the autonomy to do what I know is right for children.

That additional freedom doesn’t mean that charter schools aren’t held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools, though. If anything, charter schools are held to stricter standard, because we receive less funding to do the same job. We have to monitor and report data on student enrollment and attendance throughout the year, and our students are subject to the same testing as traditional schools. We receive letter grades just like traditional districts. We have to keep the same standards up with the extra pressure of knowing that we are not guaranteed to be open tomorrow. We should all operate under that same pressure. All Arkansas’s districts should be held to the same accountability; all of us should be held to the fire to do what we signed up to do.

One positive aspect about charter schools is that when they write their charters, they have the ability to organize around a distinctive vision. It has to be something the organization is really passionate about, that’s really going to drive the mission and vision forward. Because of that, some charter schools, like the ones that I have worked at and am working at now, really have an increased focus on the whole child – addressing the students social emotional needs, as well as the academic needs.

So, charter schools provide options for parents that need that. Parents just need to take time to investigate the mission and vision of the different schools to see which one fits the needs of their child. They should look for evidence of recent and prior students’ success. Most importantly, parents, know your child and know you child’s needs, and go with the option that aligns with your child’s needs.

We’re all in it to provide different options for children.