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— A conversion charter school is another big step closer to reality following Wednesday’s hearing before the Charter School Authorizing Panel in Little Rock.

In a Thursday email, Judy Winslett, assistant superintendent for the district and the school official who was charged with working toward establishing a conversion charter school in connection with the high school, informed the Eagle Observer that the authorizing panel approved of Gentry’s charter application and would recommend approval by the Arkansas Board of Education.

We “just got approval from charter authorizing panel,” Winslett wrote. “They will make their recommendation to the state board in December for official approval.”

Winslett also said the school district would “receive a letter from the panel with their individual comments and followup information.”

After numerous discussions and public hearings on the matter, the Gentry School Board unanimously approved applying for a conversion charter school at a special meeting on May 26. The conversion charter school application deadline was Sept. 9. The school district presented its case for being allowed to establish a charter school in connection with the high school at a hearing before the Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel on Nov. 18. If the district’s application is granted by the Arkansas State Board of Education, the new Gentry charter school will open in August of 2016.

The school district applied for a conversion charter school on the high school campus in an effort to better prepare students to enter the workforce upon graduation. The charter school at Gentry High School will be considering programs leading to industry certification in the medical and information technology areas. A focus on programs associated with the transportation industry, specifically diesel mechanic training, will also be a high priority, according to Winslett.

The school district, in a joint effort with Northwest Arkansas Community College, is already offering classes leading to certification as nurse aides and patient care technicians, with more classes anticipated.

“In the spring, prior to registration for the upcoming fall classes, GHS held an information session for students about regional career options and labor market data,” Winslett said. “Following the session, 202 students completed a survey indicating their career interest and post-secondary educational intents. Sixty-five percent of the students responding to the survey were interested in careers which would not require completion of a four-year college program,” she said.

“I feel like our school district is on the cusp of another move forward in what our district can do to better help students prepare for their place in the world,” Winslett said. “I am constantly amazed at the level of support citizens and business leaders of the Gentry school district demonstrate.”

Little start-up funding for a charter school is expected from the state, but much support and cooperation is being offered from local businesses and industry which have a shared interest in preparing high school graduates to fill needed job posts.

“The Gentry conversion charter school will equip students for the future by developing skills (and) by working with local businesses to prepare students to enter the workforce or pursue secondary education opportunities,” said Brae Harper, principal at Gentry High School.

“For a person like me, who was born in the 1950s in rural Arkansas, the idea of our Gentry graduates competing in a regional, state, national or world job marketplace is humbling,” said Randy Barrett, Gentry superintendent of schools. “I think the school district has for many years done a good job preparing our students for college. I think this recent venture towards a conversion charter school will allow us to place an equal emphasis on career education. The goal for college and the goal for careers is for the student to gain marketable skills in his or her chosen field and then get a job in that field. This is no better job — there are just different ways to prepare to get one,” Barrett said.

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