Arkansas City of Pine Bluff Undergoes School Transformation by Charter Network

By Greg Toppo
May 7, 2024

Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Friendship Aspire Academy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, may appear to be a place of worship at first glance, with one of its main buildings housed in a repurposed church building. The elementary school’s architectural charm, reminiscent of a ’60s-era cast concrete sanctuary complete with a pipe organ in an old choir loft, holds a special place in the hearts of families since its inception six years ago.

A pivotal institution in a community faced with declining schools amid a significant population decrease, Friendship Aspire Academy, founded and managed by the Washington, D.C.-based Friendship Education Foundation, stands as a beacon of trust amidst the city’s challenges.

Large-scale demographic shifts have seen Pine Bluff’s population decline by 12.5% from 2010 to 2020, coupled with a staggering loss of nearly 41% of student enrollment in the district, according to state data.

Friendship Aspire Academy Principal Jherrithan Dukes explores the school’s innovation center, formerly a church sanctuary. The school’s commitment to hiring Black teachers has fostered strong connections with Pine Bluff families. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

Remarkably, within a short span of six years, Friendship Aspire Academy has emerged as a leading elementary school in both the city and the state, boasting comprehensive support services such as fully staffed before- and after-care programs, tutoring opportunities, engaging family events, and a rigorous, literacy- and math-focused curriculum.

The school’s success has led to a growing demand, evidenced by a lengthy waiting list and the recent opening of a second elementary school in downtown Pine Bluff.

Kimberly Davis, dean of the School of Education at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, commended the transformative impact of Friendship Aspire Academy on the city’s educational landscape, noting the school’s unique approach in challenging conventional norms.

Educational experts highlight the positive influence of the new Friendship schools, which though serving a fraction of local students, have emerged as a key alternative to traditional district schools, reinstating hope in a city rich in educational and cultural history.

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