Waltons to bring new private school to Bentonville, competitors welcome it

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 2,254 views 

A new independent school under development by the Walton Family Foundation won’t impact other education opportunities, including the public school district and the soon-to-open campus of Haas Hall Academy, officials said.

The new private school has been rumored for months and will offer Northwest Arkansas residents a world class educational option. The school will be built in Bentonville, according to a news release from the foundation, but details are sketchy at the present time. The foundation announced Dr. Clayton Marsh, deputy dean of the College at Princeton University, has been named head of school and will assume his new duties Jan. 1, 2016. Marsh and his family plan to move to Bentonville next summer. For the first few months, Marsh will work remotely on the school’s development from New Jersey.

Other details, such as an opening date, location, number and grade levels of first students, maximum number of students, admission requirements, cost of tuition and type of curriculum, aren’t available yet. Many of those decisions will be made after Marsh is on board, according to a Walton Family Foundation spokesman. That information likely won’t be available until next spring.

Neither Marsh nor Karen Minkel, the Home Region Director for the foundation, was available for comment.

Haas Hall Academy plans to open its Bentonville campus next month. The Walton Family Foundation has provided financial support to build a location on South J Street, about a block from Bentonville High School.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with me,” said Martin Schoppmeyer, superintendent and founder of Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville.

Haas Hall is a public charter school, meaning it can operate with freedom from state regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The Arkansas Department of Education is the charter granting agency. At least two other charter schools operate in Benton County. Arkansas Arts Academy is in Rogers and Northwest Classical Academy is in Bentonville. A third charter school, a virtual school, is planned in Bentonville.  Several private faith-based schools are also located in Benton County.

The state education department doesn’t regulate private schools, such as the new independent school.

Bentonville School Superintendent Mike Poore said his district has not objected to other education choice opportunities that have come into Bentonville.

“Different options are a good thing,” he said. “We are a high performing school. Haas Hall is high performing school. It’s not a negative. The Walton family has been open in the direction they are going and I met with Clayton Marsh. I think they are just trying to offer another option.”

“The school will have its place and it all can work,” he said. “I am fortunate to have a group of people who work to impact kids in a better way. We will continue to do so. It’s our makeup, part of our DNA.”

Minkel said adding an option was a primary goal of the move to open a new charter school.

“One of the key points I the Home Region’s 2020 Strategic Plan is to create a world-class system of pre-K-12 schools,” Minkel said in the news release announcing Marsh’s appointment. “Our planning process helped up assess the current level of accessibility for parents and students to high-performing charter schools and traditional public schools. Our assessment also revealed than independent school was add to the range of quality options available.”

A feasibility study conducted by the family foundation revealed that 68% of Bentonville residents polled would support an independent school. A similar level of support exists across the region’s other school districts, according to the foundation spokesman.

“The region probably has reached a critical mass in terms of population and income to support such a school,” said Bob Maranto, who holds the endowed chair in leadership in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. “It makes a lot of sense.”

Maranto said private schools have been around a long time, often attracting faculty from Ivy League or other prestigious schools who bring a cosmopolitan experience to the education. Teachers may see a smaller number of students in the course of a day, unlike public schools. He suggested executives at Walmart or in the vendor community who come to Northwest Arkansas from other parts of the country or the world may find this type of educational experience a good option for their children. 

Marsh heads up the design and content of the undergraduate curriculum at Princeton. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton, a master’s degree from Stanford University, a doctorate from Columbia University, and a juris doctorate from the University of Michigan. He practiced law for several years before joining the Princeton faculty. He is a native of Kansas City, Mo., where his parents still live.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to create a new school on an open canvas in the heart of our country,” Marsh said in the news release. “And the conditions in Northwest Arkansas could not be better — a welcoming and dynamic community, a readiness for innovation in education, and, of course, the inspiring beauty of the Ozarks.”