There’s a large crowd at the Willie Hinton Neighborhood Center tonight for a community forum titled “Protect Our Little Rock Schools.” It’s in advance of Wednesday’s big meeting before the State Board of Education, which is contemplating a takeover of the Little Rock School District. All of the LRSD board is here, save Leslie Fisken, who has all but explicitly called for the state to take over.
So is Sam Ledbetter, chair of the State Board. Kudos to him for coming out tonight to listen to a crowd that’s potentially less than sympathetic.
We’re hearing lots of impassioned calls for supporting the local board and the teachers of the LRSD. Lots of voices from teachers, former teachers, students, former students, parents, community leaders and others. As City Director Ken Richardson said a second ago in his remarks, it’s not often that you see a crowd in any setting in Little Rock that truly looks like the city, but this is nearly it: The room is quite a cross-section of young and old, black and white. (Though admittedly the Latino side of town is underrepresented.)
The most extensive remarks tonight came from board member Jim Ross, who told the crowd that takeover advocates are correct when the say the district has failed many students. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that the Little Rock School District is broken. That’s why I decided to run for this board,” he said. But, ‘the data shows we’re doing a pretty good job of educating gifted and talented kids … most white kids … middle class black children, middle class Latino and Asian children.
“So who are we failing? Poor kids,” said Ross. He ticked off multiple problems behind that failure: a “horrific crisis” in literacy, widespread poverty, limited early childhood education opportunities and an inconsistent curriculum. Perhaps most importantly, the existing system has evolved to concentrate poor kids into “segregated academies” that tend to lack highly qualified teachers and administrators, creating “dysfunctional learning environments.”
It’s worth taking a second to look at that last point, because it overlaps somewhat with the narrative of takeover advocates, who tend to blame subpar teachers for the district’s woes. Ross defended the LRSD’s teachers but also acknowledged that within the six schools in academic distress, “these children have unequal access to highly qualified teachers and administrators.” Many are new, inexperienced teachers, he said; many others are simply “exhausted” or have given up. Some classrooms contain long-term subs and buildings are filled with alternative-certified teachers with little training. Instructors need specific training in how to teach in high-poverty schools, he said.
Takeover advocates believe a state-ran district would have a freer hand in hiring and firing teachers; what would the local board do differently if it retains control? “This board’s going to move some teachers around,” said Ross. “We’re going to find teachers who want to work with these populations specifically. We’re going to incentivize buildings where these distressed kids are … not just with more money, but also more prep time to work together.” Those teachers also need smaller class sizes and more support, he said. He spoke of reconstituting schools entirely, as the board has recently discussed.
It’s bold language — but will it sway the decision makers on the State Board?
Board member Tara Shephard urged the crowd to contact the State Board in the coming days. “I have a child in the district … I am all of you,” she said. “It is public education. It is about the public. We need to hear from you. … Let the State of Arkansas as well as the LRSD know what your concerns are.”
Hall High teacher Georgia Walton said she’s taught for 28 years at her school. “Some of my students are here in this room, including one of the board members,” she said, and Shephard stood up and waved with a slightly bashful smile on her face. “This problem can be fixed, but it will take a team effort to make that happen. I would like to see this elected board be given the opportunity to make the changes necessary to move our students forward.”
Joyce Williams, a former principal who’s been involved in the district for decades, said talk takeover is “political … it has nothing to do with improving education.” She said the state Department of Education “has no track record of going into schools and improving instruction in classrooms. That happens when there are good teachers, good building administrators, and support from competent central office administrators, a school board and others.” She also underscored Ross’ point that the crisis in the district is anything but fabricated: “I have cried the past five summers as I work with students because they are functionally illiterate.”
A number of students from the LRSD also spoke. Dean Patterson, student body president at Central, told the crowd “to say you have failed me as a student is disrespectful to every one of you.” Hannah Burdett, a Parkview student, said “I don’t believe that student voices will be heard in a state controlled district.”
Another student from Parkview who lives in Southwest Little Rock said that students in his neighborhood “don’t want to go to school, because of the problems they’re facing in their community … Last Saturday, my friend was shot and killed. I know you guys heard about it in the news, but that was about 30 seconds away from my house.” If the district is no longer under local control, he said, he feels schools will lose their connection to neighborhoods. “If the state department takes over, they don’t know what’s going on in the community.”
Malik Marshall, a Central High student who’s president of the senior class, said “I’m real sick of walking into my AP classes and being the only black student in there.” Marshall said he campaigned to elect Jim Ross for exactly that reason. “I felt like he was going to make a difference, he was going to make a change … and now, he gets elected, we get this new school board in, they start doing things, I get involved with student government to work with the school board … and the government comes in and says they’re going to remove my voice. Is that what they’re doing?”