The Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday on some unhappy exchanges at a Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods forum with state school officials and residents and employees of the former Little Rock School District, now under state control following a state Board of Education takeover.
Frustration is high, understandably to a certain degree. A state Board certain the school district was failing on account of six schools among four dozen below the cutoff mark on standardized tests scores, isn’t quite sure yet how to proceed now that it has caught this 25,000-student bus.
Comes this morning some thoughts from Greg Adams, the patient and even former president of the former Little Rock School Board with some thoughts on the meeting, which he also attended. One particularly good point: Don’t fall into the trap that critics of the Little Rock School District so often fall into: To presume that people with different opinions don’t care about kids. (Think Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page and its tendency to blame all ills on the teachers’ union and John Walker while giving them no credit for passionate concerns about children.)
UPDATE: And following Greg Adams comes a response composed today by former School Board member Jim Ross, still waging a battle against a decision unlikely to be reversed any time soon.
FROM GREG ADAMS
A few thoughts after attending the Feb. 14 meeting of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods where Education Commissioner Tony Wood and state Education Board Chairman Sam Ledbetter responded to questions regarding plans for the LRSD after the state takeover on Jan. 28:
• First, thanks to the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods for hosting this event.
• Second, the state takeover was not the option I wanted and was the option I worked against. I preferred the option presented by state Board member, Jay Barth, that was defeated 5-4. My preference, and that of many, was rejected when the state Board voted 5-4 to dismiss the LRSD Board and takeover the district.
• For the perspective that the takeover was “undemocratic, well, yes and no. Yes, a publicly elected board was dissolved, but it was done under rules established by an elected legislative body being guided by a court decision which established that ultimately the state is responsible for insuring that all children are provided an adequate education. The needs of the students are to trump other concerns, and if the state deems that the students are being poorly served, the state has a responsibility to intervene. The perspective that the LRSD Board was serving students adequately was rejected, and so the state acted. Whether or not I agree with that conclusion, this is the system we have developed through our representative state government.
• For those disturbed that the state answered too many questions with “we don’t know” or “we don’t know at this time,” these statements are not of great concern to me. A greater concern would be if, after just more than two weeks, the state said “we know exactly what needs to be done” before taking the time to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the district and its challenges. Time is needed to research and to talk with and listen to district staff and stakeholders. Usually we know we have problems that need fixing before knowing what is needed to fix the problems—just think of when we have a serious health crisis or our car is running poorly. Time is needed to get an adequate diagnosis of the specifics of the problems and then develop an appropriate plan even though we may already know the generalities of the problems.
• Lastly, I would encourage all engaged (and engagement is good) to beware of the trap of thinking that anyone who does not see the situation as I do must not care for kids. This kind of thinking has been a frequent obstacle and burden for the district and in education debates. It parallels the thinking that anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t love our country, is not a good American, and/or is only out for his/her own interests. Surely part of a good education is learning that there are varieties of valuable perspectives and no one has a monopoly on truth and virtue. We need that lesson in this situation, too.
It has been a short time, less than three weeks, since the takeover and disappointments and anger understandably continue to be fresh and felt deeply. For the good of the students, however, I believe our efforts are best served by a focus on where we are today and where we’re going. Clearly, there is much that is uncertain and that is anxiety-producing for many, if not all, of us. I am certainly anxiously waiting and watching for the directions that will be taken for the LRSD. Patient engagement is not an easy task, but I believe it is the one we have.
One more thought: Along with following the issues, emailing the LRSD, Commissioner and state Board, and applying for the committees being formed, there will always be a need for more volunteers for academically distressed students all over the district. Volunteering is a sure way to contribute to improvement for students and the district. Nothing that the state has done or will do should change that need or benefit.
FROM JIM ROSS:
My friend, Greg Adams has written a message about the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods meeting that was held last Saturday. I have come to have great respect for Greg in the last few months of working together. Greg is a good man, with a good heart. He loves his own children, but he also loves the children in our city who find themselves oppressed and left out of our system. None of what I say below is directed at Greg, I simply disagree with some of his assertions in a recent Facebook post. I hope we can continue to build our friendship and one day again work to heal our city.
First Greg says, “thanks to the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods for hosting this event.”
I found this whole meeting to be a sham. It was a simple attempt to legitimize the takeover of our schools. There was zero interest in talking to the public or answering real questions. Once Ledbetter and Wood realized the room was full of 75 people against them, they sat in full arrogance with sarcastic smiles on their faces. It was an embarrassment to all involved.
Second, Greg asserts, “For the perspective that the takeover was “undemocratic, well, yes and no. Yes, a publicly elected board was dissolved, but it was done under rules established by an elected legislative body being guided by a court decision which established that ultimately the state is responsible for insuring that all children are provided an adequate education.”
Parts of this I agree with, but it is clear from the reading of the law that the state overstepped its bounds. Because Arkansas voters approved Amendment 74 in 1997, Article 14 section 3 of the Arkansas Constitution now assigns certain constitutional responsibilities to school boards. For the State Board of Education to require a school district to operate without a school board (especially for reasons unrelated to the improvement of academically distressed schools) would be unconstitutional. Further, the State Board of Education’s action is outside the bounds of the law because it is in excess of the authority given to it by Ark. Code Ann. § 6-15-401 et. seq. 101. Arkansas law (ACA § 6-15-401 et. seq.) provides for the identification by the Arkansas Department of Education and the classification by State Board of Education of a public school or a public school district in “academic distress”. Arkansas law (ACA § 6-15-401 et. seq.) provides for the identification by ADE and the classification by the State Board of Education of a public school or a public school district in “academic distress”. Ark. Code Ann. §6-15-430 describes “State Board of Education authority over a school or school district in academic distress.” Subsection (a) sets out a range of remedies for a school district in academic distress. This subsection does not apply to LRSD because the Little Rock School District is not in academic distress. Subsection (b) sets out a range of remedies for a public school in academic distress. This section authorizes SBE to take action necessary to improve the performance of one or more schools within a district and must be read in that context. Subsection (b) sets out a number of school specific remedies such as reorganizing or closing the school, removing its principal and reassigning its staff. So while I have great respect for my friend, Greg Adams, he is wrong on this assertion. The state’s action is illegal and must be fought against by all who respect democracy and the rule of law.
Third, Greg asserts, “For those disturbed that the state answered too many questions with “we don’t know” or “we don’t know at this time,” these statements are not of great concern to me. A greater concern would be if, after just more than two weeks, the state said “we know exactly what needs to be done” before taking the time to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the district and its challenges. Time is needed to research and to talk with and listen to district staff and stakeholders.”
If you had been at the meeting you would have been flabbergasted I believe. There is no more time. The stakeholders of the city of Little Rock who chose to use their democratic right and vote elected a board. That board had a plan. That board listened to the staff and the stakeholders. That board was moving forward. Even the Arkansas Department of Education praised its plans. We were going to deal with the real issues, not just manipulate kids so that the test scores looked better. Here are some of the ideas we were working to implement:
1. Reconstitute the distressed schools. All personnel, including administrators, would reapply. A committee composed of parents, teachers, community members, ADE staff, and LRSD administrators would interview finalists. Or, alternately, identify 25 core staff – all levels – in each school based on recommendations/observations from ADE and district staff (perhaps even students) and let them serve as the core team to reconstitute the school. ADE would work with LRSD to determine what happens to displaced personnel.
2. Offer incentives, including pay, smaller class sizes, increased preparation time, and autonomy to design assessments to bring the best teachers to these distressed schools, particularly nationally board-certified teachers.
3. Extend the contract year for teachers in distressed schools and require them to come to work two weeks early for professional development in teaching poor children and for team/school culture building and curriculum planning with professional development from the Arkansas Leadership Academy.
4. Require district principals whose schools are succeeding to work as mentors one day a week with new principals at distressed schools.
5. Require that the LRSD immediately implement an adult literacy program for the secondary distressed schools.
6. Coordinate wrap around services between appropriate state and local government entities in the distressed schools, particularly through existing partnerships, such as the Central Little Rock Promise neighborhood.
7. Split English classes at distressed secondary schools — a class dedicated to reading fiction that can work on reading skills and a writing class that will teach writing and grammar.
8. Formally invite business and community volunteers to advise and sponsor after-school clubs and tutoring/mentoring with a teacher at every distressed school.
9. Receive a waiver from ADHE which allows teacher and administrator-education programs, such as those at UALR, to place students for field placement experiences in distressed schools to give future teachers experience in working with kids in these schools (where they are likely to find their first available jobs). This will provide contact with ongoing research practices and allow more caring adults to work with students in smaller groups.
10. Require that LRSD immediately implement ESL welcome centers at elementary, middle, and high school levels like Springdale. Give the state ESL coordinator temporary oversight. Get the district into compliance with ESL laws.
11. Every child who is two grade levels or more behind will receive one-on-one reading intervention.
12. Remove long-term administrators who have been in charge for 20 plus years and made no change. One of these administrators actually admitted that we had failed at follow up and accountability. Sadly this man has been over accountability in the district for 25 years. He kept his job.
13. Massively reduce the top administration and return control of education to the teachers in the buildings.
Those supporting the state take over are now saying, “Give them time.” Again, there is no time to wait. If this is really about kids, then restore the elected board and get out of the way while we save our own children.
But this coup was never about the children. The state is in secret negotiations with businessmen to take over the budget. There has been no plan put forward by the state to deal with the reading crisis in our schools. To acquiesce to this anti-democratic attack on our city in the name of civility, would be to join those in the past who have told the poor, and African Americans, and Latinos to simply wait. As Dr, King said over 50 years ago, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
That brings me to Greg’s fourth assertion, “It has been a short time, less than three weeks, since the takeover and disappointments and anger understandably continue to be fresh and felt deeply. For the good of the students, however, I believe our efforts are best served by a focus on where we are today and where we’re going.” I am angry. Please know that. I am angry because once again white folks tell black folks to wait. These days are over for this white man. I will no longer be part of a school system that gives privileges to my children, just because we are white and middle class. What happened at this meeting last Saturday, was a form of civil disobedience, and that has always made good middle class people nervous. At the end of the day, we must take our schools back. If that means standing in the back of a room and yelling at those who would lie and try to justify their crimes, than so be it. I hope the kids in our city learn that sometimes you cannot just go along with those who would steal your democracy. As Mario Savio said in 1964, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
So I am focused on where we are today. We are in the midst of an attack on our democracy and our kids. We want our democracy back. We have a plan for our kids. To the state we simply say, get out of our way. There is no more time for waiting.