AT COMMUNITY MEETING: State Board of Education members Charisse Dean and Fitz Hill with Mike Hernandez in the background.

Frustration and confusion marked the first of a series of planned meetings on the future of the Little Rock School District Tuesday night. Members of the State Board of Education hosted the “stakeholder meeting” at Arkansas Baptist College’s Old Main Auditorium to discuss the district, which was taken over in 2015 by the state because of low test scores in a handful of schools.

State Board members Fitz Hill and Charisse Dean, both of Little Rock, led the session, which largely revolved around how the state might reconstitute the LRSD, a proposition that seemed to leave many in the audience flummoxed.

Mike Hernandez, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Education, kicked the meeting off by explaining the quantitative and qualitative measures that make up the exit criteria the education department established for the district to return to local control. He did not say what those who follow education policy and the LRSD know: The district is not going to meet the full criteria when all the measures are fully vetted in the fall. Hernandez described the criteria as if it was delivered from on high, but it was created by Commissioner Johnny Key and the department — the State Board did not vote on it — and it was clearly designed so that the LRSD would fall short. It also wasn’t released until February after the district had been under state control for more than four years.

Hernandez then explained that, at the end of five years under state control, Arkansas Act 930 says the State Board has to either consolidate, annex or reconstitute the district.

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Again, Hernandez didn’t say, but the first two are not viable options. Consolidating the LRSD with parts of Pulaski County Special School District might make sense in some ways, but the PCSSD remains under a federal desegregation order and its boundaries can’t be shifted. So that leaves reconstitution, which is not defined in Act 930. That means the State Board can come up with just about anything under the sun and call it reconstitution.

But questions Dean and Hill posed to the community and shared in a survey, which is available online, hint at some of the directions the board is contemplating:

1. In thinking about a reconstituted LRSD, what are the pros and cons of school board elections that the State Board of Education should consider? Are there benefits to having an appointed vs an elected board? Should/ Could there be an option for both?

2. If the LRSD has one or more schools that do not meet the exit criteria, what are options under a reconstituted district? Discuss the pros and cons of each scenario:
a. Schools that meet exit criteria are returned to local control;
b. Schools that do not meet exit criteria remain under state authority.
c. Schools that do not meet exit criteria are closed and students moved to higher performing schools.

3. In a reconstituted LRSD, schools with the greatest needs should have access to the greatest resources, including the most effective teachers and administrators. What would motivate or incentivize educators to choose to work in the most challenging schools? How would educators be recruited and hired? What are the challenges to staffing struggling schools?

4. In a reconstituted LRSD, additional student supports should be available to students in the district’s struggling schools. What are some options for additional academic supports and wraparound services that should be made available to schools that do not meet exit criteria that are not currently in place within the district? Should private funds be utilized to make the supports available?

Parents, LRSD teachers and state legislators tore apart the questions and repeatedly told Dean and Hill that it was time to return the district to local control.

“It’s really difficult to respond to a list of false premises,” state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said. She also noted that a question on what would motivate or incentivize educators to choose to work at challenging schools assumes “that educators need to be incentivized to work at the schools that, for instance, I represent,” south of I-630.

“The schools that are not ‘meeting the criteria,’ we always want to do something to them as punishment,” Elliott said. “What is bubbling up is that we’re going to have a charterized achievement zone south of 630,” while the rest of the district is returned to local control. She said she hoped the community wouldn’t stand for that. “We are all in this together.”

UPDATE: An expanded version of the survey (not adequately promoted in the meeting) gives further idea of directions the education department and State Board are considering. Most of the questions deal with how schools that don’t meet the state’s exit criteria should be handled. Options include returning them to local control; closing them and moving students to higher performing schools; keeping them open with continued support from the state; requiring that some or all of their administrative, instructional or support staff be reassigned; requiring them to operate under an extended-day structure or extended-year calendar; making available increased salaries for teachers in those schools; requiring professional development for teachers and administrators in those schools; and using private funds to “enhance opportunities or supports” in those schools.

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The second survey also includes questions on whether the Little Rock Education Association, the strongest chapter of the teachers union in the state and long a target of so-called “school reformers,” improves “student learning” and “teacher effectiveness.”

Advocates and teachers ripped apart the format and questions posed by Dean and Hill at Arkansas Baptist.

“If you choose an appointed school board, you’re telling us that you don’t trust us to govern our schools,” parent Ali Noland said. “You know we want our school board back. What’s it going to take to get it back?” She also complained about the format, where initially only four speakers were to be allowed to comment for three minutes for each question. Dean testily defended the format, but she and Hill ultimately relented and let speakers talk as long as they wanted.

Parent Ryan Davis, who called himself a “proud product of the LRSD,” said he was concerned “because the premise of this conversation is that we don’t, and you all don’t, have a definition of reconstitution, but the questions seem to want to box us in to a definition of reconstitution.”

A number of teachers responded passionately to questions No. 2 and 3.

“Why would we would close schools?” asked art teacher Lori Kirchner. “When we start moving students, we’re not servicing them. We need to meet them where we are.” She also noted how frustrating it was to have to prepare students for standardized tests that have changed frequently in the last decade and to not have an idea of the state’s exit criteria for the district until the 11th hour.

Several teachers said they were offended by the suggestion that teachers were the problem in struggling schools, or that teachers needed extra incentive to work in those schools.

A woman who identified herself as a Mabelvale Middle School teacher said, “I love my kids. I love my kids so much they have my personal cell phone to call me at night to get math help on my homework. … I’m a bit insulted [for you] to think I would rather go anywhere else. … I choose to be there” She said that a former colleague had recently left to teach at Forest Heights STEM Academy. Her last year at Mabelvale, her former colleague’s classroom standardized test scores were low. At Forest Heights, she had the highest scores for her grade level. The Mabelvale teacher said it was offensive for the board to suggest that she wasn’t a good teacher or working hard. “These kids are amazing, but they do need more help,” she said.

Kelly Brooke, a 15-year teacher at David O. Dodd Elementary, said she had been recruited by other schools that might have better test scores, but she said, “I choose to stay where I am. I love my families. These are my kids, my babies … I teach my heart out every day. It doesn’t matter what our [school accountability] grade is. Telling me that I’m not doing my job at my school … that’s insulting.”

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Schell Gower, PTA president of Williams Magnet Elementary, said she was a business owner who could afford to send her kids to private school, but she choose the Little Rock School District. To other business owners, she said, “If we want a thriving Little Rock, you have to support the school district.”

State Reps. Tippi McCullough and Andrew Collins, both Democrats, called for the district to be returned to local control and Collins, whose district includes the Heights, said he thought it was a bad idea to create a “two-tiered” system of schools and echoed Elliott’s call of “we’re stronger together.”

Diane Zook, the State Board chairwoman, gave brief introductory remarks. Board member Sarah Moore was also in attendance. Community Advisory Board chairman Jeff Wood was there as was CAB member Melanie Fox. Charter advocate Gary Newton, whose aunt is Diane Zook, was also present. Last week, he posted on his Arkansas Learns Facebook page some ideas for the future of the district, which could give another hint of a path that at least Zook might pursue.

Below is the remaining schedule for the meetings, though Hill said one more meeting would be added in Southwest Little Rock. Elliott asked Hill to also consider hosting a meeting in the East End and said it didn’t make much sense to have a meeting at Saint Mark, which is near Arkansas Baptist. Hill said the board would take her suggestion under consideration.

Hernandez said that he anticipated the questions and format of the next meetings would remain the same. Hill said the final meeting would review all the board had heard at the previous meetings.

WHAT: Public Meeting
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. August 26, 2019
WHERE: Don R. Roberts Elementary School, 16601 LaMarche Drive, Little Rock, AR 72223

WHAT: Public Meeting
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. August 27, 2019
WHERE: Saint Mark Baptist Church, 5722 W. 12th St., Little Rock, AR 72204

WHAT: Public Meeting
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. September 3, 2019
WHERE: Auditorium, Arkansas Department of Education, Four Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201