The future of Hall High School dominated the discussion at a community forum on Little Rock School District boundary adjustments Monday night. Several dozen people attended the LRSD forum at Parkview High School. A second forum will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. at Parkview Wednesday. (The State Board of Education is also holding a work session to discuss the future of the LRSD at 3 p.m. Wednesday; not Tuesday as I’d previously written).
The LRSD Community Blueprint for reconfiguring the district, developed last year and formally approved earlier this year, outlined a number of significant changes for the district, including closing several elementary schools and opening a new K-8 school. At last month’s LRSD Community Advisory Board meeting, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore recommended that the district delay moving forward with much of the Blueprint in the 2020/2021 school year. He said the LRSD community was “raw” from the fight over local control and thought the decision on how to move forward on the Blueprint could be left to a local board.
But the LRSD can’t delay big changes in its high schools, Poore says. For one, a new Southwest High School will open, drawing students who live in the current J.A. Fair and McClellan high school attendance zones and pulling in about 300 English language learners who now attend Hall High. Also, a legal settlement requires the district to redraw high school attendance boundaries using race-neutral rationale. The district has determined three options it says meets that criteria.
The LRSD has a questionnaire on its website for the community to provide feedback on the plans.
Hall is central to all options. In each one, it becomes a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet school. In options 1 and 2, it would operate as purely a magnet school with no attendance zone. In option 3, it retains an attendance zone, which would expand to include areas now zoned for Central High, including parts of Stifft Station and Hillcrest.
Hall has to be successful for the district to be successful, Poore suggested. It’s partly a numbers game. With the expansion of charter schools in recent years, the district has steadily lost students. That’s why it shuttered several schools in 2017 and is slated to close more in the near future, but after Fair and McClellan close at the end of this school year, the LRSD can’t afford to close any high schools, and in the 2020 school year, all the high schools are expected to be close to full (and Central will continue to be overcapacity) — except for Hall. In a breakout session, Randy Rutherford, executive director for middle and high schools, said that Hall could accommodate about 1,900 students, but only has about 900 in attendance now — and about one-third of those are headed to the new Southwest High School.
Poore stressed the importance of community buy-in for transforming Hall, which earned an “F” letter grade this year (based largely on standardized test scores experts agree largely measure household income).
“This whole community has to step up and support Hall,” he said. “We have to find ways to make it a stronger opportunity for young people. That’s going to take the school district, that’s going to take the state — I’m talking about the commissioner and I’d even throw in the governor in that.”
After making opening explanatory remarks, Poore directed attendees into breakout rooms focused on high school options 1 and 2, high school option 3 and his recommendation to delay implementing Community Blueprint elementary and middle school changes. The format inspired a lot of grumbling as it was hard to float between rooms and Poore’s deputies didn’t have answers to community questions. I spent most of the time in the option 3 room with Hillcrest parents who live between Spruce and Woodrow streets and south of Lee (and north of I-630) and were opposed to the plan and frustrated that Rutherford didn’t have answers or authority. Several were parents of current Central students who have to transfer to Hall amid their high school career — unless the district decided to grandfather them in.
During the public comment session that followed, parent and frequent Arkansas Times contributor Ali Noland suggested, “I hope y’all will listen to the community and maybe meld some of the concerns into an option that’s not part of what’s being presented.”
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) pointed out the irony that for all the talk of “race-neutral” high school boundaries, the new Southwest High School will be made up almost entirely of black and brown kids.
“I don’t think we have a school in the district that’s as segregated as Southwest is going to be,” she said, noting that it would be the only high school not to have a magnet component or something similar. “Are there no white parents that would want their kids to go to the Southwest High School?” she asked.
“Whether we are OK with hypersegregated schools is really up to us in a lot of ways,” Elliott said. “There is nothing under the sun that anyone can do to draw lines to help us avoid segregating our schools when we continue to insist on segregating ourselves and then want community schools.”
Parent Vicki Hatter said she didn’t think it was fair that option 2 provides more choice to West Little Rock families. In it, families in a section of West Little Rock could choose between attending Pinnacle View High School or Central High.
Parent Megan Eves said, “The timing of this is extraordinarily problematic. Redrawing boundary lines under the best of conditions would be emotional and fraught and difficult. We are in the worst of conditions. There’s no trust. … It’s also problematic because there’s no accountability. Our school board is absent. I wish I could say that I was disappointed not to see Johnny Key, but it’s expected that he’s not here.”
She said she understood the intent of making Hall an attractive school, but she lamented the lack of details on what the re-envisioned school will look like.
“We don’t know which teachers would be assigned to Hall,” she said. “We don’t know what the curriculum would be. Some STEM curriculum is good; some is crap.”
Anna Strong, a parent of a child at Rockefeller’s early childhood center, praised that facility and called for the district to expand its pre-K offerings. Under the Blueprint, Rockefeller Elementary would become pre-K only and students zoned for Rockefeller would attend Washington. “85 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they enter pre-k3,” she said. “I think it’s really important for the longterm success of our school district for us to continue to invest in early childhood and grow that. We desperately need more licensed childcare that is high quality in our community, and the one in Rockefeller is amazing.”
Strong also suggested that the district undertake more robust community engagement measures, including door-to-door outreach.
Hillcrest resident Claudia Utley told Poore that she’d often heard him speak about the importance of public support for public schools. She said option 3 “would greatly violate that. Hillcrest is a neighborhood revered across the entire state for its neighborhood spirit, for its community involvement and for its advocacy for public schools. This is a spirit that grows organically. It’s not a topdown development. … We volunteer. We serve on the PTA. We fundraise. We write letters. We are there. We do everything you ask private residents to do to make sure their public schools are thriving. This proposed option of cleaving the neighborhood in half violates that so much.”