POORE: Discussing the future of the LRSD and the Community Blueprint in 2018. Brian Chilson

Let’s talk about the competing proposals to rezone the Little Rock School District’s high schools.

Tonight at Parkview High School, from 6-7:30 p.m., the LRSD will hold the first of two community meetings to hear public input before deciding between three zoning options. The second meeting will be from 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4. The LRSD Community Advisory Board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in the LRSD board room, in the district’s administration building at 810 W. Markham St. to vote on the proposal favored. Its recommendation will presumably then be presented to Education Secretary Johnny Key for his approval, as he currently serves as the LRSD’s one-man school board.

Because rezoning LRSD schools directly impacts so many Little Rock families, there is intense interest in this issue even among people who have not otherwise followed the fight over the future of the LRSD. As we go into tonight’s meeting, a lot of new faces will be entering an arena that is already highly charged and still reeling from recent events. I encourage you to attend at least one of these sessions if you can. They will be a chance to learn about the various proposals, express your preferences and show your support for the district by being present.

Here are a few considerations to think about as we weigh the rezoning proposals this week:

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Do you want the LRSD to delay its current plans to close and consolidate elementary and middle schools to allow a locally elected school board to make such decisions?

At the November CAB meeting, Superintendent Michael Poore proposed delaying all changes to K-8 schools, which is one reason the public conversation around the upcoming meetings has centered exclusively on plans for rezoning LRSD high schools. (Another reason: A legal settlement requires the district to redraw high school attendance zones using a “race-neutral rationale”). However, since Poore’s suggestion has not yet been approved and adopted by the state, it may be helpful for community members who feel strongly about whether the district should defer such decisions to an elected board to speak to this issue. I am one of several LRSD supporters who have urged the CAB to defer any consequential decisions that can safely be left for an elected board to decide, but I will also be quick to point out that some families and teachers whose schools were slated to close after this school year may have already made arrangements in reliance on that plan. I think it would be valuable for the CAB to hear from community members who will be impacted by these changes about whether they would prefer for the district to delay implementation of the blueprint or move forward as originally scheduled.

What are the pros and cons of turning Hall High School into a magnet school without a geographic attendance zone?

While all three proposals envision Hall as a magnet school, two of the three would eliminate any geographic attendance zone for Hall. Under this approach, Hall would have a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) focus, and students from Forest Heights STEM Academy would receive priority admission. Things to consider and weigh when deciding whether or not to transform Hall into a magnet school include:

*Should it have selective admissions or be a blind lottery? Much of the feedback I have gotten in the past few weeks about the idea of making Hall a magnet school has raised concerns about magnet programs being selective and exclusive, and therefore not accessible for all students. Some argue that selective admissions, like the audition process at Parkview, make students feel more invested in their education and help build a school culture that values academic achievement. Others contend that selective admission to magnet programs excludes students for whom the program could be the most transformative and beneficial, for example, for an academically struggling student passionate about music or technology.

*Should there be a “shadow zone” so that students living very close to Hall get priority admissions? One of the most visually striking things about the proposals is the fact that Hall High would no longer have a geographic attendance zone, so students living very close to Hall would be zoned for Central. A few people have expressed a desire that students who lived near Hall should have priority in the admission process if they decided to apply to the Hall magnet school.

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*What kind of magnet program does the LRSD community want and need? While the proposals assume that Hall High would become a STEAM magnet to maintain continuity with Forest Heights STEM Academy, which would become a feeder school for Hall, community input could be valuable in shaping the programming and resources offered at Hall. What kind of magnet program is wanted and needed in LRSD? How would Hall, as a STEAM magnet, overlap with the Arts and Sciences focus of Parkview?

I have suggested exploring two potential themes specific to unique opportunities in Little Rock: First, a “Law and Government” magnet could attract students interested in public service, law school and politics, while partnering with state and local government, the Bowen Law School and local law firms. Second, a “Media and Journalism” magnet could attract students interested in all aspects of journalism and media, including today’s social-media “influencer” culture, while partnering with our local television news stations, print media, radio and marketing/PR firms that offer social media services.

Other people have suggested a “Restorative Justice/Anti-Racism” magnet program, an “Entrepreneurship Academy,” a school with a focus on medical professions and health, a “Classical Studies” magnet program focused on Latin, philosophy, and religion or a foreign-language immersion program. Some parents have said that the current STEAM focus is exactly what they and their students are looking for, especially if it incorporates exciting new uses of technology, such as video games as a method of subject-matter instruction. As you weigh these options and imagine others, focus on things that you would genuinely want to see offered for your children or grandchildren, rather than focusing on what you think other segments of the population need. What would get your kids excited about going to school? What kind of programing would put Hall at the top of your list as a parent?

*What about transportation? Several people have raised concerns about whether magnet schools, like charter schools, effectively exclude students whose parents cannot provide daily transportation to and from school. What has your experience been with magnet schools in LRSD? Was transportation an issue? If so, this might be something you want to address at the meeting at Parkview, and if not, you may be able to share ways that this concern can be alleviated.

*If corporate partnerships are a key part of the plan to provide magnet programming for Hall, will that support come with strings attached? Community partnerships have the capacity to do significant good when they help bring volunteers and resources into traditional public schools, and if the Little Rock business community is willing to help provide support and opportunities for LRSD students, that’s a good thing. At the same time, LRSD advocates are wary of corporate gifts that come with conditions or restrictions. Building a magnet program that hinges on community partnerships puts the LRSD in the position of having to keep those community partners happy or risk losing resources on which a school has come to rely. Ultimately, the balance depends on having decision-makers that the community trusts to prioritize the needs of the district while fostering healthy community partnerships. (That trust starts with an elected school board.)

What is the difference between Option 1 and Option 2?

The plans appear to be exactly the same, except that Option 2 gives students in a specific area of West Little Rock the choice of attending either Pinnacle View High School or Central High. What are the benefits or drawbacks of essentially double-zoning one part of our city? Is this preferential treatment of some LRSD families, or is it addressing a specific need? If you have strong feelings about the dual-zoned area in Option 2, this is an issue to raise at one of the Parkview meetings.

What about Option 3, in which Hall High would still be a magnet school but would have an expanded geographic zone?

Unlike the first two options, the third proposal gives Hall a traditional school zone, expanding it from its current boundaries to include a larger part of Hillcrest, Northwest Little Rock and the Treasure Hill area. This plan does not include the development of a Pinnacle View High School for West Little Rock.

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It is safe to say that this plan is generally unpopular in many of the areas that would be added to the Hall High attendance zone. Some people are upset about having their homes rezoned for Hall because they do not view Hall as a desirable option for their own children to attend, and they worry that rezoning their homes for a less-desirable school will reduce the value of their property. Others are upset about not getting the WLR high school they have been seeking for years.

At the same time, others support this approach, arguing that a traditional attendance zone for Hall would alleviate concerns about selective admission, lack of transportation, and other factors that can make magnet schools inaccessible. They argue that the state grading system by which Hall has been labeled an “F” school is not a fair assessment of the education provided at Hall, and that the “F” grade is really just an indication of a school with a high-poverty student population.

Some advocates urge families to invest in the future success of Hall, arguing that it will be virtually impossible to make things better if LRSD supporters aren’t willing to be part of the change by sending their own kids to Hall. Others say that they have made life decisions, like where to buy a home, based on their desire for a specific school and feel blindsided by the prospect of sudden changes that will directly impact their children. For all sides, the lack of an elected school board accountable to the people who will be directly affected by these decisions makes the entire issue even more frustrating.

To add an extra layer of complexity to the issue, Central and Hall have historically been rivals, and many parents currently trying to make sense of these rezoning proposals are proud LRSD graduates who have strong family traditions of attending one of the schools — traditions that they hope to pass down to their children. Full transparency: My husband was “Mr. Tiger Spirit 1999” and has been stoking our children’s excitement about becoming Central High Tigers since they were old enough to say “Hail to the Old Gold.” A neighbor, on the other hand, comes from a long line of Hall High graduates and worries that if her alma mater becomes a magnet program with exclusive admissions, her own sons won’t be able to attend. In both cases, there is an unquantifiable element of school-specific culture and identity that makes these issues even harder to discuss.

Finally, for many families across our city, I imagine it can be very difficult to hear your neighbors in Hillcrest or West Little Rock argue that the school where you send your children is not good enough for them to send theirs. I fear that the issue of what happens to Hall High, and specifically the way that we talk about Option 3, could threaten the budding #OneLRSD movement by pitting some parts of our city against others just as we were starting to see stronger districtwide LRSD pride and identity.

How can we move forward together to make the best decision for all students? I won’t try to suggest that there is one “right” answer for how we rezone our high schools, but I think there is a right way to approach how we make these decisions. The CAB and ultimately Secretary Key need to truly listen to the community, and members of our community need to truly listen to each other. We must intentionally carry on in the spirit of unity that we have been working so hard to build recently. We cannot ask people to ignore what they think is best for their own families and their children. That isn’t realistic. But, we can and should encourage everyone to consider what is best for other members of our community as well. And we should do so with grace, kindness and human empathy.

Focusing on what is good for all students might mean thinking about low-income students who would not be able to access exciting new programs at Hall unless free and reliable transportation was provided and admissions were not based on test scores, and it might mean putting ourselves in the shoes of WLR families who simply want to send their children to a public high school that is located within a reasonable driving distance from where they live, work, shop and worship.

Right now, all eyes are on Little Rock, waiting to see if we will crumble under the pressure of recent events. Let’s show the state, yet again, that we are capable of coming together as a community and working through tough issues, and let’s show our neighbors here in Little Rock that holding hands together in front of Central High to fight for #OneLRSD wasn’t just a good photo op. We are at a crossroads, and we need LRSD families willing to be trailblazers, change-makers and leaders. But, not every part of this journey is a battle, and we also need a whole lot of LRSD families willing to be compassionate listeners, creative problem-solvers and good neighbors along the way.