The Little Rock School District Community Advisory Board voted 5-1 to approve the recommendation of LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore and recommend to Education Secretary Johnny Key a plan to rezone high schools, in which Hall High School will become a magnet school without an attendance zone. Key acts as the LRSD’s school board in state takeover and will make the ultimate decision.
Under the plan, known as Option 2, the district will only have two attendance zones: one for the new Southwest High School, which combines those that now include the zones for McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools and a new sliver of midtown south of I-630, and an expanded Central High zone that covers the rest of the city. Students zoned for Pinnacle View Middle School will have the option of attending Pinnacle View High School’s expanding high school if there is space available, but Central will be their default zone. CAB member Anthony Hampton was the lone vote against the plan.
A motion to delay implementation of the LRSD Community Blueprint plans for reconfiguring several elementary and middle schools failed on a 3-3 vote. Chairman Jeff Wood, Michael Mason and LaShannon Spencer voted against delaying; Melanie Fox, Lupita Chavarria-Garcia Mason and Hampton voted for the delay.
Poore had floated the idea of delaying the changes at last month’s CAB meeting because of raw emotions in the community related to the fight for local control, but he reversed himself Thursday night. He said in the online community survey and the two district meetings held at Parkview High School, he’d heard no pushback about the plan from the community aside from two parents. To that, advocates who are fighting to prevent more schools for being closed or for delay until a locally elected board is in place are likely to say that the district’s outreach wasn’t enough and its sample size was too small.
Under the previously approved Blueprint plan, Rockefeller Elementary will become a birth-to-pre-K-only school and its elementary students will move to nearby Washington Elementary. Romine and Dodd elementary schools and Henderson Middle School will all close and be combined into a new K-8 on the J.A. Fair campus.
Before the board voted to accept the district’s recommendation for high school zones, Fox made a motion to accept it with three caveats: that the new Southwest High School establish a magnet component, that Hall High be converted into a magnet school using the same process that the district used to create Forest Heights STEM Academy and that Pinnacle View High School be expanded to 9-12 in 2020. That prompted much discussion and confusion among the board. Robert Robinson, LRSD Human Resources director, told the board that Forest Heights was reconstituted, meaning all the teachers and staff were fired and news staff was hired. The vote failed 3-3 with Hampton, Mason and Spencer voting against, and Fox, Chavarria-Garcia and Wood voting for.
The meeting concluded with Wood making a motion to expand Pinnacle View next year into a 9-12 beginning in 2020 with traditional extracurricular activities, including athletics, band, cheerleading and choir. It also failed 3-3, with Hampton, Mason and Spencer voting against, and Fox, Chavarria-Garcia and Wood voting for.
Wood spoke before the State Board of Education last month, presenting himself as a parent and not the chairman of the CAB, and asked that Pinnacle View be expanded. Wednesday, Diane Zook, chair of the State Board, said she wanted to see a full high school at Pinnacle View in 2020. At Thursday’s meeting, Wood did everything he could to get the board to endorse expanding Pinnacle View into a traditional high school.
The critiques of moving forward on that have largely focused on the district’s dire building improvement needs and tight budget as well as the fact that there’s already a large high school in West Little Rock: Joe T. Robinson. It just happens to be in the Pulaski County Special School District. Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott has expressed interest in establishing one school district south of the Arkansas River and there are signs that the long-running Pulaski County desegregation case may be nearing an end. Why would the LRSD spend scarce resources to establish a high school in West Little Rock when it could have the chance to annex Robinson into the district in the near future?
Jay Pickering, principal at Pinnacle View, also told the board that it would be “almost impossible” to expand the high school to the 12th grade in 2020.
“Would I love to see athletics? Would I love to see and a full high school out there?Yes. We’re a day late and two dollars short due to tariffs and taxes,” Pickering said. “We should have been talking about this four years ago when we opened, when the court case came out and said we’re opening Southwest and we’re opening Pinnacle View, the discussion should have been held right then and there.”
He also said that Pinnacle View was on the path to becoming a school of innovation, a model that schools in Rogers and Springdale have adopted. They may have pep rallies, he said, but they’re to cheer on a team that’s going to a robotics competition. He said moving to a more traditional model would be “moving the goalpost for our kids and that’s unfair.”
During public comment, a number of speakers spoke out against Option 3, which would have expanded Hall High School’s attendance zone and potentially required some high school students zoned for Central now to move to Hall.
Brittani Brooks, a media specialist at Pulaski Heights Middle School and vice president of Little Rock Education Association, said she was at Franklin Elementary when it closed in 2017 “and it was a very emotional process.” She noted that when the school closed, she at least knew because of her negotiated contract that she would end up elsewhere in the district. Because the State Board recently stripped teachers’ rights to collectively bargain, when Dodd, Romine, Henderson and part of Rockefeller close, all of the teachers at those schools will get pink slips and be forced to reapply to the district. She asked that the CAB remember them.
Anika Whitfield, longtime LRSD advocate, talked about how her neighborhood had declined in the wake of the district closing Franklin. She also asked members of the CAB to resign, a call that was echoed by several other speakers.
Parent Ali Noland criticized Poore for rushing through such critical decisions. She said she’d heard him say that he’d been delayed because of the drama of the fight over local control. “We knew this was coming,” she said. “This wasn’t some surprise. Why didn’t we get the plans in August, so there was some period of time to deal with this stuff?” She cited a high school teacher of hers who used to say to students who’d put off an assignment and were panicking about it the day before it was due: “Lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” She asked the board to give the community more time to consider the changes.
State Sen. Will Bond asked the board to delay the K-8 changes. “We have to be honest with ourselves,” he said. “Does the district have the capacity to make those changes successfully along with opening this incredible new high school?” He also said that the sort of chaos these decisions create are likely to hurt district enrollment.
The meeting lasted more than 4 1/2 hours.