Several thousand LRSD supporters gathered at Central High School on Oct. 9 to protest the state’s treatment of the school district.
AT CENTRAL HIGH: The LRSD community in October. Brian Chilson

There is a big education-policy idea that you will find just under the surface of every discussion about the Little Rock School District. It is the concept of educational equity. The website edglossary.org defines educational equity this way:

In education, the term equity refers to the principle of fairness. While it is often used interchangeably with the related principle of equality, equity encompasses a wide variety of educational models, programs, and strategies that may be considered fair, but not necessarily equal. It has been said that “equity is the process; equality is the outcome,” given that equity — what is fair and just — may not, in the process of educating students, reflect strict equality — what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally.

In Arkansas, the famous Lake View School District ruling by the state Supreme Court established a constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and equitable public education to all students. In Little Rock, we are experiencing a new, exciting and sometimes fraught public debate over whether and to what extent an emphasis on educational equity should guide LRSD policy and practice.

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We are having to ask ourselves very tough questions, like how we should balance our concerns about needing to compete with private schools so we don’t lose more affluent kids from our district vs. our need to spend significant money making long-neglected repairs and upgrades to schools serving high-poverty areas of our city. We are grappling with big-picture questions like, “What is the purpose of a magnet school?” and “Are selective-admission policies for magnet programs equitable?” We are discussing whether plans to close and consolidate several schools south of Interstate 630 and implement a new K-8 model in those areas will help increase educational equity. On one hand, many residents have opposed plans to close their beloved neighborhood schools, displace their teachers and send their children to large consolidated K-8 facilities. On the other hand, this plan would move some children to safer buildings and would potentially create more free, high-quality pre-K seats in Little Rock.

As we move toward electing a Little Rock School Board, discussions about educational equity need to continue all across our city. Grassroots Arkansas recently hosted an Equity Bus Tour and community discussion in which community members toured Pinnacle View Middle School and Cloverdale Middle School and then spent time reflecting on what they saw, what factors led to the differences they observed and what could be done to increase educational opportunity for all students. I hope that discussions like these will be a part of how we choose to select our school board over the next year.

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While we won’t be able to directly address equity in terms of funding, zoning or policies until we regain local control of our school district, there are some general goals our community could work toward achieving now. We need to build a stronger sense of districtwide identity instead of simply school-based pride and identity. We need to figure out a way to build the kinds of community support at all schools that are beneficial at some schools. Finally, we need people across the city who are willing to devote their political and financial capital to fight for what is best for all kids, not just our own.

That’s a tall order, but building an infrastructure aimed at encouraging those kinds of connections might help get us get there. I think we need a sister-schools program. In my mind, this would include encouraging PTAs at each school to support, volunteer at and donate to their sister school, or even help set up and establish PTAs where they don’t currently exist. Recent reports have shown that the majority of the $425 million raised annually by parent groups goes to less than 10 percent of our nation’s public-school children. If LRSD wants to build a more equitable education system for all students, we have to figure out a way to steer some of that support to the schools that don’t have it.

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The sister-schools idea is much larger and broader than just PTA involvement, though. It’s really about building connections, forming relationships and helping to get more of our city invested in the success of all LRSD schools. To that end, I think that sister schools could host multiple events together each school year, like their fall carnivals, STEAM nights, fundraisers and holiday programs. Teachers at each school could collaborate on big projects and could even coordinate field trips together. Kids at each school who could not participate in an extracurricular activity or a club, such as a mock trial team, show choir or French club, because there were too few interested students to be viable could join their sister campus’ offerings. Beyond that, I hope that sister schools and their surrounding communities would think about hosting community discussions together, school-board candidate forums, food drives and other activities.

In the end, the sister-schools idea would only be successful if people actually want to do it. I have already heard from parents who thinks that PTAs are already spread too thin, that even schools with a lot of parental support have to scramble for volunteers, and it would be harmful to present this type of partnership as a way for the “haves” to help the “have-nots.” I think these are fair points. In fact, while I view my daughter’s school as one of the schools with very strong parental and community support, I also recently had to pull back from PTA work because I found myself severely overextended. I was not able to give PTA projects the time and effort they really needed; it is hard to find volunteers who can. I think these concerns have to be part of the discussion, and asking volunteers to do more may not be feasible. But I have also heard from several teachers and parents at schools that have no PTA and very little community support. They have talked about how meaningful it would be to them to have volunteers do something as simple as provide donuts and coffee in the teacher’s lounge for Teacher Appreciation Week or help organize a fundraising night at one of the local restaurants that have already done such events for other schools.

This year, while tutoring at Wakefield, one of my students asked me what I do for a living; I explained that I am a lawyer. She said, “My mom works a lot.” I asked what her mom does. The student said, “She gets up really early —  about 4 in the morning — and she and my uncle go clean a big building every day. Then she comes home and gets us ready for school, and then she installs windows. After school, we go to my grandma’s house. She and my grandma cook food and sell it. Sometimes I get to help them because I’m a really good cook.” I have another student whose parents both work the overnight shift and struggle to make it to daytime events like parent-teacher conferences. Some of our tutor/mentors have formed relationships with students in foster care and students experiencing homelessness.

So while I think it is fair to say that every single public school needs more help, more resources and more volunteers, we can’t ignore huge inequities in the amount of time and money that different communities are able to devote to their local schools. This isn’t about which PTAs work harder, and it isn’t about which kids are more deserving. It’s not even about a one-way flow of help and support from more privileged schools to schools in need. It’s about an exchange of ideas that will bring us closer together as neighbors.

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I will admit that much of my thinking on this issue stems from the fact that my church, Pulaski Heights United Methodist, has chosen to focus a lot of its efforts on supporting Wakefield Elementary. We provide approximately 50 tutor/mentors who go into the school every week and each work with 2-3 students. We donate school supplies, stock a food pantry and donate Christmas gifts each year. We host a big pizza party at the end of the year, and we have donated books and educational materials to the school. But while these benefits may seem to all be flowing in one direction, every church member who participates in this program will tell you how much we have benefited from this program as well. I, for one, feel more connected with my city and my neighbors. I feel more informed about education issues. And I simply enjoy the time I get to spend with my students. A few years ago, many PHUMC members had never heard of Wakefield, but because of this tutoring program we now feel invested in its future and proud of its successes. I would hope that a sister-schools program could help foster that same sense of connection and investment in all LRSD schools.