AT HALL HIGH: (from left) LRSD Supt. Mike Poore, Education Secretary Johnny Key, Hall STEAM coordinator Joel Spencer, James Reddish of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, student and Little Rock Chief Education Officer Jay Barth. Brian Chilson

Little Rock Hall High School, set to be converted into a STEAM Magnet school with no attendance zone next year, will offer students special coursework on computer applications, media arts and health care and medical practices, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore, state Education Secretary Johnny Key and others announced today at Hall High’s auditorium with current Hall students and alumni looking on. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Poore also introduced Joel Spencer, a veteran LRSD instructor who for the last year has been the elementary-level science coordinator for the district. Spencer was hired recently to be Hall’s STEAM magnet coordinator. He said a planning committee that included Anthony Owen, state director of computer science, along with representatives from the LRSD, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Career Education developed the initial framework over the last couple of weeks.

“One of things we want to make sure is that Hall students have the skills necessary, once they graduate, to move to the workforce or to college,” Spencer said. “So we looked at Central Arkansas and where the jobs are going to be.” Computer applications and health care held the most opportunity, he said.

A federal civil rights lawsuit settlement agreement required the LRSD to redraw high school attendance boundaries using a “race-neutral rationale” by 2020. The district has long considered aligning Hall with nearby Forest Heights STEM Academy, which opened in the 2014-15 school year as the district’s first K-8 school. But the settlement agreement provided the final push, and Education Secretary Johnny Key approved the plan to convert Hall into a magnet school (along with other zoning changes) in December 2019. Immediately thereafter, the State Board of Education, which has been in control of the LRSD since 2015, complicated the plan, by voting to reconstitute Hall staff, meaning that all school employees will be laid off at the end of this school year and forced to either reapply for their positions or find employment elsewhere.

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Poore, without mentioning reconstitution by name, in perhaps a forced effort to turn lemons into lemonade described “an aggressive push from our State Board to be even more bold in terms of our planning” with Hall High. He said later that he hoped to have a new Hall High principal hired by the end of the month. Current Principal Mark Roberts, who has been praised by members of the State Board and whose wife, Allison Roberts, is Governor Hutchinson’s education liaison, has reapplied for the job.

Hall has seen declining enrollment in recent years and, with no geographic attendance zone directing 9th graders to the school next year, the LRSD has rushed out this framework in the hope of recruiting students for next year. Otherwise, what is now a half empty school could have as few as 300 students roaming the halls next year. The high school enrollment deadline has once again been moved back. It’s now Jan. 28, but in an interview last week, Poore said that Hall would likely continue recruiting students through the spring semester.

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Anika Whitfield, a Hall alumnus and advocate for the LRSD, said in an email this morning, “I am sorely disappointed that decisions about the fate of Hall High School continue to be in the hands of people other than the parents, guardians, students, teachers and educators who are most impacted by these decisions.”

Poore and other speakers were clearly sensitive to this critique and repeatedly emphasized that while the framework had been established, the specifics of the programs would be developed through community input.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Spencer said. “We have our foundation. Now we just got to built the rest of the house. … Our next step is to start reaching out to the community, to reach out to parents, to staff, to students, to member of The Tribe [alumni group].” He said he would be visiting LRSD middle schools in the upcoming weeks to hold Q&A sessions with students and parents to talk about Hall.

Spencer mentioned the possibilities of students doing coursework in robotics, unmanned drones, cybersecurity, certified nursing and graphic design.

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Poore said that while the planning for Hall’s framework had taken place in recent weeks, the notion of creating career strands had been developed over the last year in collaboration with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing the Ford Next Generation Learning model, an initiative of the Ford Motor Co. Foundation. Hall will be perhaps the first school in the county to become a Ford NGL school, and Poore said, through that program, money will be coming into Hall to improve labs and other facilities.

James Reddish, executive vice president of the Chamber, said, “Ford NGL envisions a partnership between the business community that starts at the 9th grade level and continues through that high school experience with job shadowing and internships and Capstone projects. What we’ve learned through this NGL process is that the strength of the work really comes through that collaborative process, that engagement of school leadership, that engagement of community leadership, that engagement of the business community leadership.” He said the Chamber had a team of more than 135 people that had been working since September to develop a masterplan of what is needed to align education in the county with college readiness and job needs.

Jay Barth, the new chief education officer for the city of Little Rock, said today was merely the start of a process and that the reimagined Hall would only be successful if it had community buy-in. In one of his first public appearances since being named to the role, Barth also outlined various ways the city will be approaching its education work.

That work “is all premised on the notion that schools are healthier when the walls between the schools and community come down and the community is involved in partnering with schools,” Barth said. “That partnership is going to take different forms at different times at different schools. Sometimes it will be the city government creating or funding programs that are needed in that school. Other times it will be rank and file citizens serving as voices about what they want those schools to provide for our young people or serving as essential volunteers. Other times it will be nonprofit groups or higher education partnering with K-12 schools to provide needed services. And as we see today, other times it will be the business community stepping up to provide its resources.”