LRSD SUPT. POORE (file photo) Brian Chilson

The Little Rock School District has implemented a hiring freeze as it confronts an enrollment decline of more than 725 students this school year. The loss of that many students this year would cost the district’s budget approximately $5 million. The district believes the enrollment decline is related to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a wide ranging interview last week, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore said he hopes the state legislature, which is scheduled to convene for a regular session in April, will consider a “hold harmless” amendment to education funding law to minimize the budget impact in future years. Poore said he believed that superintendents around the state, many of whom are grappling with similar sharp declines in enrollment, would support such a measure.

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Most of the enrollment decline was at the elementary school level, Poore said. To deal with filling teaching gaps that arise midyear, the district has joined small in-person classes together in some instances. Substitute teachers, especially long-term subs, are impossible to find amid the coronavirus pandemic, Poore said. In middle and high school, the district is considering ways to tinker with scheduling to address any teacher shortages that might arise.

How is the district supporting teachers amid the pandemic? Most LRSD teachers are educating in-person and virtual students, an unprecedented challenge. Beginning Oct. 7, the LRSD started dismissing in-person students at 12:15 p.m. (elementary) and 1:15 p.m. (middle and high school) on Wednesday to allow for planning time for teachers. Poore said teachers have told him that’s not enough. He met recently with the LRSD personnel policy committee, the group of teachers and administrators that’s supposed to represent school employees. The LRSD is now considering how to implement an all-virtual day of school once a week.

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“Every time we go virtual, there are some kids who struggle with the platform,” Poore said. “The structure at home may be challenging. It’s harder for them to receive instruction in that kind of delivery. What do we do so we don’t have an increased number of learners fall farther behind?” Despite those concerns, he said he hoped a solution could be worked out between the district and the PPC, then rolled out in November.

Poore said the district had made accommodations for teachers with legitimate health risks. “We’ve found ways that people have been receptive to,” he said. That’s meant some teachers working with virtual students in a part of a school building that’s not subject to much traffic. But Poore said it was policy that all teachers work on campus. He said it was important that everyone be on campus to take advantage of “tools that are available” and to be able to collaborate with other teachers and the administration. A popular Central High School teacher resigned earlier this year rather than teach in person.

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The LRSD asked parents interested in returning their children to in-person learning to make the move before a mid-October deadline. Since the beginning of the year, a significant number of elementary students have returned to the classroom. At the beginning of the year, 13 of 27 elementary schools had fewer than 50% of its students learning in person. Now only three elementary schools — Pulaski Heights, Otter Creek and Stephens — have fewer than 50% in person, according to the district. (I’m on the PTA at Pulaski Heights and have it on good authority that it’s now over 50%, so perhaps the information I received from the district is not the latest. Also Otter Creek and Stephens are slightly above 49%). Several schools have seen huge swings: Mabelvale Elementary moved from 220 in person and 239 virtual students at the start of the year to 297 in person and 170 virtual. Dodd Elementary began the school year with 116 in person students and 118 virtual; it now has 157 in person and 73 virtual.

Forest Park Elementary, in Little Rock’s wealthy Heights neighborhood, has had 79% of its students in the classroom all year long, the highest percentage in the district.

Poore conceded, “It’s a little scary as you get more people,” but noted that Little Rock’s balance was better than many other districts in the state. He said the district would stay committed to social distancing.

Here are the overall percentages as of last week:

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Elementary school students:
66% in-person
34% virtual

Middle School Students:
46% in-person
54% virtual

High School Students:
50% in person
50% virtual

Parkview and the Ford Next Generation Learning Academies

We reported in October on indications that the science magnet was being scrapped at Parkview.

Parkview will continue to have a science magnet, Poore said, but it will change. It’s now focused on engineering, with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing and robotics. That program will shift next year to Hall High School, which has been reimagined as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering arts and mathematics) magnet school, which the district hopes nearby Forest Heights STEM Academy students will feed into.

“We will still have an engineering component that deals with fine arts at Parkview and we think there can be the development of a different level in terms of movement and all the things that accompany performing arts with sound and voice,” Poore said. He said Parkview was limited in size to grow a robotics and engineering program and that the focus of the Parkview science magnet had shifted in the past.

The LRSD has embraced the Ford Next Generation Learning model, which the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has promoted and all school districts in Pulaski County have pledged to implement. It uses curriculum that ties into the professional world and seeks to involve the business community in partnerships. Poore said in the planning, and community engagement around that planning, it has always been understood that schools through the county will have different “career strands.”

“We’re not going to have a cyber security program at every high school,” he said. When schools have duplicated programs in the past, some schools have suffered in enrollment, he said. “We try to find the space and what students interests are and try to match that with programming.”

The district will talk more about its plans to roll out Ford NGL academies at high schools at what may be the last Community Advisory Board meeting. It’s not scheduled on the LRSD website, but the meetings typically happen on the third Thursday of the month, so the meeting will likely be Nov. 19.

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Why unveil a big plan just before the new, elected school board is seated?

“We’ve been working on this for about two years, looking at all the different aspects of Ford NGL with a lot of community input,” Poore said. “We’ve gotta put out a road map to put out for people to provide comment to. We’ve also got school choice with families making decisions traditionally around December or January.”

The board would have held its first meeting in December, but because of runoff elections, it won’t be seated until January.