Two Little Rock high schools with low enrollment should be given time to develop, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore told the LRSD School Board on Thursday. LRSD staff also urged the board to consider going back to Little Rock voters to approve a millage extension as soon as early June.
Poore proposed that the board maintain the instructional plans at Little Rock West High School of Innovation and Hall STEAM Magnet for at least three years. He also advocated for adding a virtual school component to West, and suggested that Hall and nearby K-8 Forest Heights STEM Academy partner as a K-12. Poore also mentioned a “unique staffing model … in ways that Little Rock has never seen” at Hall to make it as cost-efficient as possible. If the board made a commitment to move forward with the vision for West and Hall, money from the business community in support of the Ford Next Generation Learning model at each school would flow, Poore said. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce has been the primary driver of the Ford NGL career-focused academies at high schools in Central Arkansas.
The board is likely to consider those options at its March meeting.
The enrollment picture is very different at the two high schools. West opened in 2019 as an offshoot of nearby Pinnacle View Middle School with only a ninth grade class. It won’t graduate its first class until the 2022-2023 school year. It can accommodate around 100 students per grade. As of last week, only 58 10th graders and 49 11th graders were enrolled, but 128 ninth graders have registered.
This is the first year that Hall doesn’t have a geographic attendance zone, which is part of the culmination of a long-gestating plan to turn it into a school that specializes in science, technology, arts and math (STEAM). It was also reconstituted by the State Board of Education ahead of the 2020-2021 school year, meaning that all the staff was laid off and had to reapply for jobs or find them elsewhere. The recruitment effort around the new STEAM concept didn’t go well. The district decided not to have a ninth grade class at Hall this year.
As of last week, only 268 students had enrolled at Hall for next school year. It can accommodate at least five times as many students.
Greg Adams (Zone 8) said he needed to hear more about the new staffing model at Hall and how a partnership between Hall and Forest Heights would work and what it would mean for the school community. There’s also seemingly a lot of overlap between Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School and Hall, Adams said. Will changes at Hall adversely affect Parkview? he wondered. President Vicki Hatter (Zone 6) echoed his concerns.
The district plans to shift an engineering program with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing and robotics that has been at Parkview to Hall next year (Parkview will continue to offer engineering classes, but more geared to the arts). That plan caused some uproar in the Parkview community. Randy Rutherford, executive director for secondary schools, said Parkview’s projected freshman enrollment next year was down about 40 students, and he blamed that on “confusion.” He said the district needed to do a better job making sure parents understand the school’s offerings.
Poore said it was to be expected that new or revamped schools initially lead to a drop in enrollment. He noted that, when Pinnacle View Middle School opened, both Henderson and Pulaski Heights middle schools saw drops, but that both have seen their enrollment surge again.
“Much of the public and families want to know what to expect and yet people also want improvement and growth and new things,” Adams said. “That means change. There’s a yin and a yang between stability and change.”
Ali Noland (Zone 5) asked what the implications for a K-12 partnership between Hall and Forest Heights would be for zoning as both schools are magnets. Would Forest Heights students be automatically enrolled in Hall or would they have to opt in? She suggested that a three-year commitment wouldn’t be sufficient for the parent of a middle schooler considering high school options and suggested that the board consider a four or five year promise.
Vice-President Leigh Ann Wilson (Zone 4) said she wasn’t concerned about the enrollment picture at the West High School of Innovation because of the large projected ninth grade enrollment. There was little board discussion about its future.
Extending the millage for debt service, where taxpayers would pay the same rate for longer, would allow the district to follow through with its plans to convert the former J.A. Fair High School campus into a K-8 and demolish the former McClellan High School and build a new K-8. The cost of that project is estimated at $60 million. Other needs include adding security systems at elementary schools, improving HVAC systems and making repairs to roofs, plumbing, electrical systems and such.
Kelsey Bailey, chief financial officer, encouraged the board to move forward with a millage extension to keep the district from having to dip too deep into its fund balances or lay off staff.
“The sooner we do it, the better chance it has of having an impact on young people,” Poore added. “To make learning environments better and safer.”
After voters defeated similar proposals in 2017 and 2020, Jeff Wood (Zone 9) wondered if the board should be “thinking about a bolder or sexier pitch to voters of what we could do to improve schools in every neighborhood.”
(Editorial aside: Voters defeated the previous proposals because the state was in control of the district. There’s now an elected board, but the district remains under the authority of the state in Level 5 intensive support and the board has significant limits of its power. The district believes it’s on target to exit the final grips of state control in May. That could determine the fate of the extension if the board moves forward.)
Wood wondered if the board should consider partnering with the city of Little Rock or the Central Arkansas Library System, both of which need revenue and are likely to put something before taxpayers before long, too. Michael Mason (Zone 1) said the district should go it alone. If the LRSD board approved a proposal next month, it could meet the various deadlines to get on the ballot June 8.