When Hall High School opened in 1957, it was part of a plan to forestall broad integration of the Little Rock School District. It was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, and the same year that would see the desegregation crisis unfold at Little Rock Central High.
Anticipating change under Brown, Superintendent Virgil Blossom and the School Board opened the all-black Horace Mann High School in what was mostly black East Little Rock in 1956. Hall was built a couple of blocks west of University, in what was then an affluent white neighborhood in West Little Rock.
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Under Blossom’s token desegregation plan, in 1957, white students could opt out of attending Horace Mann, but black students didn’t get the option of attending Hall. Although three black students enrolled at Hall in 1959, residential housing patterns preserved de facto segregation at Hall until court-ordered busing began in 1971.
In 2020, low-income black and Latino students make up the overwhelming majority of Hall. With Little Rock’s city limits expanded far to the west, Hall is now in midtown — perhaps not as affluent as it was in the late 1950s, but still solidly middle class and mostly white. Few students who live in the school’s neighborhood attend Hall: Only 12 percent of the student body comes from the two ZIP codes that surround the school.
Hall’s enrollment in general has dropped. Its peak attendance in the last 20 years was 1,500 in the 2007-08 school year, but today only 888 students are enrolled. School officials say that the school could accommodate around 1,800 students.
Next school year will mark a new era for Hall. The Little Rock School District is moving forward with a long-gestating plan to convert Hall into a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet school open to any student in the district. The school will no longer have a geographic attendance zone, meaning that students will not be assigned to Hall based on where they live; they’ll have to apply. (Students enrolled now will stay at the school unless they take action to enroll at their zoned schools or in other magnet programs.)
Education Secretary Johnny Key announced that he had approved the change Dec. 12. The same day, the Arkansas State Board of Education meddled further, sparking new outrage among the LRSD community.
The State Board, which voted to take over the district in 2015 because of low standardized tests at a handful of Little Rock schools, including Hall, voted to require Hall to be reconstituted, a term in education that means that everyone in the building — from the principal to the custodians — will be laid off and forced to either find another job or reapply. Board member Sarah Moore of Stuttgart, who made the successful motion, noted that on recent standardized tests only 6 percent of Hall students scored at the state’s desired level in reading and only 4 percent at the desired level in math.
“That is not to say there aren’t great teachers, there aren’t great students and there aren’t great things going on there, but to move these students forward we need to do more,” Moore said. During a public comment period, LRSD supporters called Moore’s motion “micromanaging.” State Board member Diane Zook put forward a similar motion in December 2018, and it, too, had been called micromanaging; at that point, the board voted it down.
“I don’t see reorganization of the school being micromanaging the school,” Moore responded to those who took issue with her motion. “I’m not saying who the principal should be and I’m not saying who the staff should be, but the principal should have the opportunity to retain the best staff, hire new staff or just train the staff they have in the models that will meet the needs of the school and attract other students there. We know that a more diverse pool of race and socioeconomics really lifts the boats of all.”
Moore was also behind other board actions that cast blame on Little Rock teachers for low student test achievement in schools with high concentrations of poverty, including stripping them of their due process rights and union representation. Among LRSD supporters, she has come to embody a sense of harmful state overreach. But her talk of “a more diverse pool of race and socioeconomics,” a euphemistic way of saying that Hall needs to attract more white students, nods toward the complex and often conflicting challenges the LRSD and urban school districts have to balance: How does a school system educate kids dealing with trauma and intergenerational poverty and other societal ills that make learning especially difficult? How does a school district prevent school resegregation in a residentially segregated city? And how does it retain students whose parents have the means to enroll them in private school or provide transportation to a charter school?
The state accountability grading system for high schools considers graduation rates, but largely reflects student performance on the ACT Aspire standardized test. It’s not difficult to understand why Hall is “F” rated and perennially underperforms on the test. Education experts say that standardized test achievement merely tracks wealth, and 85 percent of the Hall High student body is classified as low-income. That dynamic is greatly exacerbated by the fact that 35 percent of the student body is classified as English language learners. Since 1994, Hall has been home to the high-school level Newcomer Center for students whose first language is not English. A number of those students come from Central America and speak a variety of languages. For many of them, Spanish is their second language. The ACT Aspire is given in English. In an interview, a Hall teacher talked about students who were Central American migrants and had been held in a detention facility in Texas. They had to take the test soon after arriving at Hall. Not only did they not speak English, they had never seen a laptop computer before, which is how the test is administered.
Sarah Dixon, a veteran LRSD instructor who teaches English as a Second Language at Hall, described the State Board vote to reconstitute the school as a “gut punch.”
“Teachers in schools like Hall are some of the hardest-working teachers because there are so many things out of their control. Many of the students here are from poverty. They haven’t had access to the things that they need to thrive, emotionally, economically and educationally. There are a lot of factors that make these kids low performing. Measuring them by the state test is not a fair way to measure these kids. The state test does not measure what they know and any growth they’ve had.”
Baker Kurrus, the 2015-16 LRSD superintendent and a past longtime LRSD School Board member, said it was unfair to malign Hall for test achievement.
“The thing that’s so misunderstood about Hall is it’s not the school that changed,” he said. “To rank a school by the performance of the students is a failing proposition. It would be much like ranking a golf course by the performance of the golfer. If I were to play Pebble Beach, I would shoot a 300 because I don’t know how to play golf. Does that mean Pebble Beach is a substandard golf course? No, it means that I was ill-prepared to play.”
Ahead of the State Board vote on reconstituting Hall, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore argued against it, emphasizing that the school had seen two consecutive years of “growth,” meaning that students on average improved test scores from year to year. Growth scores are the only meaningful measurement of instruction, education policy experts agree.
The day before the State Board’s surprise vote to reconstitute Hall, school Principal Mark Roberts said in an interview that for Hall to be successful in the future, “You can’t overload a school with underperforming students.” He said there was a perception that Hall wasn’t a good school because of the “F” rating. “There have to be significant changes” for it to thrive as a magnet school, he said.
A few days earlier, the Little Rock Community Advisory Board had considered recommending reconstituting Hall High to Secretary Key, but had ultimately not supported reconstitution. Asked about the possibility of forced turnover of his staff, Roberts answered, “How bad do you want change? If you really want change, then we’ve got to make some significant decisions.”
He praised nearby Forest Heights STEM Academy, a K-8 that started in the 2014-15 school year after years of low test scores for Forest Heights Middle School, another school in midtown that had seen its white enrollment plummet over the years. The middle school was reconstituted ahead of the introduction of the STEM Academy.
Roberts described himself as a disciple of Robert Marzano, an educator whose “high-reliability schools” framework Roberts has employed at Hall and previous principal jobs in Colorado and California. Not all of the Hall teachers have bought into the framework, and there has been speculation that perhaps Roberts was behind the State Board’s reconstitution motion so he could more easily shape his staff. His wife, Allison Roberts, serves as Governor Hutchinson’s education liaison, the same position Sarah Moore held before the governor appointed her to the State Board in 2018, and he’s been frequently praised by State Board chairwoman Diane Zook and her nephew, education reform advocate Gary Newton. Asked if he’d lobbied for his vision of Hall High with the Hutchinson administration, Mark Roberts said, “There’s always talk.”
The reconstitution requirement initially put Roberts out of a guaranteed job. But he reapplied and was rehired.*
The path from Hall, school of choice for wealthy white Little Rock, to Hall, half empty and perennially flagged for low standardized test achievement, tracks the complicated story of public school desegregation efforts over the last 50 years.
In 1971, a U.S. District Court mandated the busing of Little Rock students to more fully integrate the district, a move that sparked white flight to the edges of the city and beyond. That year also marked the establishment of Little Rock’s first private school, Pulaski Academy. It was also the year Oliver Elders, husband to future U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, became the first black coach at an integrated high school in Little Rock, when he was hired to coach basketball at Hall. Elders coached future NBA player Sidney Moncrief — one of the all-time greatest Arkansas players — who attended Hall starting in the fall of 1972. In years before, he would have likely attended Horace Mann, where Elders coached from when the school opened until it was converted into a junior high in 1971.
After Little Rock sued the other Pulaski County school districts and the state in 1982 for enabling segregation, a federal judge ordered the consolidation of all county schools. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals deemed that too extreme, and instead the LRSD’s boundaries were adjusted to more closely match the city’s, a change that meant the district absorbed 14 Pulaski County Special School District schools. To deal with the influx of students and continue toward desegregation, the district developed a student assignment plan dubbed “controlled choice.” Unveiled in the 1987-88 school year, the computer-based system took into account geography and racial balance at schools and output results that often appeared random; kids from the same neighborhood who had gone to school together for years were sent to opposite ends of the city. If families didn’t like their assignment, they could petition for a transfer.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was on the LRSD school board from 1987 to 1991. He said the plan was an utter failure and caused chaos in the district. It upended the notion of neighborhood schools. “Realtors were going, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he said. One thousand LRSD students, many of them white, left during the school year.
In response, the district rolled out a new student assignment plan in the 1989-90 school year that was designed to establish a stable feeder pattern from elementary schools to middle schools and onto high schools. Rutherford said the thinking at the time was that people who lived in Pleasant Valley and West Little Rock were more likely to go to school in midtown, and that there was a strong public school base of families running northwest of Central High through Capitol View, Stifft Station, Hillcrest and the Heights who would be more likely to send their kids to Central, located south of Interstate 630.
“Hall was sort of designated as the growth school,” Rutherford said. The attendance zones, which remained in place for 20 years, until last December, have often been described as gerrymandered by LRSD supporters and critics alike. It’s easy to look back critically, Rutherford said. But at the time many Central supporters were upset that the plan gave Hall what were then considered growing parts of Little Rock. The plan got federal court approval for providing racial balance. But over time, many of the affluent white families in the Hall zone elected not to send their kids to public schools, or at least not to Hall. That 1989 zoning decision left Hall disadvantaged for decades, Little Rock school observers agree.
The demographic shift happened gradually. Anika Whitfield, a Little Rock podiatrist who leads the Grassroots Arkansas coalition that has been active in protesting the state’s takeover of the district, always describes herself as “a proud graduate of Hall High” when she speaks in public. She attended Hall from 1988 to 1991 and remembers the school being relatively racially balanced. She grew up and still lives in midtown, south of I-630 near the former Franklin Elementary. She remembers the assignment chaos of the day with nearby neighbors assigned to Central and Parkview. She expected to attend Central High, where she was zoned, but her older brother was thriving at Hall, so she followed in his footsteps.
The school had “amazing” teachers, she said. She remembered one agreed to teach a unified physics class that wasn’t previously offered after she and other students lobbied him. He taught the class at 6 a.m. “I don’t know, but I don’t believe he got paid extra for that,” she said. She was also a part of The Tribe, a peer facilitating team that would leave campus to bring anti-drug-and-bullying messages to elementary and middle school kids. The team was “diverse in age and ethnicity culture and faith,” she said.
Liz Graham, an administrator at the University of Texas at Austin, attended Hall 2002 to 2006. She was the only person she knew from her class at Pulaski Heights Middle School who matriculated at Hall. She chose the school because it had a university studies program that allowed high school students to pick up college classwork. (It’s no longer offered). “It was a really strong program that drew a lot of different kinds of students from across the district,” Graham said. “It really put me at an advantage in college. I graduated and went into my sophomore year of college right away.” Graham, who is white, said she had some initial apprehension about going to a school where she was overwhelmingly in the racial minority — only around 10-15 percent of the student body was white at the time — but she describes her high school experience as “transformative.” She said the public perception at the time of Hall as a second-class school wasn’t based in reality.
In 2015, a group of Hall alumni, angered by the negative attention the school had gotten from the State Board of Education, which cited Hall’s low test achievement as a reason to take over the district, started a nonprofit alumni group, also called The Tribe (Hall High teams and fans are the Warriors). Hall has a decorated alumni network. Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.) was valedictorian of the 1962 class. Other alumni include former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, Little Rock City Directors Kathy Webb and Capi Peck, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn, the late author E. Lynn Harris and former Arkansas Razorback and current NBA player Bobby Portis. Marsha Scott, who worked in the Clinton White House, started the group with Little Rock lawyer Peter Kumpe and Linda Brown, co-chair of The Tribe.
In an interview, Kumpe described the group as “acting in the place of a really active PTA. We’re also trying to disabuse the community of the Hall image. For us, it’s undeserved.” The Tribe regularly shows up to Hall events, cooking hot dogs or providing transportation to special events. The Tribe helped get the marching band and homecoming parade going again. Crucially, it also helped develop a connection between Hall and the UA Little Rock School of Social Work, which led to UA Little Rock social work students regularly working at Hall as interns.
Graham, who was an active member of The Tribe before she moved to Austin for work, said she appreciated the intergenerational love for Hall. “The kids there now are the same kids that were there when I went,” she said. “They’ve still got the same goals and ambitions. They’re smart. There’s such a misconception. They’re not just bodies that we’re moving around.”
Kurrus, the former superintendent, said that the conversion of Hall to a magnet school won’t benefit the district as a whole. He said the magnet system and the state’s authorization of thousands of charter school seats in recent years had created “sanctuary schools” for people with the means to make choices. “It creates a failing system that concentrates kids with the greatest needs in schools,” he said. “You can predict the outcome at Hall [in the future], just as easily as you could predict the outcome at Forest Heights STEM.” The schools “attract students that are high performing. Those kids will come from other schools where they were succeeding. The schools haven’t created this performance.”
The impetus to remove Hall High’s attendance zone was a settlement agreement of a federal civil rights lawsuit that required the district to redraw high school attendance zones using a race-neutral rationale by 2020. McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools will close at the end of the school year and students who are now zoned for those schools will be zoned for the new Southwest High, opening for the 2020-21 school year at 8715 Mabelvale Pike.
In redrawing attendance boundaries, Little Rock school officials essentially split the LRSD into two high school zones. Central High School’s zone includes neighborhoods near the school, all of East Little Rock and nearly all of the city north of I-630. Southwest High School’s zone includes the city south of I-630, aside from the area around Central. (Students in West Little Rock who are zoned for Pinnacle View Middle School have the option of the new West High School of Innovation, adjacent to Pinnacle View, but it can only accommodate 100 students per grade and will be a specialty high school focused on technology.)
The district expected to enroll 1,700 students at Southwest High next year, but somewhere between 1,850 and 1,900 students have registered, Poore said. Its ideal capacity is around 2,200. Parkview Arts and Sciences Magnet High School is typically near its capacity. Central has long been over capacity with a number of portable buildings on campus. If the district is going to maintain enrollment numbers, or reverse the long trend of declining enrollment, it has to entice students to attend the new magnet high school at Hall.
That seems likely to be a challenge. Poore has said he hopes Forest Heights STEM becomes a feeder school for Hall and those students will be given enrollment priority at Hall. The Forest Heights PTA recently conducted an informal survey, asking parents if they considered Hall a good option. Sixty-one percent said no, 39 percent said yes. When the district was considering whether to maintain an attendance zone for Hall, but alter it to include parts of Hillcrest, the Hillcrest Residents Association opposed the plan, with parents of elementary-aged children outraged at the prospect that their kids would be forced to go to Hall in the future.
The district’s extended open enrollment deadline was Jan. 28, but Poore said the LRSD would continue to recruit students for Hall through the spring. In mid-January, the district announced three tracks of study under its new STEAM model: computer application development, media arts and medical practices and health care. The LRSD also tagged Joel Spencer, its elementary science specialist and a former teacher at Don Roberts Elementary, to be the STEAM magnet coordinator at Hall. He’ll be working to recruit students to Hall and with community partners, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Little Rock Regional of Chamber of Commerce.
The LRSD — and other Pulaski County districts — have embraced the Ford Next Generation Learning model, an initiative of the Ford Motor Co. Fund that the Little Rock chamber has been pushing. It’s a workforce development program that seeks to connect employers and educators, and it fits in with Hall’s new STEAM tracks. Along with Southwest and Parkview, Hall will open a ninth-grade Ford NGL academy next school year.
Whitfield stayed connected to Hall after graduation. She returned often to talk to classes and volunteer. But after a little time away, when she returned around 2014, she didn’t recognize Hall. School spirit was nowhere to be found. The clubs she and her brother were a part of — German, French, Latin, chess, Beta, National Honor Society — were not active. “It had become predominantly a school of African Americans who didn’t come from wealth,” she said, and she started raising questions with the LRSD about equitable funding. But rather than provide the resources to the students at Hall now and in recent years, she sees a push to “make Hall white again.”
“I’m a Christian, and I believe where your heart is, your treasure is also,” Whitfield said. “It’s never been spent toward what would make the entire district equitable and really address the needs of the students who need it most.”
*This article was updated Jan. 31 to reflect that Hall Principal Mark Roberts was rehired.