Shared from the 2/14/2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

Guest column

LRSD at crossroads


Just over one year ago, the State Board of Education (SBE), by a 5-4 vote, took control of the Little Rock School District (LRSD). The basis for state takeover revolved around the district’s schools that had been classified as being in academic distress. However, academic issues were not the only challenges facing the district.

The authors of this column found themselves on opposite sides of that vote, with Greg Adams, then LRSD board president, arguing against state takeover and Sam Ledbetter, chairman of the SBE, casting the fifth vote in favor of state control of the district. While we disagreed on the appropriate remedy, we were in complete agreement on the challenges facing the district.

Today we find ourselves in complete agreement again as we look at the state of the LRSD and the challenges it faces. One year ago, the challenges were low academic performance, financial pressures exacerbated by the upcoming loss of state desegregation funding, a lack of community support for and confidence in the district, and governance concerns. In 2016 we see progress being made in addressing each challenge.

The present LRSD administration led by Superintendent Baker Kurrus has moved assertively to begin the long, difficult road of organizational reform. The focus has first been on the fundamentals of teamwork, clear lines of communication, responsibility and accountability, establishment of a positive culture, and matching skills with responsibilities. Collaboration among staff and between staff and administration appears to be much improved. Improvement in the classroom will not happen unless everyone involved is working together and pulling in the same direction. These kinds of organizational changes are necessary for longterm sustainable progress, and we see positive signs in these areas. The foundation is being set for improvements in academic performance across the district and especially in the schools labeled as “academically distressed.”

On the financial front, the district is finding savings and efficiencies to meet the coming loss of desegregation funds. Every area is being evaluated, from personnel to transportation to consideration of closing and consolidating elementary schools in areas where there is excess capacity. These are necessary but particularly difficult tasks as they impact the lives of many people employed and served by the district.

The district is also finding opportunities for growth. Prime examples include the planning and construction of a new high school in southwest Little Rock and the purchase of a building in west Little Rock for a middle school to open in the fall of 2016 (to be led by one of the best young administrators in the state).

With these changes, public support and confidence in the LRSD is improving. However, these positive steps to address long-time organizational concerns are fragile and in the beginning stages. It will take time for them to take root in the organization and show concrete evidence of progress in sustainable academic performance gains. The reality is that patience and gritty persistence are absolutely necessary. There is no quick fix. The problems in the LRSD developed over a long period of time, and it will take additional time to be corrected.

Today, the state is responsible for governing the LRSD with Commissioner of Education Johnny Key acting in lieu of a locally elected school board. Mr. Key is also responsible for governing the Pulaski County Special School District and plays a significant role in decisions affecting the newly formed Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District.

The state also oversees charter schools. In its role of overseeing and approving charter schools, this month the Arkansas Department of Education will consider a request to almost double the enrollment of the two largest charter schools in the LRSD. If approved, we believe this will have significant negative impacts on the LRSD’s reform efforts.

LISA Academy and eStem charter schools presently have a combined enrollment of 2,987 students. They have asked the state to essentially double their enrollment to 5,944 total students. At present, an estimated 75 percent of the enrollment of these charter schools consists of students living in the LRSD.

The demographics of eStem and LISA are much different from the demographics of the LRSD. For example, the percentage of special-education students served by the LRSD is 12 percent, but only 7 percent in eStem and LISA. Similarly, students with limited English proficiency in the LRSD is 11 percent, but less than 2 percent in eStem and LISA. The percentage of students in eStem and LISA from low-income families (those qualifying for free or reduced lunch) is presently 32 percent and 41 percent respectively, compared with 75 percent in the LRSD.

Why is this important? It is a fact that family income is the strongest indicator of student achievement. Comparing LRSD, LISA and eStem elementary schools by wealth and academic performance, LISA and eStem are among the most affluent, ranking fourth and fifth respectively. Yet their academic performance is no better than similar LRSD schools.

We know these charter schools have taken achieving students out of the LRSD, leaving behind a higher percentage of low-income and special-needs students. This makes it more difficult to improve the overall academic performance in the LRSD. From a financial perspective, if the same estimated percentage of students from LRSD fill the new slots at eStem and LISA, the LRSD would lose an additional 2,218 students, which translates to the loss of nearly $15 million in annual per-pupil funding (at a time the district faces the loss of over $37 million in state desegregation funding). The loss of funding and the loss of students would force the district to close more than just the few schools it is currently having to consider.

We recognize there is value in letting families decide which schools their children should attend. There is also value in fairness. Great communities have great schools, and the LRSD can and will be a great school district if we support it rather than undermine its chances of success.

The LRSD was taken over by the state out of a concern for the students in academic distress. History tells us that most academically distressed and high-need students will remain in the LRSD no matter how large these charter schools become. These remaining students require significantly more resources to reach proficiency in math and literacy. It is simply unjust for the state to take steps that will harm the LRSD financially and further concentrate low-income and special-needs students in the district and at the same time expect the district to improve at the same rate and achieve the same level of academic performance.

The state, through the SBE, has the opportunity to choose what is best for public education for all the students under its governance in Little Rock and Pulaski County. For the sake of the students who need our help the most, the LRSD should be given the opportunity to fulfill the potential it has demonstrated in this past year of improvements.

We urge Commissioner Key and the State Board of Education to “hit the pause button” on charter school expansion in the LRSD and give the efforts to transform the LRSD into a high-achieving school district a chance to work.

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