Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hearing underway on Little Rock School District; department recommends state intervention

Posted By and on Wed, Jan 7, 2015 at 1:25 PM

click to enlarge DEXTER SUGGS: LR superintendent says he has obstacles to his "vision." - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DEXTER SUGGS: LR superintendent says he has obstacles to his "vision."

Little Rock School District leaders are making their case today to a committee of the state Board of Education that they are moving to get six schools off the list of those on academic distress for years of subpar test scores. The district said the efforts are in the early stages, too early to have test score results to show progress. But they said progress was being made and asked for more time to get the job done.

The committee will make a recommendation to the full state Board of Education. It could recommend more time for the district. It also could recommend a partial or full takeover of the Little Rock district. Other schools in the district are on academic watch for scores that are low, but not yet at the failing point.

There's a strong sentiment for a state takeover as the drastic tonic needed to force change at a district that has had frequent superintendent turnover, an often divided school board and a high population of poor students, a reliable indicator nationally of lower test scores.

I was told before the meeting that Gary Smith, a leader of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce who's long been involved in school improvement efforts, would speak at the meeting to call for a state takeover of the district. He favors installing a leader along the lines of Jerry Guess, the veteran administrator who's making progress in righting the neighboring Puilaski County School District after its takeover by the state. Baseline, Cloverdale, Henderson, Hall, Fair and McClellan are the six schools under review.

Suggs acknowledged the district was in a state of emergency. He acknowledged past failures to implement curriculum change. Others acknowledged lack of money wasn't the problem. Suggs also said the district had 48 schools and 25,000 students, all a concern.

The biggest barrier, Suggs was asked. "There is a sense of status quo throughout our district." People do things the way they've always done them. He also said he didn't have the ability to implement plans he devised, a seeming slap at the School Board, which has resisted some of his ideas.

State department officials said the district had come up with some good ideas for school improvements, but they questioned the capacity of the district to accomplish the ideas quickly.

Richard Wilde, in charge of the state presence in academically distressed LRSD schools thus far, says he recommends the State Board give the Education Commissioner the authority to intervene in the district.

"I would recommend that the state board give ADE, the commissioner, the authority to intervene and focus the turnaround … Inclusive of defining the roles of the school board, the district administration, the building administration, and the faculty."

In remarks to the committee, Wilde said criticism wasn't aimed at staff errors, but "because the district is trying to do too many things at once to fix itself. ... They do not have enough time in the week to truly bring the staff along...they're moving along too many fronts and can't logistically support all the time needed to do those things..."

Wilde also says that he believes the disagreements on the LRSD board are the product of the stress of trying to make more changes more quickly than is humanly possible. 

Speakers from the public included City Director Doris Wright; Jason Hamilton, the leader of Arkansas Commitment, which encourages minority students to attend good colleges; Marla Johnson, the leader of Aristotle, the internet provider; Hugh McDonald, leader of Entergy Arkansas; Van Tilbury of East-Harding Construction; John Riggs, the machinery company owner and former school board member.

Some talked of general needs to improve Little Rock schools. Marla Johnson urged the committee to "do a major reset of historical proportions." She said it was "sad" to hear Suggs say he could have a vision but couldn't implement it and that he couldn't change the culture by letting go of people who don't support change. McDonald said "playing it safe" with the same governance would further harm students.

Smith, as promised, called for change and said getting public education under control was the most critical issue facing the city. He said Little Rock had done a good job building adjoining counties. "We've got to break the cycle. I would encourage you to take over the Little Rock School District."

He encouraged the department to consider finding a way for the Pulaski County District, which is talking of building a new high school west of Little Rock, to look at a boundary change where the two districts could come up with a high school solution.

Tilbury and Riggs also called specifically for state takeover. Riggs said there'd been a "failure of democracy."

School Board President Greg Adams said board members didn't run for the board to protect the status quo. He noted many on the board are relative newcomers and that recent decisions have been positive and constructive and representative of the democratic process for a diverse community. He said the Board had made the right decisions for kids in recent years, though it has often been "messy." He said they'd like an opportunity to "succeed or fail" with their major plan and a fairly new superintendent.

The committee reconvenes at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

State Rep. John Walker rang my phone immediately after the meeting ended. He didn't attend because he believed the outcome was preordained. He believes racism is a contributing factor. He will be reflexively criticized for that view. But it is true there was no movement from the business community for state takeover of the schools when a white-majority school board oversaw a city district that has long had all-black schools failing by standardized test standards.

Walker said he will talk to the state Board tomorrow. If takeover is the call, the board can expect a fight, he said.

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