Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Little Rock School Board to discuss plan for state management of schools short of district takeover

Posted By and on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 at 8:30 PM

CHRIS HELLER: A plan for state intervention in Little Rock schools.
  • CHRIS HELLER: A plan for state intervention in Little Rock schools.
The Little Rock School Board will hold a special meeting tonight in advance of a personnel hearing to discuss a response to the state Education Department's recommendation that the state take over some or all of the district on account of schools falling short of academic achievement standards.

Superintendent Dexter Suggs, who district critics somehow think is the solution to problems in the district if only the School Board could be ousted and the teachers union banished, doesn't respond to press questions. But I did get a feeling from the district's lawyer Chris Heller, about what could be subject of discussion.

He provides a note he sent to the state Department of Education's lawyer after last week's meeting of the committee considering the district's six schools in academic distress:

Jeremy – I would like to present to the SBE by January 21 for its consideration on January 28 a plan endorsed by ADE staff (specifically Dr. Wilde and the school improvement specialists who have been working with LRSD), the LRSD Board, Dr. Suggs and the leadership teams at the six LRSD academically distressed schools. The plan would address exactly what would be done to improve each of the six schools, and when, how and why it would be done. The plan would also describe the amount of control over LRSD resources and personnel ADE would need to assure that the plan is properly implemented. I was encouraged by Dr. Wilde’s observation that LRSD is implementing researched based school improvement processes with a sense of urgency, but was trying to do too much at once. I know this will be more difficult than it sounds, but it seems to me it will be worth the effort to have everyone moving in the same direction to help the students in those schools as quickly as possible. Let me know what you think. I plan to discuss this idea with the LRSD Board at our agenda meeting this evening. Thanks. CH

Heller said he talked with Board members and received feedback that they wanted to give his idea a try.

Said Heller:

They asked that the LRSD school improvement team meet with Dr. Wilde and his team and report back about the differences between what we’re doing now and what Dr. Wilde’s team would have us do. My understanding is that there will be an oral report from the administration tomorrow at 5:30 followed by questions from the Board.

It's a good time for somebody to ask Suggs for a key proposal he's yet to provide anyone: A plan for dealing with the looming huge reduction in district revenue. People who've studied the issue note that both North Little Rock and Pulaski County have begun making the wrenching staff reductions necessary to cope not only with declining student numbers and efficiency issues but to prepare for the coming end of supplemental state desegregation aid. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page, one of Suggs loudest cheerleaders, maybe could get him on the phone about that.

Several on the state Board of Education seem favorable to a total takeover at a meeting later this month. Some have expressed an interest in a takeover of only select schools, an idea that still others think is cumbersome and unworkable. 

UPDATE FROM BENJI:

Heller laid out the situation to the board members at tonight's meeting, which was brief by LRSD standards. Some on the State Board clearly favor a wholesale takeover, he said, and others are leaning towards a partial takeover. If any State Board members outright favor giving Little Rock more time to take care of its issues on its own, they're keeping quiet

"We've got a very serious situation facing us," Heller said. "We've got an opportunity to try to persuade the State Board in writing and in person that [takeover] is a bad idea."

He feels the district's best strategy for maintaining local control is to get on the same page as the ADE officials who are monitoring school improvement in Little Rock's six academically distressed schools.

"The problem seems very clear to me. Less than two weeks ago, we said one thing and the person the State Board seems to be relying on said something else. We submitted a report that said every school has narrowed its focus to two or three innovations; [the ADE team] submitted a report that said that's not so. ... What matters between now and next week is whether we can narrow this gap"

That "someone" is Dr. Richard Wilde of ADE, the school improvement specialist leading the team that monitors Little Rock's academically distressed schools. Wilde recommended to the State Board last week that it give the state "the authority to intervene and focus the turnaround."

But the odd thing is that Wilde's remarks were actually quite sympathetic to the LRSD (especially compared to the bashing that others gave the district at that meeting). He said that neither school staff nor local board members were doing something wrong; rather, "the district is trying to do too many things at once to fix itself." Each school should concentrate on two or three innovations — improving curriculum, say, or building a better culture. Wilde sounded almost apologetic when he said the state should intervene in the LRSD.

Alongside Wilde's report on the turnaround, Heller explained to me later, the LRSD had submitted its own report on its progress. The LRSD's report differed from the state's in that LRSD principals said that they had indeed narrowed their focus accordingly and were concentrating on two or three things. This has to be taken with a grain of salt — of course principals with their jobs on the line would say they were doing everything they could to comply with the state. Nonetheless, in most respects the state's narrative and the LRSD's narrative agree, said Heller.

In other words, Heller and the local board hope that they can show ADE that the district has been doing everything it reasonably can do to fix itself — and from there, figure out a plan for shared state/local oversight and evaluation of the distressed schools.

LRSD officials plan to meet with Wilde and the others on the ADE school improvement team tomorrow. The Little Rock School Board tonight agreed to meet again after that meeting has taken place in hopes of pulling together a plan to present to the State Board by Jan. 21 (that is, a week before the crucial Jan. 28 meeting).

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