Friday, January 23, 2015

The case for the Little Rock School District

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 9:09 AM

click to enlarge GREG ADAMS: A plea for autonomy.
  • GREG ADAMS: A plea for autonomy.
Little Rock School Board President Greg Adams made an impassioned plea for continued local control of the district in an op-ed in the Democrat-Gazette today. Read it in full on the jump (he sent me a copy).

For once, though not without her usual carping, my School Board member Leslie Fisken, joined in a unanimous board vote on a school construction plan last night. For now, the board is moving with shared intent to address shortcomings in Little Rock schools.

I'd like to again mention a fact that too often is overlooked. The Democrat-Gazette, editorially a believer in blowing up the school district, still provides through its veteran school reporter Cynthia Howell worthwhile things to consider.

She charted today facts about the six schools in academic distress that are the wedge by which the entire district may be taken over.

Their student bodies are impoverished — 85 to 92 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Three of the schools have at least 20 percent of the student body who don't speak English as their first language. Baseline Elementary has a 52 percent non-English student body. Roughly one in seven students at these schools are in special education. The chart doesn't mention it, but they are all minority majority schools. Either all back or black and Latino. It is not racist to say that, nationally, black students lag behind white students. So low scores in Little Rock shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum. When any school district in America is overwhelmingly black and poor it would be unusual for it to score high on standardized tests.

A school is judged in academic distress if 50.5 percent of its students don't meet proficiency on standardized test scores. The six schools range from 40.6 to 48.25 proficiency over three years. Think about that for a minute. People are clamoring for a state takeover of Baseline, which has 270 students. If seven more students at Baseline had scored high enough to be proficient it wouldn't be on the distress list. That's a small margin to issue a sweeping "failure" verdict on a school of impoverished minority students, half of whom don't speak English fluently.

These are not excuses, only context for those who sweepingly declare Little Rock a failure for low-scoring schools. I would like to see a comparison that delved deeper than broad averages and got more into relevant comparisons.

State Rep. John Walker suggests a look at statewide performance of racially identifiable schools (all minority, generally meaning 90 percent enrollment or more). If Little Rock is a clear outlier in poor performance against similarly constituted schools — all minority and poor — then it even more richly deserves to be a takeover target. If it is not, where's the alarm about the others?

Poor children can learn. Little Rock can do better. But the desire of some in the community — notably supported by many with no direct familiarity with Little Rock schools — to make whipping boys of unions, John Walker, and black school board members is, at least, myopic.

Many of the blow-up advocates are, I hurry to say, people of good will with the best intentions. They ask what I'd do if not take over the district. I might take over the district. I might wish for different board members. I might say the verdict is still out on the superintendent. I also wouldn't quit trying to improve the Little Rock School District. I'm tired of administrative bloat and I'm tired of employing principals who don't use the tools they have to root out bad teachers. (Some Little Rock schools with similar populations ARE working, a fact the takeover advocates don't talk about much.)

But ... I'd also encourage considerations of much larger issues that the takeover artists don't want to address. What can society and government do to to encourage stronger families and earlier education that delivers the public schools kids prepared to learn? Expand pre-K for example. Work for living wages. Provide health and other support for troubled families. 

Tough assignment. It's not a short term fix.

Greg Adams' article follows:

For the students: build on progress and strengths

By Greg Adams

The Little Rock School District (LRSD) gets remarkable attention on its best, and especially on its worst, days. This may be understandable as it is the state’s largest school district and because of the historical significance of both its past struggles and accomplishments. I believe it is more than that, however, as opinions about the LRSD have become symbolic of much of our societal and community ambivalence about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of public education, progress, or the lack thereof, in racial relations and social justice, and the relationships between public education, economic health and public safety.

The present situation is that six of the LRSD’s forty-eight schools have been classified by the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) as in “academic distress,” and the ADE Board will meet on January 28 to determine what actions it will take in response to the district and these schools (Hall, Fair and McClellan High Schools; Cloverdale and Henderson Middle Schools; and Baseline Elementary). Options for the ADE include, but are not limited to, continuing to work with the schools on an advisory basis, taking over governance of these six schools or taking over governance of the entire district which could entail dismissing the LRSD Board and superintendent. ADE Board member Vicki Saviers correctly observed in a recent meeting that no one with ADE or LRSD supports the “status quo,” but how best to improve the educational status for the students in these six schools is certainly the question.

The conventional wisdom advocating for ADE takeover of the LRSD seems to go something like this: The LRSD leadership is complacent about the plight of the students in these schools, has done little to nothing to improve their educational performance and is incapable of doing so if they tried. Considering this sad and hopeless state of affairs, there is not a responsible option other than to clear the deck of the current leadership and reset the district in a more constructive direction with new leadership. Removing elected representatives and thwarting the democratic local governance of a school district is a drastic measure but one justified in this situation for the sake of the students.

There are several important problems with the state takeover position described above. The first are the perceptions that the LRSD had not worked to improve these schools and that no progress has been made. Comparing standardized test scores from the 2013-2014 school year to test scores from the 2004-05 school year, nearly all math and literacy scores were drastically improved, sometimes more than doubling or even tripling. Nevertheless, even with these significant improvements, the school test scores remained too low. In response, new leadership was put in place for each of the academic distress schools in the past three years including three new principals appointed by Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs, and this leadership appears to have led to more improvements. In November, 2014, the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas recognized both McClellan and Fair High Schools for “beating the odds” and making significant test score improvements while serving low-income communities. During the Jan. 7 ADE Academic Distress Committee meeting, Dr. Richard Wilde of the ADE remarked that “culture trumps strategy,” and both inside and outside school observers remark that the culture this year at Henderson Middle School is dramatically improved under new leadership. Although it is not yet enough, there has been progress made.

The perception of complacency is also not consistent with reality and this has been noted in public testimony by ADE staff who affirm the high motivation and energetic efforts being shown by LRSD staff to improve these six schools. LRSD is and has been working diligently to respond constructively to ADE recommendations. A recent example was a trip of LRSD staff to Springdale to learn about that district’s success with Latino students as several LRSD academic distress schools, particularly Baseline Elementary, have significant populations of Latino students.

Another example of LRSD’s commitment to make improvements is at Hall High School. Despite increased efforts in the past year, Hall did not show similar improvements in test scores as did McClellan and Fair. In response, LRSD had begun a planning process to redesign and reconfigure Hall for the 2016-17 school year. The plan will not displace any Hall students and will give Hall the chance to make a fresh start with a combination of new and exciting programs along with successful programs already in existence at Hall. In a bold move for the district, LRSD successfully reconfigured two schools last school year including transforming Forest Heights Middle School to a K-8 STEM academy. If the LRSD had not acted to reconfigure Forest Heights Middle School, it would have been an additional school on the ADE’s list of academic distressed schools this year.

No one in the LRSD is satisfied with the progress made in the six academic distress schools as so much more improvement is needed. To say, however, that no progress has been made or that the district has not worked to make progress in these schools is not correct. In addition, with the hiring of Dr. Dexter Suggs in 2013, increased focus and efforts have been brought to bear for LRSD’s underperforming schools and the Board has supported these efforts.

Rather than an ADE takeover of the LRSD, there is a more appropriate and less disruptive option: Build on the progress made by establishing a more robust collaboration between the ADE and the LRSD in these schools by increasing the authority of the ADE in directing improvement efforts. Uniting our strengths more effectively to help these schools and their students could be a win-win for all involved, and especially for the students.

Greg Adams is President of the Little Rock School Board. The views expressed above are his alone and are not intended to represent the views of the Little Rock School Board or District.

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