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It's saying something that J.A. Fair High School has much bigger problems than those of the structural variety.
On May 25, in the midst of a torrential downpour, a 30-by-40-foot section of the roof on the north end of the school collapsed, taking down several walls with it and stressing key structural steel on that end of the building. Luckily, the collapse happened when no students were present. By the time classes began last week, a large part of Fair looked like a can whose top had been popped, with an area one hundred feet square open to the sky and over a dozen classrooms out of commission. A village of doublewide portable buildings at the other end of the campus is handling overflow until repairs to the wing are completed in December.
If test scores or graduation rates are any measure, there wasn't a whole lot of learning going on in those classrooms even before the roof fell in. According to 2010 benchmark exam results provided by the Little Rock School District, only 26 percent of 11th graders at Fair scored "proficient or advanced" in literacy. By way of comparison, the district's best scoring schools, Central and Parkview, reported rates of 67 and 76 percent, respectively. Results were poor in other disciplines — 18 percent proficiency in mathematics, 25 percent in Algebra I.
Opened in 1982 as part of the Pulaski County Special School District, Fair was annexed to the Little Rock School District in 1987 as a result of the school desegregation case. It became a magnet school in 2000, offering courses in medical studies, environmental sciences, and information technology.
Last week, it was announced that J.A. Fair was one of three academically troubled schools in the Little Rock School District approved to receive a federal School Improvement Grant. Fair, Cloverdale Elementary, and Hall High School all received grants of just over $1.9 million dollars. While that money could be a godsend to a troubled school like Fair, several members of the Little Rock School Board question the process by which the grant was secured.
Under federal guidelines for the School Improvement Grants, one of the ways a troubled school could secure money was by the "Turnaround Model," which called for replacing the principal, and granting his or her successor "operational flexibility" to make changes to improve student performance.
Little Rock School Board member Melanie Fox said the board learned of the turnaround option July 22, only eight days before the grant application deadline. On July 28, the Little Rock School District posted a job opening for a new principal at J.A. Fair, with a closing date of August 5 (the search was opened again on August 10, with an open-ended closing date).
Up until July 22, several school board members said, their understanding was that J.A. Fair principal Brenda Allen was to serve through at least the 2010-2011 school year. An interim principal, Clausey Myton, a former assistant principal in the Little Rock district, has since been named. Attempts to reach LRSD superintendent Linda Watson or Myton for comment were unsuccessful at press time.
School board member Baker Kurrus is one of those who questions both the motive and the timing of the replacement of J.A. Fair's principal shortly before school opened.
"The principal change this year is not related to anything other than the school district's aggressive attempts to obtain additional grant money," he said. "Otherwise there wouldn't have been a change out there, I don't think. At least, I didn't hear of such a change until the School Improvement Grant [was mentioned]." Kurrus believes that strong, "reform-minded" leadership will be key to bringing J.A. Fair's academics back from the brink. Calling the history of J.A. Fair "emblematic of school failure," Kurrus said that while there are wonderful teachers at the school, the faculty has been allowed to "drift" by previous administrators.
"In my opinion, changing principals but not changing the kind of principal is a wasted effort," he said. "If you have a situation that's not working, you have to have factors that cause dramatic change, you don't need a status quo caretaker at a school that needs to be reformed... There's been a consistent pattern of lack of achievement out there that's had no consequence."
Zone 5 board member Joey Carreiro tends to agree that Fair needs leadership, but isn't sure it's the magic elixir to mend all the school's ills. "A strong leader has a positive effect, but is that the cure-all?" Carreiro asked. "I don't know that it is. I think just as important is to have a team that's working together."
Carreiro said that the gap in academic achievement between Fair and schools like Parkview and Central might be explained by the fact that many students at those schools chose to be there, which isn't always the case at J.A. Fair. In addition, he said, the kids coming into Fair often aren't as prepared to learn as those coming to high schools in other areas of the city.
"The middle schools that have fed [Fair] have been weaker middle schools," he said. "When you put all that together, the kids are coming in not as well prepared to start with. It's not an excuse that we didn't get everybody up to speed, but it's just a matter that they're starting with a different group of kids than at other places."
Melanie Fox said she wants to help Fair, too. But, on the school improvement grant, she said she knows a good bit about what Cloverdale Elementary and Hall High plan to do with their share of the money, but "couldn't tell you one thing about what they plan to do at Fair" — a situation she calls "alarming." Like Kurrus, she questions the timing of the principal replacement.
"These grants shouldn't be about scoring a buck," she said. "They should be about improving the academics and achievement of our students."
Fox has other concerns. Over the past year, she said, the school has been rife with talk of faculty and parent-fueled controversy, something she said is likely a symptom of ongoing leadership problems and which can lead to a "defeated" atmosphere. While a change in the principal's office seems to be a step in the right direction, she believes that an interim principal brought in just before the school year under questionable circumstances might have trouble leading the school out of the academic desert.
"They may disappear," she said. "How hard are they going to work? Do they even want to be there?"
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