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Big ideas for Arkansas 2015 

Readers and experts suggest ways to change Arkansas for the better.

WAR MEMORIAL SHOULD EMBRACE RUGBY: Says Jay Jennings. - BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats
  • WAR MEMORIAL SHOULD EMBRACE RUGBY: Says Jay Jennings.

It's now an annual tradition: The Arkansas Times solicits suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to improve life in Arkansas.

Throughout this year, we've spent a lot of time investigating the state's child welfare system, often highlighting problems that can seem intractable. In this issue, we devote significant space to potential solutions, including ideas from child trauma experts, a foster parent, an adult adoptee and our own contributor Kathryn Joyce.

We present those ideas here, along with others on a variety of topics. We hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't could be with the right collection of advocates.

See or a table of contents below, or read 'em straight through.

A Little Rock promise
By Max Brantley and Sam Ledbetter

A symbol for Little Rock
By Matthew Rowe

Aggressively invest in public transit
By Jarod Varner

Use War Memorial Stadium for rugby
By Jay Jennings

Create an LGBTQ mentoring program
By Katie Eisenhower

End prison overcrowding
By Omavi Shukur

Put UAMS in charge of health care at Arkansas prisons
By Tim Cullen

Develop a comprehensive master plan for Little Rock
By StudioMain

Create an online progressive publication for African-Americans in Arkansas
By James Murray

Eliminate one-way streets
By Cary Tyson

Invest in high-impact literacy programs and forge partnerships to create a skilled workforce
By Victor Pulido-Rojas

Create an Arkansas Carbon Bank
By Robert McAfee

Open psychiatric crisis centers
By Nancy Kahanak

Train educators and students in mindfulness
By Adria English

Embrace an ombudsman position at the University of Arkansas
By Matthew Ramsey

Renovate Henderson Middle School soccer fields for school and public use
By Matt Dishongh

Provide every child in Arkansas with books from infancy to kindergarten
By Clarke Tucker

Legislate food waste and disposal
By Gail E. Allen

Commit Little Rock to being 100 percent powered by clean energy by 2025
By Glen Hooks

Erect markers to remember Arkansas's history of oppression and resistance
By Acadia Roher

Use choice-based instruction across the curriculum
By Matt Parker

Coordinate community development strategies with K-12 education on a local level
By Jerri Derlikowski

Invest in high-ability, low-income students to close the excellence gap
By Corey Alderdice

Big Ideas for families in need

Invest in high-ability, low-income students to close the excellence gap
By Lisa Parks

Allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates and related court documents
By Westley Ashley

Let's end child abuse
By Teresa Kramer and Chad Sievers

Pair foster families with biological families in a mentoring program
By Georgia Mjartan

Leverage Arkansas's data-gathering industry to expand the state's foster parent network
By Jordan King

Examine Arkansas's priorities regarding family preservation
By Kathryn Joyce

Devolve greater responsibility for child welfare to the local level
By Pat Page

Establish foster care resource centers
By Ozark Guidance staff

A Little Rock promise
By Max Brantley and Sam Ledbetter

How about a Little Rock Promise modeled on the El Dorado Promise? It would provide graduates of the Little Rock School District with a scholarship covering tuition and mandatory fees that could be used at any accredited two- or four-year, public or private educational institution in the U.S. The maximum amount payable would extend to the highest annual resident tuition at an Arkansas public university.

Funding would be led by Warren Stephens, William Dillard, Scott Ford, Lisenne Rockefeller and others in our community who have the resources to make it happen. The Walton Family Foundation, Murphy/Deltic and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation could join in.

Talk about getting folks interested in the LRSD!

Max Brantley is senior editor of the Arkansas Times. Sam Ledbetter is an attorney with the McMath Law Firm and a former chairman of the state Board of Education.

click to enlarge BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats

A symbol for Little Rock
By Matthew Rowe

Little Rock follows the model for lots of Southern cities: Its rich parts are really rich, its poor parts are really poor and its weird parts are reeeeeally weird. It's also incredibly divided. As such, Little Rock has a hard time gathering public consensus in controlling its own fate. The state has taken over its school system, the highway department threatens to ensure that downtown growth stalls and you can't even watch minor-league baseball within the city limits without at least a very tall ladder. 

Meanwhile, the things that Little Rock residents have focused on as a whole aren't always things you'd put on a greatest hits collection, from the showdown for school integration to "Bangin' in Little Rock." Name your issue, and you'll find a sensitive city resident. I think it's time we turned this around. We need something that all residents of Little Rock can get behind and root for. We need a symbol to the world. A new flag for Little Rock is a good start, but we need something more. I'm not sure what that is, but here are three ideas to get the brainstorming started:

1.) A football team: Little Rock doesn't have a major professional sports team, and everyone roots for the Hogs on Saturday. I suggest that Little Rock businesses and connected individuals start opening their pocketbooks to help UALR get a football team. Get Houston Nutt to coach it. Play in War Memorial Stadium. Allow tailgating on the field. Get one of the 3,000 Kickstarted microbreweries to sell booze. Tell me that wouldn't sell.

2.) A mascot. With or without the football team. Make it something distinctive. Call on the ghosts of the gang wars of the '90s, embrace the heritage of Tae Kwon Do, steal that trash-eating possum costume from the Travs and call it O.G. the Black Belt possum. I'm spitballing here; we can workshop something better.

3.) The snarkiest advertising campaign. Cities like Portland and Asheville want you to believe their cities are weird or eclectic. This is a lie, as these are super-gentrified, not racially diverse areas with good marketing. Little Rock is one of the weirdest places in America and people should know that. Now that I think about it, maybe we shouldn't share it with the rest of the world. It's too good for them. 

Matthew Rowe writes Brasher and Rowe, a weekly column for Rock Candy, the Arkansas Times entertainment blog.

click to enlarge Jarod Varner
  • Jarod Varner

Aggressively invest in public transit
By Jarod Varner

A region of our size with tremendous economic potential should have a strong transit system backed by dedicated local investment along with capital support from the state Highway and Transportation Department.

Under Arkansas law, dedicated funding for public transit can come only in the form of a quarter-cent sales tax. Rock Region Metro is now funded by partner governments who choose to chip in to provide the service. In Pulaski County, a quarter-cent sales tax would generate about $18 million, money Rock Region could count on to increase frequency of buses and expansion of routes. Ongoing support from existing funding partners (Pulaski County, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood, Maumelle, Jacksonville) would also allow for express bus service operating on designated bus lanes branded as METRO Rapid. The new Bus Rapid Transit corridors would provide residents and visitors to Little Rock with the level of service they are accustomed to in other cities that have long provided public transit, and the transit stations would provide anchors for lively, mixed-use development. Once transit service is strengthened in the core of Pulaski County and infill development has occurred, our region could turn to robust commuter services connecting Conway, Benton, Bryant, Cabot and other growing areas to job and educational centers in Little Rock.

Not adequately investing in our public transit network would put us behind the major demographic changes that are occurring in our region and country. Millennials, the largest and most economically impactful generation, demand transportation alternatives, including quality public transit. At the other end of the spectrum, our large population of senior citizens also needs public transit options. According to AARP, 87 percent of adults over the age of 65 want to stay in their current home and community as they age. Without proper public transit services, we will be in a poor position to attract and retain young talent and allow our greatest generation to stay connected to their community. With aggressive investment in public transit, we can create a vibrant, close-knit community with economic opportunities for all.

Jared Varner is executive director of Rock Region Metro, formerly known as the Central Arkansas Transit Authority.

click to enlarge Jay Jennings
  • Jay Jennings

Use War Memorial Stadium for rugby
By Jay Jennings

Most Arkansans know that the Razorbacks will play only one game per year at War Memorial Stadium through 2018 and that the future of Hog football in the stadium is probably doomed. Most Arkansans do not know that Little Rock has a U.S. Olympic coach who will lead a team at Rio de Janeiro next year and who runs a training center for the team here. If more of the former knew the latter, they might see the sense in my big idea: Turn War Memorial Stadium into a rugby facility and host national and international competitions that will attract tourism and media coverage and transform the city's white elephant of a stadium into a mecca for the All Blacks and other professional and amateur teams.

Jules McCoy is a Little Rock neurologist and has for years run the American Rugby Pro Training Center here, the largest of five national development organizations, hosting players from all over the country who want to refine their skills for future professional or Olympic play. (The players also train at Ross Strength and Speed, the gym where I met many of them.) In September, USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body, named her the coach of the U.S. women's rugby Sevens team for the sport's reappearance in the Olympics after a long absence.

McCoy's expertise and leadership have already attracted attention to Little Rock in the rugby community, and the state, which owns War Memorial, could build on that by providing additional resources. Rugby is already one of the most popular sports in the world, and Forbes reported in May that "there is ample indication that rugby is ready to become the country's next big sport," having grown by 13.3 percent over the last five years. An American professional league begins play next spring. This year's men's international rugby Sevens competition in Las Vegas, the largest in the U.S., drew a record 75,000 fans over a three-day weekend.

According to Ellie Karvosky, a coach and former women Sevens star who lives in Little Rock, the field at War Memorial would need to be widened and lengthened to meet rugby standards. But such adaptations would be well worth the cost and would not prevent the stadium from hosting its current big events like the high school football playoffs or the odd college football game.

A former rugby player himself, Mayor Mark Stodola should support this pitch to turn War Memorial into a world-class rugby pitch. Now is the time for a city like Little Rock, with a strong rugby foundation already in place, to fashion itself a hub before someplace else does.

Jay Jennings is senior editor of the Oxford American, author of "Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City" and the editor of "Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany."

click to enlarge Katie Eisenhower
  • Katie Eisenhower

Create an LGBTQ mentoring program
By Katie Eisenhower

Ah, coming of age. It can range from mildly awkward to excruciatingly painful. Discovering sexual/gender identity is a process that can begin at any age, but it often comes to the forefront in puberty. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) young people are not raised in families or community environments that reflect their sexual/gender identities. Arkansas already has several organizations that provide services to LGBTQ youth: safe, nonjudgmental, supportive places to socialize and form friendships. But our LGBTQ youth would benefit from a Big Brother Big Sister-type mentoring program. A mentoring relationship between a vetted and trained adult and a young person can provide additional perspective and a place for one-on-one discussion of many issues regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.

Katie Eisenhower is a board member of Pridecorps LGBT Youth Center of Arkansas.

End prison overcrowding
By Omavi Shukur

Arkansas will enter 2016 with the fastest growing prison population in the nation since 2012. The question is not if this incarceration crisis will end, but when and how. Here are just a few possibilities:

There should be a class of nonrevocable parole for people who are at a low risk of recidivating. People incarcerated for minor felonies like theft or hot checks do not pose a violent threat to society and should not have to be subject to community supervision upon their release from prison. Arkansas's parole rate is three times the national average; we simply have too many people on parole.

click to enlarge Omavi Shukur
  • Omavi Shukur

Eight percent of Arkansas's incarcerated population is serving a life sentence. Currently, these women and men will spend the rest of their lives in prison unless the Parole Board recommends, and the governor approves, a commutation. Meanwhile, taxpayers are paying a private corporation, Correct Care Solutions, a king's ransom to treat elderly people in prison who don't pose a threat to anybody — just so we can guarantee that the elderly die in prison. We should follow Louisiana's lead and make people sentenced to life eligible for parole.

The war on drugs has failed. Drug decriminalization overseas has decreased overdose rates, restored trust in the police and helped people addicted to drugs get therapy, housing and employment. South Carolina has made possession of cocaine a misdemeanor, while in Arkansas it is a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.

Alexander Hamilton once warned us that "people are commonly most in danger, when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those whom they entertain the least suspicion." A prosecutor in Arkansas is effectively the prosecutor, judge and jury. The prosecutor has discretion to determine which offense to charge, what sentence to offer in the form of a plea deal and who will die in jail. The United States is the only Western nation that has an adversarial sentencing process in which the prosecutor can effectively determine the sentence. The prosecutor can compel an innocent person to plead guilty to a charge by threatening to pursue the maximum possible sentence should the accused lose at trial. Prosecutors can, and do, punish blacks and Latinos harsher than whites. Meanwhile, many European countries check the power of the prosecutor because of the inherent threat of disparate treatment in prosecutorial discretion. The best solution to the unchecked power of prosecutors is a reduction in sentencing ranges and an elimination of adversarial sentencing hearings in which the prosecutors can argue for harsher sentences.

There should be sunset provisions to criminal statutes, thus compelling legislators to address ineffectual criminal justice policies. Fiscal impact studies should reflect anticipated costs of any projected increase in incarceration in order to provide more transparency as to the costs of harsh legislation. Municipalities should pay a fee per prisoner to provide a financial incentive for local prosecutors and judges to think twice before sentencing someone to prison. Finally, parole and probation revocation hearings should always occur after the disposition of new criminal cases to preserve the parolee's right to due process of law.

Most importantly, we have to empower our most vulnerable communities. Resources should be shifted away from excluding and controlling the poor and toward granting them access to the opportunity and the dignity that all of us deserve. That is how we can begin to finally put an end to the Arkansas incarceration crisis.

Omavi Shukur is the director of Seeds of Liberation, a Little Rock nonprofit whose mission is to work "alongside Arkansas's marginalized communities to create a just, equitable and empowering criminal justice system."

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Put UAMS in charge of health care at Arkansas prisons 
click to enlarge Tim Cullen
  • Tim Cullen
By Tim Cullen

One of the single biggest expenditures in the Arkansas Department of Correction's budget is a contract for medical care for prisoners. In the last fiscal year, ADC spent $57 million on health care with Correct Care Solutions LLC. Yet, the quality of medical care for inmates is notoriously lousy. Arkansas's inmate population is aging and has a high percentage of patients with chronic diseases and ailments.

At the same time, Arkansas's only academic medical institution, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is constantly struggling to meet its budget. UAMS must compete with private hospitals but has the added expenses of training medical professionals, conducting research and providing charity care.

Doesn't it make sense to keep $57 million at home rather than sending it to a contractor in Nashville, Tenn.? Doesn't it make sense that UAMS residents and supervising physicians would better serve inmates' medical care needs than contractor doctors who are hired at the lowest possible cost for Correct Care Solutions LLC?

Tim Cullen is an attorney at Cullen & Co.

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Develop a comprehensive master plan for Little Rock
By StudioMain

Ongoing discussion of the state Highway and Transportation Department's proposed 30 Crossing project to widen Interstate 30 has illustrated Little Rock's need for a comprehensive master plan to outline priorities and future goals for the city's continued revitalization and smart growth. Let's develop a framework to navigate future urban design opportunities for maximum benefit to the citizens of Little Rock.

This living document could provide enough detail to inform long-range planning while allowing enough flexibility to accommodate unforeseen needs and opportunities. A statement of design and usage expectations can illustrate a comprehensive vision for the future of Little Rock by including consideration for each of our interdependent planning tools, including zoning, future land use, a master streets plan, a master bike plan and a public transit plan, rather than considering those aspects of city planning independently.

The development of a master plan for the city of Little Rock will facilitate a forward-thinking approach to city planning and serve as a resource for city leaders, citizens and developers.

StudioMain is an archictect/engineer/design collective in Little Rock.

click to enlarge James Murray
  • James Murray

Create an online progressive publication for African-Americans in Arkansas
By James Murray

The black press in Arkansas has a history that reaches back to 1869, in the form of the Arkansas Freeman. The founders of the Freeman thought that the creation of a black-owned newspaper would foster a sense of community in a newly freed people. Fast forward to the establishment of the Arkansas State Press in 1941, a paper that actively advocated for civil rights long before the movement was full-fledged.

Today, however, Central Arkansas lacks a widely read black newspaper or magazine with a progressive agenda. One could attribute this to the expansion of rights to blacks or the fact that the news media is a struggling industry, but there are sustainable models in other places. One that may be worth emulating is Q City Metro in Charlotte (qcitymetro.com). Its online-only format includes national stories, local news, opinions, entertainment features and profiles of religious leaders and professionals from Charlotte's black community. The publication has sustained itself since 2008. For a black media outlet to work in Central Arkansas today may require forgoing print.

There should be no reason why an online black progressive publication couldn't sustain itself here. Central Arkansas has the numbers in terms of a potential audience. Such an outlet could be successful if it produced content that truly showed the diversity of black life in the region.

James Murray is a freelance writer in Central Arkansas.

Eliminate one-way streets
click to enlarge Cary Tyson
  • Cary Tyson
By Cary Tyson

One-way streets are a relic. They were originally built as civil defense, to facilitate the mass exodus of citizens in the wake of a disaster such as a nuclear attack. We saw how well that worked in Hurricane Katrina. One-way streets are particularly detrimental to downtowns and commercial districts; we should eliminate them.

I recently chatted up a couple that lives about an hour outside of Little Rock. They found maneuvering Little Rock confounding, particularly downtown with its confusing and illogical pattern of traffic. One-way streets make the heart of the capital city confusing, uninviting and unnecessarily complicated.

Beyond being illogical to maneuver, one-way streets can have a deleterious economic impact. Don't believe me? Check out the work of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville on this issue. Two-way streets were found to slow traffic, which resulted in fewer and less serious accidents. Perhaps most importantly, researchers found that crime dropped, property values rose and pedestrian traffic increased. There's also recent research that shows two-way streets actually decrease congestion.

Converting streets to two-way also sends a signal that streets are not just for motorists, but that pedestrians matter too. We can't fully promote our downtowns or other places in our cities if we don't knowingly and aggressively act to make them less confusing for the visitor.

Many people forget that one of today's best performing commercial districts, Argenta's Main Street, was converted to one-way during Urban Renewal. I can't count the number of times I've heard former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays say, "The best thing that happened to business in downtown North Little Rock was to make it two-way." Let's make downtown two-way streets the law of our land.

Cary Tyson is the co-author of the MoveArkansas blog on planning, design, transit and cycling in Central Arkansas. 

click to enlarge Victor Pulido-Rojas
  • Victor Pulido-Rojas

Invest in high-impact literacy programs and forge partnerships to create a skilled workforce
By Victor Pulido-Rojas

Too many children do not read at grade level and therefore lack the literacy skills needed for success in college and their future careers. Our children must first learn to read before they can then read to learn. A child's ability to read on grade level by the end of third grade is a strong indicator of how well he or she will perform in school, how likely he or she is to graduate from high school, and how likely he or she is to enter college and graduate. As a state, we must invest in high-impact literacy programs — like the De Queen School District's nationally recognized Direct Instruction (D.I.) reading program — that help students develop the reading skills they need for academic success and bright futures.

Today's students are tomorrow's workforce. Education is the fuel that powers our economy. In Utah, the Aerospace Pathways program offers high school students the opportunity to train and certify in aerospace manufacturing through concurrent enrollment. The program was created by a unique partnership of state government, education leaders and the aerospace industry. Arkansas would benefit by having its own Aerospace Pathways program, as aerospace is a leading industry in our state. A highly skilled workforce is essential in strengthening our state's economy. We must forge partnerships that lead to a more educated workforce.

Victor Pulido-Rojas is a member of the Arkansas United Community Coalition and the Arkansas Coalition for Juvenile Justice Board. He is also a paraprofessional for the De Queen School District.

Create an Arkansas carbon bank
click to enlarge Robert McAfee
  • Robert McAfee
By Robert McAfee

Under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, states must curtail carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has expressed opposition to the CPP, in part because it will supposedly hurt consumers by raising electric prices and hampering economic growth. To meet CPP goals while also stimulating the economy, Gov. Asa Hutchinson should lead the creation of the Arkansas Carbon Bank.

The capital for this bank would come from a carbon fee and dividend policy. The approach is simple. Utilities would be charged a fee for each ton of carbon pollution they emit from coal-fired power plants. The fee would be collected and deposited in the Arkansas Carbon Bank and distributed monthly to every Arkansan over age 18 and every employer. Employers' dividends would be based on the number of employees. The recommended carbon fee for Arkansas would be $15 per ton for the first year and would rise annually by a fixed amount, $10.

As the price of burning fossil fuels increased, polluters would be financially motivated to find cleaner and more efficient ways to produce energy. This would lead to more investment in clean, renewable power. The monthly fee distribution from the carbon bank to consumers and employers would stimulate the economy, creating more jobs.

The fee distribution to Arkansas families would assist low-income families with energy costs. Businesses would have an incentive to create more jobs, as their dividend would depend on their number of permanent employees. Unlike so many previous job creation ventures, this one would not require the state to provide huge tax incentives or bond issues.

Attorney General Rutledge could have her cake and eat it, too. She would have the clean air she says she wants and Arkansas could meet CPP goals while offsetting impacts to consumers and the economy. An added economic benefit of burning less coal would be cleaner air for all Arkansans, thus reducing health care costs.

Gov. Hutchinson is already on the right side of the issue regarding a plan for Arkansas to reduce carbon pollution. While other states have dug their heels in and refused to even produce a plan, the governor has taken the initiative to adhere to the CPP by instructing the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Public Service Commission to work on a state implementation plan.

We have the opportunity to make Arkansas a leader in the implementation of the Clean Power Plan by avoiding unnecessary and protracted litigation while creating thousands of jobs and stimulating economic growth. With a nod from the governor, Arkansas could easily be reaping the benefits within a year. It's a win-win situation for all Arkansans.

Robert McAfee is a member of the Arkansas Citizens' Climate Lobby and the Arkansas Citizens First Congress. He lives in Hackett.

Open psychiatric crisis centers
click to enlarge Nancy Kahanak
  • Nancy Kahanak
By Nancy Kahanak

People suffering from mental illness are clogging our state prison system. Many of these individuals don't deserve punishment and will not cause harm to others.

Let's take some of the money that is now used for incarceration and put it toward statewide mental health emergency crisis centers. The mentally ill would receive better treatment at a lower cost, and law enforcement officers would be available to focus on true threats to the community.

Here is how a crisis center might work: An officer is trained to recognize signs of mental illness and how to deal with a person in crisis. Rather than sending that person to jail, the officer would drop the person off at a crisis center and be confident that the man or woman would be treated with respect as he or she is assessed for mental issues, physical problems and substance abuse. The individual in crisis would be given the time needed to calm down and regain control, whether that is a few hours or several days. From there, referrals for further treatment would be provided as available.

An increase in services is a necessity to keep community crises to a minimum. Necessary services include life coaching, medication, drug and alcohol treatment, housing and job readiness training. Yes, those ideas will take money, but the overall savings are evident. Estimates show a year of treatment costs 1/20th the expense of putting a mentally ill individual into the Arkansas Department of Correction. In addition, many of these same services are needed by people being released from jail or prison. Such assistance has been shown by other states to greatly reduce recidivism rates.

The legislature is looking into these issues. Let your legislator know your opinion — that really counts!

Nancy Kahanak is a member of Judicial Equality for Mental Illness, a coalition working to change the revolving door of persons with mental illness being held in jails and prisons.

click to enlarge Adria English
  • Adria English

Train educators and students in mindfulness
By Adria English

Arkansas's students and teachers should spend 20 to 30 minutes each day practicing a form of meditation in the classroom. This can be achieved with use of programs such as MindUP and Mindful Schools that offer training in mindfulness to educators and students.

The benefits of meditation are numerous, but in students the specific benefits include increased ability to concentrate, boosted self-esteem, increased empathy, lower levels of stress, better behavior and lower aggression. In short, the student becomes more aware of his feelings and his surroundings.

A range of meditative practices should be taught, from deep breathing exercises to mindfulness-based stress reduction, and students will benefit from learning multiple styles and discover what suits them. If parents or students object to meditation, the students could read quietly or pray at their desks instead.

Incorporating meditation sessions will make the school day longer by the allotted 20 or 30 minutes, but the benefits reaped by the exercise should outweigh the inconvenience and expense of added time. In the end, teaching a student to regulate his feelings and behavior in a way that aids him socially, mentally and academically is just as important as teaching him basic education to succeed in his future goals. Meditation is a tool we should give our students.

Adria English lives with her husband, Garrett, in Mountain Home, where she works for First Security Bank and contributes to the website OnlyInArk.com.

click to enlarge Matthew Ramsey
  • Matthew Ramsey

Embrace an ombudsman position at the University of Arkansas
By Matthew Ramsey

In private and public business, grievances are usually handled through rigid human resources or compliance offices that invariably uphold the best interest or bottom line of the organization. Ombudsmen, on the other hand, provide fair, alternative dispute resolution. It troubles me that these unwavering advocates of fairness are sorely lacking not only in business and government, but also higher education.

An ombudsman serves as an independent watchdog within a given organization, reporting to the highest level of the administration. The ombudsman's work is confidential and neutral, facilitating grievance resolution outside formal channels and helping identify problems that suggest systemic issues within an organization. A benevolent administration that genuinely cares about its stakeholders will be most receptive to the unbridled truths and thoughtful recommendations for improvement that an ombudsman can provide.

The University of Arkansas has an opportunity to promote a bona fide culture of fairness, transparency and openness by reopening its ombudsman office and using it as a model for others to follow, including other state-run institutions and the local corporate oligarchy.

Matthew Ramsey is a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholar and current at-large representative on the city of Fayetteville and University of Arkansas's Town & Gown Advisory Committee.

Renovate Henderson Middle School soccer fields for school and public use
click to enlarge Matt Dishongh
  • Matt Dishongh
By Matt Dishongh

The soccer fields at Henderson Middle School are in the perfect spot to bring together many parts of a city that is facing a shortage of athletic facilities and that is perceived to be divided economically and ethnically. Today, unfortunately, the Henderson soccer fields sit mostly underutilized and under-maintained (and insufficiently lighted after dark).

What if the Henderson fields could become a great public soccer facility through a partnership with the Little Rock School District, the Little Rock Parks and Recreation department, local soccer clubs such as Arkansas United, and a corporate partner that would be rewarded with naming rights for the complex in return for an ongoing donation?

Improving the Henderson fields is in the best interest of the city and its soccer-playing residents. Rather than look for additional field space, Little Rock's Parks and Recreation Department should agree to maintain and oversee a great piece of land already staring us in the face. And the LRSD, which is searching for more athletic space to serve all of its students, should place more importance on land it already has.

One important part of this renovation project should be keeping the goals and nets maintained and available year- round so that it is the one place in the city where the public can go play soccer on a Sunday or other times when not being used by club soccer or the district.

Another part of the public-use strategy could involve turning the vacant and neglected tennis courts adjacent to the soccer fields into futsal courts. Futsal is a form of mini-soccer played on a hard surface and smaller court. Several public schools around the country — such as those in Kansas City — have recently turned old tennis courts into futsal courts with great success. This could be replicated in Little Rock and result in an annual summer futsal tournament that draws teams from around the region, like the indoor version held in the winter in Branson, Mo.

A renovated Henderson soccer field complex could be a great asset in a part of town that does not get enough attention for revitalization. And, the partnership would symbolically unite the Little Rock School District and the city of Little Rock at a time it is sorely needed.

Matt Dishongh is the publications editor for Baptist Health and a soccer evangelist who is a big fan of the Little Rock School District's much-overlooked middle-school soccer league.

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Provide every child in Arkansas with books from infancy to kindergarten
By Clarke Tucker

Arkansas should implement on a statewide basis the program known as Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

At a cost of just $25 per year, this program provides each child with one age-appropriate book per month (as selected by a panel of early childhood education experts) from the time of registration to the child's fifth birthday.

Dolly Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995 as a way to give back to her community, but the results have been so impressive that the program has grown to provide books for over 900,000 children worldwide. Kids who participate in this program are more likely than their peers to ask to be read to, and, eventually, to read on their own. For a child, it's especially exciting to receive a book in the mail with a label bearing his or her name; this causes children to take ownership of the books and helps cultivate a love of reading from a young age.

click to enlarge Rep. Clarke Tucker
  • Rep. Clarke Tucker

The program also promotes positive time spent with family. Research indicates that the Imagination Library increases enrollment in ESL language and adult literacy classes because parents and other family members want to be able to read to their children.

A child with a good early childhood education is much less likely to need remedial education, be held back a grade in school, use drugs, be arrested for a violent crime or become a teen parent. A child with quality early childhood education is much more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, own a home and obtain a better-paying job. And yet, early childhood education is severely underfunded. Research shows 85 percent of cognitive development takes place before age 5, but nearly 90 percent of our public education dollars are spent on K-12 education.

Since children participate in the program for a maximum of five years, the Imagination Library costs up to $125 for up to 60 books over the life of the program for a single child. That breaks down to $2.08 per book, which includes the cost of printing and mailing.

Tennessee implemented the program on a statewide basis approximately 10 years ago with impressive results. Participants in the program score significantly higher in reading comprehension and vocabulary measures than their peers — not only in kindergarten, but also in second and third grades. More broadly, there is evidence that a child with even 25 books in his or her home will complete two more years of school than a child with no books.

The state of Tennessee provides about half the funding for its program, with the other half raised locally on a county-by-county basis. In Arkansas, the program exists in many counties — for example, the Imagination Library has been fully implemented in Des Arc for more than five years with incredible results. Unfortunately, our state government has not stepped in as a partner to local communities, and there are significant parts of Arkansas, including Pulaski County, where the program does not exist at all.

Arkansas could become the second state in the nation to implement the Imagination Library on a statewide basis if it were to act now. The entire program would cost an estimated $2.6 million to $2.8 million per year to implement. If the state matched local community dollars at a 50 percent to 75 percent rate, we could provide 12 books every year to every child in Arkansas from birth to age 5 for $1.3 million to $2.1 million per year. In doing so, we would change the lives of a generation of Arkansas children.

Clarke Tucker represents a portion of Little Rock and Pulaski County in the Arkansas House of Representatives and is an attorney at Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull PLLC. He is hoping, and working to make sure, that his daughter will receive an Imagination Library book in the mail before her fifth birthday in the summer of 2017.

Legislate food waste and disposal
By Gail E. Allen

In May 2015, France made it illegal for large supermarkets to throw out edible safe food. The new law requires them to donate the food to charity. They must enter into a contract with a charity within one year or face steep fines for failure to do so. Here in the U.S., after a five-year preparatory notice and education period, Massachusetts in 2014 passed a much more comprehensive law concerning food waste disposal that prevents any institution or company that produces at least 2,000 pounds of food waste per week from putting it in a landfill. The state requires all food waste (edible or not) to be recycled, composted or donated. Even before the law went into effect in Massachusetts, new businesses in the energy and composting sectors were beginning to spring up. According to the Massachusetts EPA site, Massachusetts' goal each year is "to divert 450,000 tons of inedible food waste to composting facilities or anaerobic digesters, which convert food waste into a biogas that can be used for heat and electricity ... and will cut greenhouse gases, lower waste disposal costs and preserve scarce landfill space across Massachusetts."

In Europe, draft legislation similar to the French law (which was recently modified to add some of the Massachusetts features) has been proposed in Norway, Poland, Romania and Italy. Parliament in the United Kingdom is leading a campaign by 16 national parliaments in Europe to have the EU take action with binding limits, and a U.K. supermarket chain, Morrisons, announced that a pilot project that gave unsold food to local community organizations will be extended to all of its stores across the U.K.

One out of seven people in the U.S. are "food insecure" (in Arkansas, the figure is one in five). At the same time, almost incomprehensibly, some $160 billion worth of food is wasted and goes into U.S. landfills every year, representing a staggering 40 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. (up from 10 percent in 1980). There are many contributing factors, one of which is the misleading "sell by," "best by" or "use by" dates appearing on food, which bear little relation to food safety, and which many experts say are artificially set to scare consumers and increase sales.

While we often hear about the serious environmental impact of food production on biodiversity and scarce land and water resources, the more startling statistic is that food waste is one of the largest contributors to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.  A 2013 United Nations' study stated that if wasted food were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  When food waste decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas which, according to the EPA's website, "pound for pound, has 25 times more effect on climate change than carbon."

Gail E. Allen practiced law in New York for 17 years before returning to Little Rock to tend to her parents' medical needs and small family business.

click to enlarge Glen Hooks
  • Glen Hooks

Commit Little Rock to being 100 percent powered by clean energy by 2025
By Glen Hooks

Communities from Long Island, N.Y., to Aspen, Colo., are taking the pledge to use 100 percent clean energy in the foreseeable future. Having Arkansas's capital city set this goal would establish a path that other cities and towns across the state can follow.

Now is the perfect time to start making those plans. Entergy's massive and dirty White Bluff coal-fired power plant is nearing retirement, and new clean air protections are coming that will make coal and gas power even more of a risky bet in the very near future. Our reliance on fossil fuels is no longer a smart strategy.

While dirty energy is becoming less attractive, the plummeting price of solar and wind energy, combined with rapidly advancing renewable energy technology, is changing the energy game entirely. In 2015, Arkansas saw no fewer than four utility-scale solar and wind project proposals across the state. We're also very close to adding in 500 megawatts of wind energy from the pending Clean Line Energy project. Couple those giant projects with new programs (some governmental, some home-grown) making it easier for Arkansans to generate their own solar energy, and it's clear the clean energy revolution has arrived in Arkansas.

It's time we embraced that revolution on a larger scale. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola ran for election on a platform that included protecting our natural resources. If he took this ambitious but doable next step, it would cement his legacy as a truly "strong mayor" who prioritized our economy, health and environment all at the same time. Such a move would not only result in cleaner air and a healthier population for Central Arkansas, but would also undoubtedly create thousands of new jobs. Imagine our citizens building and installing solar panels, wind turbines and energy efficient appliances. Imagine our citizens helping to retrofit our buildings and homes, weatherizing them to save energy and lower our power bills. Most of these are solid, good-paying jobs that, frankly, can't be outsourced. Even an Arkansan who is loath to be called an environmentalist won't turn away a good-paying job.

I'm ready for the Natural State to live up to her potential. Those of us who have grown up in Arkansas know the historic sting of always being 49th or 50th in every category. I say we aim higher and show the rest of the United States what's possible when we Arkansans think big.

Glen Hooks is the director of the Sierra Club of Arkansas.

click to enlarge Acadia Roher
  • Acadia Roher

Erect markers to remember Arkansas's history of oppression and resistance
By Acadia Roher

Amid recent debates over the Confederate flag and similar symbols of Southern heritage, it's become clear that many Arkansans — and white Arkansans in particular — are unfamiliar with much of our state's history. Defenders of Confederate symbolism complain about "whitewashing the past" but tend to be silent about the folks who have perpetrated oppression, as well as those who have resisted it.

Though some of this history (such as the Central High crisis) is widely known, much else remains nearly invisible. How many residents of Little Rock have driven through the intersection of Broadway and Ninth streets oblivious to the fact that in 1927, a white mob lynched John Carter and burned his body there on the trolley tracks? And what of the locations of sit-ins led by Philander Smith students throughout the 1960s that prompted the desegregation of downtown businesses? State and local funding should be made available to establish markers and memorials both to reckon with our violent history and to celebrate the legacy of social justice and creative accomplishments of all our people. Then we can have a full picture of our Southern heritage and know which parts are really worth defending.

Acadia Roher is a Little Rock native who works with Little Rock Collective Liberation and other social justice groups in Central Arkansas. She also volunteers her time in several community gardens and consults for nonprofits with a team of fellow Clinton School alumni.

Use choice-based instruction across the curriculum
By Matt Parker


For a decade now, I’ve taught elementary art at the Owl Creek School in the Fayetteville School District. Prior to that, I spent four years working at a Montessori school. It was quite an adjustment to move to a traditional school from a Montessori setting, where small student-to-teacher ratios, choice, responsibility and independent learning were the norm.

At first, it seemed almost impossible to incorporate Montessori methods into my new setting, and I almost always relied on whole group instruction: teaching the same lesson and requiring the same product from every student. However, as the years passed, I found that small-group centers and a choice-based style of instruction can work in any classroom.

For years, I noticed that various assignments prompted some students to claim they “didn’t like art” because they weren’t good at a particular skill required for that project. Those same students seemed to love art when we were doing something completely different. Why was I forcing them all to do the same thing at the same time? Why not let some work on drawing while others paint, sculpt or sew?

I discovered how to better engage students when a fellow colleague directed me to a choice-based approach called Teaching for Artistic Behavior. TAB allows children to discover individual talents and skills at their own pace through an environment that fosters creative play, exploration, innovation and collaboration. Can a similar style of instruction be used to teach other subjects, from science to literacy? I think it can, and I think it should.

Matt Parker is an elementary art teacher in the Fayetteville School District.

Coordinate community development strategies with K-12 education on a local level
By Jerri Derlikowski


Educators and community developers don't travel in the same circles, with the occasional exception of discussing workforce needs at the high school level. However, the linkages between development and K-12 education go much deeper than that.

Many community development programs that devote resources to improving quality of life also provide critical services to struggling students. This in turn improves academic outcomes across the community. From health care infrastructure to early childhood programs to community facilities that house summer or after school programs, investment outside of the classroom is critical to creating the necessary conditions for academic success.

Conway and Bryant are two cities that have made progress in coordinating their education and development needs. In Conway, the Chamber of Commerce is leading efforts to improve early childhood programs; in Bryant, the mayor’s office is doing the same. An economic marketing analysis recently completed in Jonesboro noted a need for more pre-K. With business communities around the state beginning to recognize the connections between education and economic and community development, Arkansas needs to initiate and expand these efforts.

Jerri Derlikowski is an independent education consultant. Her nonprofit, Community Resource Innovations, provides technical assistance to public school districts in Arkansas.

Invest in high-ability, low-income students to close the excellence gap
By Corey Alderdice


In education, the achievement gap describes the disparity in academic performance between certain student subgroups. A related but distinct phenomenon is what some call the excellence gap: the disparity between the numbers of lower- and higher-income students who reach advanced levels of academic performance. Unsurprisingly, economically disadvantaged students are less likely than wealthier peers to excel as they progress through their academic careers. This is not inevitable.

We tend to embrace the tropes of the film “Good Will Hunting” when it comes to thinking of low-income, gifted students. We like the idea of an unstoppable force that rises above challenging circumstances and does great things through sheer determination. But although some bright minds are able to succeed through self-motivated curiosity, most talent requires nurturing, coaching and support from a variety of outside influences. It was only through a combination of opportunity and mentoring that the film’s Will Hunting was afforded the chance to stand toe-to-toe with scholars who had greater access to resources and training. Here in the real world, these challenges can be even more substantial.

Arkansas, like several other Southern states, offers a public residential high school that serves a statewide population of “gifted and talented” students. Public selective-admissions high schools like the Arkansas School for Math, Science and the Arts provide a vigorous learning environment for accelerated learners.
But while 51 percent of public school students nationwide now come from low-income backgrounds, the numbers are different at selective admissions public high schools. Among the 16 such institutions in the country, ASMSA has the highest percentage of students who come from low-income backgrounds. The average among our peer institutions is around 15 percent. One-third of students currently enrolled at ASMSA qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Nearly two out of every five graduates of the school will become the first member of their family to pursue a college degree. Many other selective admissions public high schools do not even keep statistics on first-generation college students because they’re so uncommon.

At ASMSA, we think of students as being either “transitional” or “transformational.” Transitional students are those who arrive at our campus fully ready to embrace the academic challenges of ASMSA’s residential program. They’re typically buoyed by consistent family support, strong academic preparation, test prep, summer camp experiences and a host of other benefits. For these students — who often have the key advantage of starting ahead — our goal is to transition them to the next, higher level of learning.

Transformational students are young people who have experienced seemingly immovable obstacles in their scholastic career: limited out-of-school academic opportunities, underperforming school districts, difficult family circumstances and a lack of personal advocates. Their backgrounds are probably not what most of our external stakeholders think of when they reflect on a typical ASMSA student. However, the admissions review process has convinced our faculty and staff that they possess the motivation, interest and grit to persist through the program and make continuous progress. We are searching for our Will Huntings, our unstoppable forces, with the hope that by removing some of these immovable obstacles they will be better able to reach academic success.

ASMSA has been fortunate to receive a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an organization dedicated to closing the excellence gap for low-income students. With the foundation’s help, we created Project HELIX (Helping Elevate Low-Income Students to Excellence). Project HELIX seeks to offer transformational learners the opportunities that transitional students enjoy. We have found that providing mentoring and support to high-achieving, low-income students creates an environment that encourages the actualization of previously unrealized potential. We believe finding a place among a cohort of academic peers helps inspire a sense of confidence within students that, with effort, they can be ready to excel at ASMSA, in college and beyond.

Corey Alderdice is the director of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts.


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