Suggs: Pre-K program at Forest Park will continue after all | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Suggs: Pre-K program at Forest Park will continue after all

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2015 at 4:57 PM

click to enlarge VOICING CONCERNS: Freddie Fields hears from a Forest Park parent, Kimberly Bowman. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • VOICING CONCERNS: Freddie Fields hears from a Forest Park parent, Kimberly Bowman.

Dexter Suggs, the interim superintendent for the Little Rock School District, told a gathering of about 50 parents at Forest Park elementary today that the school's preschool program will not be ending after all, as was indicated in a letter mistakenly given to children to take home to their parents yesterday.

The demand for slots at high-performing Forest Park outstrips the amount of space available, and the district evidently had been considering scaling back the pre-K program or eliminating it altogether in order to serve the growing number of kids who'll be moving into elementary grades. Freddie Fields, the LRSD's Senior Director of Student Services, said that the decision about how to proceed with Forest Park was in the hands of the assembled parents.

"We are asking you to decide ... do you want to leave it like it is ... or do you want to remove one pre-K [classroom] and accommodate kindergarten students so they can roll up [to the next grade]?" Fields asked.

The assembled parents were strongly opposed to dismantling the pre-K program. "I think if the Little Rock School District is looking for models for good schools, we've got a great school here ... I'd be hesitant to change it," said one mother. "Don't mess with pre-K," a father said. Given such input, Fields and Suggs came up with an alternative solution for Forest Park that involved leaving pre-K alone but cutting off new enrollments at second grade, at least for the coming year.

"We will not be ending pre-K here," Suggs said.

Parents will also work with administrators on policies regarding student placement; a number of the parents today complained that the LRSD is not aggressive enough in verifying the addresses of families seeking placement in high-demand schools such as Forest Park. Typically, verifying an address only involves showing a utility bill to the district. "It's a very easy process to get around," one mother said. Fields said the district would work with parents to consider policy changes, but that they'd have to be district-wide. 

After the meeting concluded, Suggs admitted that "we need to engage with the parents and community more. We need to allow them to make decisions." No doubt. As multiple parents said, more communication on the front end would easily prevent these sorts of minor explosions.

Incoming Forest Park PTA president Kimberly Bowman said that she applauded Suggs' responsiveness after the fact, but that the district had to become "proactive, not reactive" in addressing the concerns of parents.

Forest Park sits in the Heights, an affluent and mostly white neighborhood, and most of the parents in attendance today appeared to belong to that demographic. The meeting took place in an expansive brick gazebo attached to the school, a structure built with private donations; one father pointed out the plaques set into the walls of the gazebo commemorating various donors and asked whether Heights families might be able to help fund an expansion to the school facilities in the future.

But not every school in the city is as readily able to mobilize PTA support backed by significant local economic and political muscle. The question is whether the district — and the state Education Department, which took over the LRSD in January— will be as immediately responsive to the demands of parents in other, poorer neighborhoods as the LRSD institutes sweeping changes in the coming months. There's some hope in the fact that Suggs did respond to an outcry over proposed changes to the pre-K program at Rockefeller Elementary, a magnet school on the east side of town with a student body that's closer to the LRSD median in terms of race and poverty.

As with the abortive fight over Forest Park, though, that was a scramble to correct course after the fact, rather than a concerted effort to reach out to students' families on the front end. Suggs said that next Monday marks the beginning of a district-wide effort to do a better job on that front with a concerted parent outreach campaign.

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