Facing closure, Wilson Elementary families deliver angry message to school leaders | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Facing closure, Wilson Elementary families deliver angry message to school leaders

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 9:37 PM

click to enlarge WHAT NEXT FOR WILSON: People stream into the elementary school in advance of Thursday's meeting. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • WHAT NEXT FOR WILSON: People stream into the elementary school in advance of Thursday's meeting.

Tameka Jackson*, the mother of a child at Wilson Elementary, had strong words for Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore tonight after the LRSD leader explained to parents why he plans to close the campus at the end of the current school year.

click to enlarge Tameka Jackson speaks to the superintendent with her son Javier, 7, a first grader at Wilson. LRSD Communications Director Pam Smith holds the microphone. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Tameka Jackson speaks to the superintendent with her son Javier, 7, a first grader at Wilson. LRSD Communications Director Pam Smith holds the microphone.
"How dare you?" Jackson said to Poore. "How dare you choose our community, our neighborhood, our school? Our kids matter. The teachers there matter. The principal matters, and he treats the kids like they matter. Like my neighborhood is not important enough to have a thriving school? How dare y'all make the decision without us? ... I’ve been in the military fighting for my whole country and now I have to come home and fight locally? Why? This is crazy."

Next year, the LRSD faces the loss of $37 million annually in payments from the state as a result of the resolution of a desegregation lawsuit. Many buildings in the district are operating under capacity; the district has at least 2,300 unfilled student seats, Poore said. The plan he seeks to implement would distribute Wilson's students among four other elementaries in the area — Bale, Brady, Romine and Western Hills — and the superintendent said Wilson's location was "one of the primary reasons" it was chosen to be closed: Students can be shifted to other campuses with less disruption, according to Poore. Wilson is a K-5 school with around 270 students that is located on Colonel Glenn Road, about a mile west of University Ave.

Poore seeks to repurpose the Wilson building as the new site for Hamilton Learning Academy, the district's alternative school.  But Jackson said "this is not the neighborhood" for an alternative school, something other speakers echoed as the meeting continued late into the night.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key was in attendance at tonight's meeting, along with other officials from the state Education Department. Key has the last word on Wilson's closure, along with Poore's other planned changes to district campuses, because he acts in the capacity of the Little Rock district's school board while it is in state takeover. The LRSD was taken over by the state almost two years ago and its elected school board dissolved due to the "academic distress" designation of a small number of its campuses. Wilson is not one of the distressed schools.

Key was not on hand at last night's meeting at Franklin Elementary, the other K-5 campus that Poore is seeking to close. Franklin students would attend Stephens Elementary if the plan is approved. The superintendent also plans to close Woodruff Early Childhood Center; its preschoolers would go to pre-K programs at Carver Magnet and King.

click to enlarge FACING THE MUSIC: Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore speaks at Wilson Elementary. Education Commissioner Johnny Key (front row, red tie) was in attendance. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • FACING THE MUSIC: Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore speaks at Wilson Elementary. Education Commissioner Johnny Key (front row, red tie) was in attendance.

Poore reiterated tonight that the district has already made substantial cuts in other places in its budget, most of which have fallen on employees. Teachers have seen their contract days reduced and taken a hit to their health insurance in recent years, and Poore wants to avoid further cuts.

That was cold comfort to many Wilson parents, community members and activists in tonight, who filled the elementary's brightly lit cafeteria. A number spoke warmly of Wilson's staff and especially noted the effectiveness of the school's principal, Clifton Woodley. Signs around the room broadcast pleas to preserve the campus. “Wilson Elementary Is The Heart of our world!!” read a piece of red posterboard decorated with yellow hearts and taped to the podium on the stage behind Poore.

In general, however, the crowd's mood was more angry than plaintive. Jessyca Sledge*, a parent of two children at Wilson repeatedly asked Poore whether he cared about the communities served by the LRSD. "Why do you guys not care about your community? You’re tearing it down, not building it up, especially in the black community. … It’s just a simple question — do you care?"

"Ma’am, I do care deeply about this district, and I do believe wholeheartedly we are making a better district every day," he replied.

click to enlarge Jessyca Sledge - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Jessyca Sledge

Carrie Campbell asked Poore a series of questions. "Do you think public school or private schooling is more beneficial to our children? Are you aware of the $10 million voucher [legislation] for private schools that just so happened to be filed in our state yesterday? … Number three: You had time to think and speak on it, so will you allow the public to raise the money?" Campbell was referencing a statement Poore made last night at Franklin after he was asked about the possibility of raising private funds to keep the schools open, possibly through the existing Bright Futures program, which Poore has promoted; $8 million was floated as a goal. At the Franklin meeting, the superintendent had said he did not think it was possible to raise enough money to keep the schools from closing.

Campbell also accused the district of failing to make Spanish-language announcements regarding its meetings over school closures. "You're leaving our Latino students behind," she said. About 20 percent of Wilson's student body is classified as "limited English proficiency"; about 24 percent is Hispanic or Latino, according to district data. Finally, Campbell asked Poore about his statement that the district needs to give parents choices, (he's cited that as one reason why he decided not to close a school that earlier was on the closure shortlist, Carver Magnet).

"You continue to say that people love choice," she said. "Where is our choice in this decision?"

click to enlarge A family in attendance at Wilson on Thursday evening. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • A family in attendance at Wilson on Thursday evening.

Poore told Campbell that he is "a staunch advocate of public schools. My own children are in public schools. I’ve only ever worked in public schools, and my desire is to have a great public school system in Little Rock. There is no private school that's ever been a part of any part of my being." He said he didn't know any specifics about the voucher bill introduced in the legislature yesterday.

As for the proposal to raise money through Bright Futures, Poore said the program is designed to meet needs of individual students, not support whole schools. He acknowledged that "there are other vehicles that folks could utilize" to raise private funds, such as a crowdfunding campaign. But, he continued, "I stated last night, and I know this isn't going to be popular, but I'm going to be real with you all that raising $8 million does not solve the long-term situation. You have an ongoing expense that you have to take care of."

Poore said a lack of announcements printed in Spanish was "an issue ... that I was not aware of" and said the district is committed to providing materials to Spanish-speaking parents in their native language. (A number of Hispanic families in attendance tonight wore headsets through which an interpreter translated Poore's words.) He said parents had a right to a choice when it came to education and that the LRSD was providing "options within the district in terms of magnet options, or you can go to your neighborhood school. Obviously there might be some people who think 'Well, I'm going to leave the district,' and I guess that's a choice, too. But we're going to try our best to show you what the transition will look like and what the new facility will be ... for your son or daughter to get their education."

click to enlarge Rosa Acosta - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Rosa Acosta

Rosa Acosta was one of several Spanish-speaking parents who asked Poore questions through the interpreter. "I don’t speak the language, but my question is basically what exactly do you need for this school to keep it open?" she asked through the translator. Acosta worried about the impact of "trying to put these kids in a school that is already crowded or full" and said that the teachers at Wilson were working hard and putting in their best effort to educate her child and others.

"I want to reiterate that there is wonderful staff at this school," Poore said, adding later "if you went to any elementary in this district you would have similar comments … especially at the elementary level, communities love their schools." But, he said again, it is not sustainable for the district to have 2,300 vacant seats.

"I believe that we will have a better district next year, even with this recommendation," Poore told Acosta.

*An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of Tameka Jackson and Jessyca Sledge.

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