Thursday, September 14, 2017
In just over a year, Superintendent Mike Poore has proven to be a passionate, engaged and effective leader for the Little Rock School District. Most notably, on the 2016-17 ACT Aspire results, it was one of only 12 districts in Arkansas to improve in every single grade. That has only happened one other time in recent district history.
Under Mr. Poore's leadership, the district budgeted its second highest annual revenue on record, and resident enrollment exceeded that of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. He opened the largest building in the district (Pinnacle View Middle School) and will soon break ground for the new, state-of-the-art Little Rock Southwest High School.
But in one recent action--seeking state Board of Education review of three Charter Authorizing Panel unanimously approved open-enrollment public charter school applications--he has fallen back into a pattern of leadership which has plagued the Little Rock School District for 35 years: blaming external forces for the district's ills.
Unfortunately, his two arguments for review, neither of which addresses the merits of the charter applications, are not unfamiliar: The district has too many open seats, and the district is "on the move."
And why does the district have too many open seats--2,623 at the elementary level alone? Between 2000 and 2015, every zone in the Little Rock School District, except those in west Little Rock, lost elementary school-age population: 46.6 percent in Zone 1; 16.3 percent in Zone 6; 14.2 percent in Zone 2; 14.1 percent in Zone 3; and 8.4 percent in Zone 7. Meanwhile, west Little Rock's Zones 4 and 5 grew 43.1 percent and 39.2 percent, respectively.
To his credit, Mr. Poore acted when his predecessors would not, closing low-enrollment Franklin and Wilson schools, and moving students into the nearby, newer but half-empty Stephens Elementary. But it's not enough. The district still has three schools at less than 50 percent capacity, and 16 of its 42 schools accommodate fewer than 500 students, the minimum recommended for the state's funding matrix.
The quantity of open seats near the proposed charter locations is irrelevant. Quality of open seats is what matters. For example, less than 1 percent of eStem Public Charter School's downtown enrollment lives in the same ZIP Code (72201) as the school, but it has to turn away thousands because of state-imposed enrollment caps.
Twelve of 26 Little Rock district elementary schools, three of seven middle schools, and four of five high schools remain as either Priority or Focus Schools, among the lowest 10 percent academically performing schools in Arkansas. All of the district elementary schools closest to the proposed locations of the three charters are Focus Schools (lowest 6-10 percent).
Meanwhile, the district's receiving middle schools proximate to the charters--Cloverdale, Henderson and Mabelvale--are all Academic Distress and Priority Schools (lowest 5 percent), with percentages of students entering sixth grade three or more grades behind in the two major subject areas ranging from 33 percent in English at Mabelvale to 77 percent in math at Henderson. As a result of continually kicking the academic performance can down the road, three of the district's five high schools are also Priority Schools (lowest 5 percent). Nearly all of their students enter ninth grade three or more grades behind.
The sad irony here is that the three proposed charter schools--Einstein (K-8) and ScholarMade (K-9) in 2018 and Friendship (K-8) in 2019--would greatly benefit the district. All are proposing to locate in its most impoverished areas, invest millions to refurbish closed and crumbling buildings, meet the needs of its most challenged students, and prepare them for success in the district's high schools. Oh, and all are offering transportation, while two will provide three meals and two snacks a day.
Instead of fighting their approvals, Mr. Poore and Little Rock should be rolling out red carpets.
In Pulaski County south of the Arkansas River, 20 percent of students are in private schools, and 2 percent are home-schooled. Fifty-six percent are in the Little Rock district, and 12 percent are in Pulaski County Special School District. Only 10 percent are in open-enrollment public charter schools, most of which have lengthy wait lists. Denying excellent education options to poor and middle-class families because adults have mismanaged the resources of the richest school district in Arkansas is unconscionable and should not be allowed to limit choices.
Waiting, pause buttons, and/or moratoria on charters seem to be the politically expedient vernacular of the status quo. But the status quo only exists for systems and its beneficiaries, not students and families. Little Rock is starved for truly transformative leadership willing to endure the inevitable slings and arrows and able to resist groupthink in order to grow, retain and attract families. And that begins and ends with public education and public safety.
Mr. Poore is on the right side of many, if not most, issues. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. As in all things, may the immediate best interests of students guide the state board's decision.
Gary Newton is a resident of the Little Rock School District and CEO of Arkansas Learns. He may be reached at gnewton@ArkansasLearns.org or followed @ArkansasLearns.
Editorial on 09/14/2017
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