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Thursday, October 19, 2017, 8:05 a.m.

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Board OKs waivers for Little Rock school system

By Cynthia Howell

This article was published October 13, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.



The Little Rock School District is now among nearly 100 of the state's traditional school districts to receive waivers from state rules and laws that were earlier awarded to publicly funded but independently operated charter schools.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to waive a handful of state teacher licensure laws and rules for the state's largest district, clearing the way for the system to hire "content experts" such as computer programmers, licensed building contractors and licensed health care professional employees for the district's brand-new Excel career-education program.

Without the waivers of laws requiring state-certified teachers, the Little Rock district could not hire the specialized employees without violating state accreditation standards.

Districts that violate state accreditation standards for two consecutive years can lose their state accreditation, making it harder for their high school graduates to be accepted into colleges and universities.

The Education Board's approval of the Little Rock waiver request -- along with the Russellville School District's request for waivers of different rules to support Russellville High's Advanced Placement program -- raises to 98 the number of districts that have waivers under Act 1240 of 2015, said Kelly McLaughlin, a program adviser in the state Department of Education's charter-school unit.

Act 1240 of 2015 authorizes a school district to request and receive waivers of rules and laws given previously to one or more open-enrollment charter schools that enroll students from the traditional district that requests waivers.

"What a great opportunity for all districts," Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore told the Education Board about the waivers. "It not only creates a level playing field with charters but allows innovation."

Poore was superintendent of the Bentonville School District when that Northwest Arkansas system became the first in the state to request Act 1240 waivers for that district's Ignite career-education program, which is a model for Little Rock's Excel program.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key appointed Poore to head the state-controlled Little Rock School District in mid-2016. With the appointment came the directive from Key to Poore to develop a new career-education program in the district.

The Excel program initially attracted 150 high school student applicants, Poore said Thursday. But some course scheduling problems at the beginning of this school year reduced that number to about 70 students who are distributed among four career strands: medical fields, construction, teaching and technology.

The students spend half the day at their regular high schools and then 2½ hours in the Excel courses that are housed in different locations in the city. The technology students, for example, are taking their course work at Aristotle Inc., a Web service company.

The teacher education program is housed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Course work in the medical professions is taught at Baptist Health in Little Rock and the construction trade courses are taught at the district's Metropolitan Career Technical Center, Poore said.

Qualified students in Excel are eligible to earn concurrent credit in the different fields from the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College. The tuition for the concurrent credit is being paid by community organizations.

However, Poore said, not all of the Excel students earned high enough scores on the ACT college entrance exam or other tests to qualify for the concurrent credit program. As a result, the district was not able to rely on college faculty for teaching all students in the career courses, prompting the district to seek waivers to put content specialist instructors on the teacher payroll.

The Little Rock district, home to almost half of the open-enrollment charter schools in the state, based its waivers request on waivers awarded to eStem Public Charter Schools Inc.

The five-year waivers are from Arkansas Code Annotated 6-15-1004 that requires qualified teachers in every public school classroom; 6-17-309 that requires certification to teach grade or subject matter; 6-17-401 that sets up teacher licensure requirements; 6-17-902 that establishes the definition of a teacher; and 6-17-919 that says teacher salary warrants are void without certification and a contract.

Shameka Montgomery, the Little Rock district's director of career and technical education, said the career field specialists will prove to be a boon to the Excel program and its students.

"In my experience ... our biggest gains result from industry-experienced staff," Montgomery told the board. "We can teach out of a textbook all day, but it's best to allow students to hear from industry professionals," she said.

Buckley O'Mell, vice president for advocacy at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support Thursday of the waivers and the Excel program.

The chamber began working two years ago with the school districts in Pulaski County to expand their career and technical education programs.

The state Education Board's daylong meeting Thursday was held in the auditorium of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. The board and other Education Department-affiliated organizations will meet at the Environmental Quality Department for the remainder of the calendar year while the auditorium in the Arch Ford Department of Education Building on the state Capitol mall is being remodeled.

Metro on 10/13/2017

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