Arkansas schools now have a new tool for creating programs, schedules and services that have the potential to improve student learning and school performance.
The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday unanimously approved emergency rules for establishing “schools of innovation,” as authorized by Act 601 of the 2013 legislative session.
Now, “school councils of innovation,” made up of school faculty and staff members, parents, community members and even students, can form, plan and submit school redesign proposals to their school boards and to Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell by May 1 for implementation in the 2014-15 school year.
“We’ve been chomping at the bit for this,” said Megan Witonski, assistant commissioner for learning services at the Arkansas Department of Education. “This can truly shape-shift what our educational future can look like in Arkansas.”
For more than a dozen years, state law has allowed school districts and independent nonprofit organizations to establish public charter schools. Charter schools operate under waivers of some of the state rules and laws that govern traditional schools and, as a result, can be experimental in some of their design and offerings.
Schools of innovation are eligible for most of the same kinds of waivers, Witonski said.
But a school of innovation can be a preferable option, she said.
“In some communities and in some areas, charters may not be palatable,” she said. “There are some connotations that come along with that word, charter, fair or not fair. In some cases, districts and communities have had negative experiences with charters, but a superintendent may say, ‘We really need to do this for our kids,’ so schools of innovation give them that opportunity.”
Another benefit to schools of innovation that charter schools don’t necessarily have, she said, is the establishment of the school council to discuss and develop the innovation plan. She called the council a critical piece in determining whether there is support in the school and community for proposed changes.
“It’s a unique opportunity for all these groups to come together,” she said of the council members, “to think-tank that through and decide what the application will look like for a school.”
The council’s plan must be submitted to a vote of the certified and noncertified staff at the affected school and be approved by at least 60 percent of those voting. The proposal also must be approved by the district’s school board before the plan - with its mission, goals, research base, strategies and requested waivers - is submitted online to the Education Department.
The commissioner has the authority to approve or reject the proposal, and to revoke approval if the plan is not being carried out or achievement targets aren’t being met. Schools of innovation will be approved for four years, after which the proposal must be resubmitted for renewal.
The commissioner’s decisions on the schools of innovation are final and cannot be appealed, according to the newly approved emergency rules for the coming year and the proposed rules for subsequent years. The proposed rules are still subject to review during a forthcoming public hearing and to final approval from the state Education Board later this year.
Witonski said the commissioner-approved applications must be posted on a district’s website and be available for public viewing, making it possible for other schools and districts to see the plans and replicate them if they prove successful.
Board member Mireya Reith questioned how charter schools could also better share their programs with the larger education community.
Board Chairman Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville, who was a state legislator when the charter school law was passed, said charter schools, like the schools of innovation, were initially intended to be innovative education laboratory schools, and their successes were to be widely communicated so that all schools could move forward.
“This is exactly what it was supposed to be, and how we failed to get it that way, I don’t know,” Gullett said.
Witonski said Education Department staff members have already talked about ways to identify and collect the best practices in the charter schools and find a platform for sharing those.
Board member Alice Mahony of El Dorado questioned whether additional funding was available for the schools for innovation.
“No, Ma’am,” Witonski said. “This is, ‘You would love to do this because you would really love to do this,’” she said. “I will tell you that in terms of motivation, I don’t think that is going to be a deterrent for superintendents, or for principals or teachers who want to try these innovative practices in the classroom.”
She said there are educators who are eager to try something new in the schools.
Jay Barth, a member of the board from Little Rock, complimented the Education Department’s implementation plan and state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who championed the passage of the schools of innovation state law.
He also questioned whether data for the schools of innovation will be tracked over time.
Witonski said the state’s existing student data system will make that possible.
The goal is to be able to highlight results and “push those forward and to show the best practices, using real examples that are happening in Arkansas schools with Arkansas students.”
The emergency rules can be found under the “Commissioner’s Memos” link on the Education Department website: arkansased.org.