The LRSD community has found its voice. We have discovered how powerful we can be when we work together. The future of our district depends on whether we can keep that momentum going. While the fight for local control is far from over, new efforts to improve educational outcomes for all Little Rock students are seeing an exciting influx of new energy and resources.
On Oct. 10, the state Board of Education voted to return the Little Rock School District to "unified local control." Headlines immediately declared "Board of Education votes to return local control of LRSD." The vote was undoubtedly a step forward, but we have since learned that the state's plan falls far short of full local control.
Under the recently released Draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a nine-member zoned school board will be elected in November 2020 and seated in January 2021. However, that board will be prohibited from recognizing the Little Rock Education Association, firing the superintendent, or setting its own budget. Moreover, the state explicitly retains all the authority it currently has over LRSD as a district in "Level 5-Intensive Support," meaning that it could still dissolve or replace the elected school board at any time, remove or replace the superintendent, and direct or veto any board decisions it sees fit.
LRSD will remain under the state's thumb until we meet new exit criteria crafted by the state and its appointees.
The state has indicated that the MOU will be revised based on community input, which can be sent to email@example.com. LRSD advocates have worked within the state's public-comment process for years and have been sorely ignored, but we have recently proven that grass-roots activism and old-fashioned civic engagement can still work.
The state has substantially changed its position regarding the future of LRSD several times in response to intense public pressure. We should not let up now. The MOU places unacceptable restrictions on our elected school board, and we should continue to demand the right to make meaningful decisions about our schools.
However, not all activism is negative or critical, and I am really hopeful that the city of Little Rock's plan to invest in a "community-schools model" will provide an avenue for constructive and positive community input. Community schools don't have a one-size-fits-all definition; they position public schools as the hub of an interconnected web of cooperation and support between parents, students, educators, health-care providers, social workers, faith leaders, the business community, and other community partners.
Community schools are designed to empower community input, identify the unique strengths and needs of each school, implement evidence-based responses to those needs, and utilize more holistic assessments of student achievement. This approach, paired with an increased focus on literacy and math, could be exactly the kind of bold and visionary change needed to transform student outcomes.
The process by which these community schools are developed will matter a great deal. Creating community schools requires intense study and a significant amount of community outreach. In order for the city's unprecedented investment in public education to realize its potential, it must proceed thoughtfully and with a focus on evidence-based decision-making. Doing it right will take time.
Finally, the public needs concrete assurances that the "Community Schools Partnership Alliances" envisioned in the MOU will not place our struggling schools under the type of "different leadership" that sparked outrage when the state proposed dividing the district.
These are all concerns that can and should be resolved through a meaningful community-input process, but the public's willingness to participate will depend on whether anyone is really listening to us.
I have reason to believe that Mayor Scott and his staff are truly listening. I recently attended a public meeting at which the mayor's chief of staff answered tough questions from teachers, parents, and elected officials for over an hour. I was struck by the fact that for the past five years I have never seen anyone from the state Board of Education do the same. Based on requests from constituents during and after that meeting, the mayor publicly requested that the state place a moratorium on new charter-school seats in the district.
More recently, I had the chance to speak to Mayor Scott directly, and I attended a small-group meeting he hosted. He listened intently and provided well-informed, substantive responses. Mayor Scott is planning to host at least one town-hall event on education issues, and he has expressed plans to proactively seek community input by canvassing neighborhoods, knocking on doors, visiting schools, and meeting people where they are to obtain valuable insights into how we can best serve all of our students. This is very smart.
I am genuinely heartened by what I see as an intentional shift away from the state's unilateral decision-making toward the city's willingness to engage in real dialogue. Not only will a fair and inclusive process achieve better results for students, it will rebuild public trust and encourage further community engagement.
That doesn't mean we stop pushing for better policies. Vigorous public debate on substantive issues is healthy, while silence and apathy will doom us to failure. Luckily, the people of Little Rock now have a lot of practice making ourselves heard. LRSD will be on the right track as long as we all stay involved and keep advocating for a world-class education for all students.
Ali Noland is the parent of two young children in the Little Rock School District.
Editorial on 11/08/2019
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