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story.lead_photo.caption U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. is shown in this photo. ( Democrat-Gazette file photo / Staton Breidenthal)

A federal court-appointed expert in the long-running school desegregation lawsuit says it's too soon to gauge success, but she is optimistic about student achievement and discipline measures in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District.

Margie Powell said in two recent, separate reports to Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. that the 3½-year-old Jacksonville/North Pulaski district has developed "an arsenal" of academic initiatives and made "admirable" efforts to reduce racial disparities in student discipline practices.

The reports are numbers three and four in what will be at least eight reports from Powell to Marshall on desegregation efforts in both the Jacksonville and Pulaski County Special school districts.

Marshall is the presiding judge in the 37-year-old school desegregation lawsuit, in which the Jacksonville and Pulaski County Special districts are the two remaining defendant districts. The Jacksonville district was carved out of the Pulaski County Special district in 2016 with the condition that the fledgling district must fulfill the same desegregation requirements as Pulaski County Special.

Powell's series of reports on discipline practices, student achievement, staffing incentives and the condition of school building facilities are being prepared at Marshall's request and in advance of a court hearing Marshall has scheduled to begin in July. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether the two districts have met their obligations and are eligible to be released from court oversight of their desegregation efforts.

[DOCUMENT: Third summary report »]

Attorneys for the class of all black students in the two districts -- once known as the Joshua intervenors and now known as the McClendon intervenors -- are expected to challenge compliance by the districts. They recently told the judge they want to delve into the sources for Powell's reports.

"Intervenors did not have the opportunity to provide input to be considered for possible inclusion in this report," attorneys for the McClendon intervenors told the judge in regard to disciplinary practices. "Intervenors will request an interview opportunity to learn the other elements of the process followed in preparing the report and to discuss its content."

The intervenors' attorneys will similarly ask for an opportunity to learn more about Powell's achievement report, they told the judge.

In regard to the Jacksonville initiatives intended to address discipline disparities, "one cannot argue that the district is not seriously committed to doing so," Powell wrote to the judge.

Powell said that the Jacksonville district is taking efforts "to reduce discipline disparities to another level" and that "JNPSD just may have developed a model discipline system that other districts may want to duplicate."

The Jacksonville district is required by Pulaski County Special's desegregation plan -- Plan 2000 -- to gather data that allows for a full assessment of success in eliminating racial disparities in the imposition of school discipline.

"As a foundation for this effort, disciplinary records shall be kept on each student concerning the nature of any discipline imposed... the teacher and staff member involved; and the school, race and sex of the student," Plan 2000 states.

Plan 2000 further calls for school district staff to provide for and participate in specific efforts to work with teachers and other staff to promote achievement of the goal of eliminating racial disparities in school discipline. The district shall maintain records showing the steps taken.

Powell cited the numbers of students given out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, bus suspensions and expulsions for the 4,014-student, kindergarten-through-12th grade Jacksonville system since the 2016-17 school year.

In 2017-18, for example, 763 students were suspended out of school, 564 or 73% were black in a district in which black students make up about 52% of the enrollment. In this 2018-19 school year, there were 667 out-of-school suspensions, 497 or 74.5% were black students.

Jacob Smith, a former high school principal and the Jacksonville district's director of federal programs and student services, has designed a comprehensive discipline data reporting process to ensure that discipline is administered equitably and consistent with district policies, Powell wrote.

School principals are required to maintain records of all discipline actions in their school. That is recorded on the state's eSchool student data base with 24 hours. There are weekly checks of that information by Smith to detect any data errors.

Weekly discipline reports go to the principals showing discipline consequences by race and sex of disciplined students and the level of the infractions.

Also in the district's record-keeping are numbers of students referred for discipline to the office by reporting staff member, and information on individual students at risk of failing -- including their attendance, academic achievement and discipline records.

Checks are done, as well, on whether the terms of the student handbook are being applied consistently.

"Leadership teams use all of the reports described .... to develop and implement plans that are designed to address disparate discipline," Powell wrote.

That planning has resulted in the hiring of a full-time behavior specialist to support student and staff members.

Response to Intervention is a three-tiered intervention system that starts by providing services to all students, then narrows focus toward students at risk of failure and then those at greatest risk of school failure or behavior problems.

Additionally, mentors are provided to new teachers to help with classroom management, a social and emotional curriculum has been selected and the establishment of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support initiative is underway to create a good overall learning environment at each campus.

[DOCUMENT: Fourth summary report »]

Powell further highlighted the Jacksonville district's purchase and repurposing of a former furniture store into a dual-purpose alternative school for students in danger of being expelled and for those who are behind in taking courses for high school graduation.

Smith, the federal programs director, said research from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville showed that exclusionary discipline methods disproportionately affected black students. That has helped the district in building -- in conjunction with former technology director Beau Carter over several months' time -- the reporting systems that show the consequences by race, sex, infractions and previous infractions.

"Some of the things we have done will be a model for remedying that problem," Smith said of the disproportionate discipline rates. Basing consequences on the behavior -- with the same behaviors receiving the same consequences -- must be the focus, he said.

Plan 2000 calls for the Pulaski County Special district and also now the Jacksonville district to implement plans to improve student achievement as envisioned by education professor Steven Ross, then at the University of Memphis. The Ross plan goals and planning for reducing the achievement gap between black and white students are incorporated in annual plans prepared by every school in the Jacksonville district, Powell wrote. Ross is now a senior research scientist and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Powell listed initiatives targeted at student achievement, including the national Advancement Via Individual Determination or AVID, and Response to Intervention. Titan Time provides time for kindergarten through fifth grade pupils to receive individualized instruction. The Titan Strategies Class allows for tailored instructional time to continue for sixth graders.

Additionally, the Jacksonville district has revamped its high school schedule to create 75-minute class periods to allow for small group instruction.

The schools are using a professional learning communities model that enables teacher teams to meet together about students and teaching plans.

And the district also is working with other districts in Pulaski County to carry out the Ford Next Generation Learning model for creating career-based academies within their high schools, Powell noted.

Then there is the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy-- a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Philander Smith College, initially funded by the Pulaski County Special district, to help students with academic achievement.

Powell also reported by grade and subject area the ACT Aspire results for Jacksonville's black and white students in 2016-17 through 2018-19.

"As of yet, test results for JNPSD students are all over the map," Powell wrote to the judge. "Unfortunately the results so far do not reflect a narrowing of the achievement gap between black students and white students. In addition, the data show no indication that student achievement is improving in the district as a whole."

She offered possible explanations, such as the change from the Pulaski County Special district to the new district was a difficult adjustment to make for students.

"The JNPSD has assembled an arsenal of programs, projects, and interventions designed to address every component of teaching and learning," she said.

Greg Hodges, the Jacksonville district's assistant superintendent for elementary education, said this week that the district wasn't ecstatic about the contents of the report but couldn't disagree with the facts.

"I'm an old coach," he said. "So, I approach it like when you play a game, you break down the film, we look at the data and figure out where the weak spots are, make adjustments and move forward and then you reevaluate. We are a very data driven district and we need to look ... at how we can do better."

Hodges said the district didn't wait to act until Powell issued her report. School leadership teams met with the district's School Board in October to present their data and the provisions of their strategic plans to address deficiencies.

Change doesn't happen overnight, he said.

"What we want to do is do these things we are doing -- let's do these things well. Then, let's look at maybe adding and things like that," he said.

"It will take time to determine if all of the JNPSD's efforts will move the performance needle in the right direction," Powell concluded in her report. "Three years of data cannot provide enough information to determine a trend and to eliminate achievement disparities," she said and added, "District personnel may sometime feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill, but unlike Sisyphus, given time, they have the tools, the teamwork and the talent to be successful."

A Section on 11/29/2019

Print Headline: Court reports call schools' efforts 'admirable'


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