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On Jan. 28, 2015, we were members of the state Board of Education. On that day, one of us voted in favor of state takeover of the Little Rock School District, and two of us voted against it.

No matter our divergence on that vote, we shared common goals of improving equity in opportunity and achievement for all students in the district, particularly for those students facing the greatest obstacles.

In January 2015, LRSD was confronting a number of challenges on those fronts and on others, many of which had roots preceding our respective time on the Board. Sadly, after nearly five years of being under state control, it still confronts many of the same challenges preventing Little Rock from achieving its potential.

There have been improvements, particularly in terms of fiscal accountability. New schools have been or are being constructed and new programs introduced. In fairness, however, the district has not made the kind of progress many hoped for when the state takeover decision was made. This includes areas of focus for school improvement efforts, as well as in the additional areas of concern, like community building and engagement.

As we approach the five-year anniversary of this decision, those who have followed us on the State Board must now decide the best path forward for the LRSD. To make a decision that is best for the future, it is helpful to review what has been learned so far.

  1. The driving reason behind the state takeover was low academic performance in six of 48 schools. Based on what we currently know, it does not appear the district has made measurable improvement in this area.

In fact, while the exact method by which student performance is measured is different than in January 2015, there may be more schools under-performing today than five years ago. Thus, it can safely be said that meeting the needs of our students is more difficult than we assumed it would be.

  1. The loss of local control has been met with strong resistance across the entire community. This pushback comes from all corners of Little Rock. It is crystal clear the vast majority of LRSD residents from across the racial and economic spectrum support restoration of local control.

The state's management of the district over the past four-plus years has not brought calm or stability. Instead, it has fostered an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. Despite the diversity of our state's capital city, Little Rock has united around a desire for local control.

In the event that there is a failure to meet the exit criteria established by the Arkansas Department of Education, state law requires annexation, consolidation, or reconstitution. However, it would be irresponsible for the state to return the district to local control without a plan for reconstitution that looks holistically at gaps, opportunities and the equitable allocation of resources.

Logic and evidence point to an approach to reconstitution of the district that harnesses the many assets of the city of Little Rock and builds a genuine relationship with the community that will provide guidance and sustainable energy in those efforts. Thus, we encourage reconstitution grounded in what many call a "community school" approach.

With the nation now looking through the lens of equity, research consistently points to the following strategies as key to school turnaround: high-quality early childhood opportunities that prepare children for kindergarten; wrap-around services (from expansive health care to innovative after-school and summer programming) that aid them once in school, and a teacher with training to teach diverse students well in a culturally competent manner.

This model goes beyond simply providing these services to students. It also makes parents and the broader community (including nonprofits, businesses, faith-based institutions, and city government) equal partners in bringing these to fruition.

With this approach, schools become the true hubs of a community--centers where parents and guardians have opportunities to gain skills they need to be better advocates and learning partners for their children.

Having been both on the inside and outside of the process, we believe there is no singular decision that will "fix" LRSD. Little Rock requires a movement committed to the education of all students.

ADE and LRSD cannot do this alone. There must be a broad cross-section of partners supporting this effort. As with all school districts, the state will still exercise ultimate control and the district will report its progress to the state board.

The greatest challenge to the community school approach is adequate funding. Re-allocating existing resources and partnering with the city of Little Rock and charitable foundations that support public education can make these services a reality.

But for community members to believe they can and should invest money, energy and talent in the schools, they must have trust in those who operate the schools. Until local control is returned, that trust will not exist, making the restoration of local control and a school board election the first imperative steps.

Many may doubt this, but the overriding purpose of state control was to improve opportunities for all students in Little Rock, and a hope that in trying "something different" we might have different outcomes. We know, because we were there when the votes were cast that led us to where we are today. Our action was never meant to signal to parents and the broader community that they too did not need to be part of the bold change for which we all aspired.

As the current state school board weighs its options, we lift up the opportunity to accomplish this goal through restoring local control, adopting the community school model, and leading with equity.

Sam Ledbetter is an attorney with McMath Woods, P.A. in Little Rock. Mireya Reith is the founding executive director of Arkansas United, an immigrant advocacy organization with resource centers in Springdale and Southwest Little Rock. Jay Barth is a distinguished professor of politics at Hendrix College and lives in Little Rock. They all served as members and chairs of the Arkansas State Board of Education.

Editorial on 09/08/2019

Print Headline: Reconstituting LRSD with community trust


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