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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo. - Photo by Gavin Lesnick

Arkansas Board of Education members Wednesday asked Education Secretary Johnny Key to draft a framework plan for the future operation of the state-controlled Little Rock School District that is based on common themes heard recently from the board and public.

"We've all put ideas in the middle and now let's see if we can come out with a program," Education Board Chairman Diane Zook told Key and his staff at the end of a 2½ hour board work session.

Education Board members during the session examined options for school board governance of the Little Rock district, possible school board election dates, the quality of academic, financial and other systems within the district, and the upcoming revisions to the district's high school attendance zones.

Wednesday's work session was the Education Board's second on the Little Rock district. The two work sessions and five well-attended public forums in recent weeks all come in advance of the January expiration of the Little Rock district's five-year deadline to correct its student-achievement deficiencies to exit state control, or Level 5-intensive support.

The state board voted 5-4 in January 2015 to take control of the district -- dismissing the School Board and putting the superintendent under state supervision -- when six of 48 schools at the time had chronically low math and English/language arts results on state exams.

Current state law and accompanying rules call for a district under state authority to either meet state-set exit criteria for regaining a locally elected school board or face the permanent "consolidation" or "annexation" of the district to one or more other districts, or be "reconstituted."

Consolidation and annexation of the large Little Rock district to another district is not considered feasible by most education leaders.

"Reconstituted" -- the third option -- is not defined in state law. That resulted in state Education Board members calling in recent weeks for ideas on how the 23,000-student district might be reconstituted in the event the district or its eight schools that have state-issued F letter grades do not meet all of the exit criteria. The exit criteria announced earlier this year center largely on ACT Aspire student test results, as well as on instructional programs and strategies.

Susan Chambers, an Education Board member from Bella Vista, asked Wednesday night if an initial draft of a framework plan could be ready by the first of October.

Key said he couldn't commit yet to a date but "the sooner there is certainty, the better."

"We all agree with that philosophy," he said. "But ... even within a framework there will have to be some details that need to be worked on. My suggestion would be to get a framework that you all can approve that will provide a certain level of certainty to the community, and then start filling in the gaps of the skeleton and then [putting] the meat on the bones -- the details -- that need to be part of that."

Preliminary results of the 2019 ACT Aspire exams for the Little Rock district were released earlier this summer. It will be as late as Oct. 15, however, before the calculations on year-to-year achievement growth and the application of A to F letter grades to schools are completed and a determination about meeting the exit criteria is done.

Zook of Melbourne and Little Rock said that such a framework could be prepared without necessarily knowing the name of each school that fails to meet the exit criteria -- if there are any.

Key said there have been some common themes heard from the board, the public and lawmakers that can be the basis for a draft plan.

"You have said 'How do we make sure [state] support continues?' and 'How do we make sure progress continues?'" Key said. "Sen. [Will Bond, D-Little Rock] I think said 'Give us back an elected board and let the state still be responsible for support and monitoring.' I think there are common themes that we can capture and build a framework around those common themes.

"Not everybody may agree on the timelines," he continued, "or whether there is a special election [for a board] or a November election, or whether there are seven or nine [elected board members]. We can bring you that framework and let it go from there."

The Education Board's nine members and Key conversed around a table Wednesday night while state agency and Little Rock district staff members -- including Superintendent Mike Poore -- responded to board members' questions. Lawmakers, including Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Tippi McCullough, were in the small, low-key audience, as was Little Rock Community Advisory Board member Melanie Fox and Little Rock Education Association employee union President Teresa Knapp Gordon.

Gordon gave to the Education Board plans formulated in recent days by district educators for restoring local control to the district and for operating the district after local control is in place.

"We believe that the time is overdue for our voices to be heard and taken seriously and our recommendations implemented," Gordon wrote in the cover letter for the six pages of recommendations, noting that the educators who work with children know the needs of the students and the schools.

"We do not wish for the school year to be disrupted by the actions that will surely come if LRSD is not restored to local control," she also wrote.

The plan for moving the district toward local control calls for the state to publicly admit that it has not been successful in improving the Little Rock district and derelict in its constitutional duty to provide a concrete achievable plan for exiting state control. The multipoint plan also calls for district administrators who have been at their locations for three or more years and have not improved their schools' letter grades to be removed from their positions at the end of this school year and ineligible for other supervisory positions in the district.

The association's plan for moving the district forward after the return of local control calls, in part, for capping classes in academically struggling schools to 20 students, in grades one through 12, until the school achieves a C grade from the state.

Metro on 09/12/2019

Print Headline: Work starts on Little Rock schools plan

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