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The Pulaski County Special School District still has "work to do" to reduce the academic achievement gap between Black and white students, Deputy Superintendent Alesia Smith told a federal judge Wednesday.

Smith acknowledged an ongoing gap in student achievement on the ACT Aspire exams, as well as the fact that some schools did not include a goal of shrinking the gap in their school improvement plans until this past school year. The achievement gap between the student groups is routinely 20 or more percentage points in the different subject areas.

Smith was one of three district employees to testify Wednesday in what will be a multiweek court hearing to determine whether the 12,000-student district has met its desegregation obligations and can be released from a 37-year-old lawsuit and court monitoring of its operations.

The district is seeking to be declared unitary or desegregated in terms of student achievement, student discipline practices, the condition of its school buildings and the self-monitoring of its desegregation efforts.

Attorneys for the district contend that the district is more than deserving of being released from the case, citing its substantial compliance to its desegregation plan, Plan 2000, which does not specifically require the elimination of the achievement gap. Attorneys for the district's Black students -- the McClendon intervenors -- are challenging the district's assertions of compliance.

McClendon attorney Austin Porter Jr. on Wednesday told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge, that in his questioning of witnesses, he would being getting "into the weeds" to show that the district's initiatives to raise achievement are new and unproven.

"I have my high-topped boots on, so let's go into the weeds," Marshall responded.

In response to questions from Porter and from district attorney Devin Bates, Smith said there "absolutely" is work to be done to reduce the achievement gap, but she also told of how the student test results are used to identify and provide the instruction, support and resources for student learning. Also considered are how to get the resources, who will do the different tasks and how it will be monitored, she said.

Smith, who is starting her third year with the district after working for four years in different instructional leadership roles in the Pine Bluff district and after a long career in Ohio, said she meets with staff members at each of the district's 26 schools twice a month. They review school goals, student test data and achievement strategies as well as identify next steps. She said she inspects the schools' online improvement plans to ensure that they are regularly updated with evidence showing progress toward achievement goals.

After Smith's testimony, Bates, an attorney for the school district, called to the witness stand district employees Yolaundra Williams and Janice Warren to further describe initiatives undertaken by the district in the past decade and how those initiatives are meant to meet goals set in an education plan created in the late 1990s for the the district.

Attached to the district's desegregation plan is the "Ross plan," written by Steven Ross and Deborah Lowther, who were faculty members at the University of Memphis. The plan is actually titled "Outline of Proposed Education Plan for Pulaski County Special School District Desegregation Case Settlement."

Two of the educational goals in the Ross plan that have been the focus to date of the hearing are:

• To improve educational achievement by all students, with special attention to Black students and others who are at risk of academic failure due to socioeconomic disadvantages, or other factors.

• To decrease the performance gap between white and Black students through the systematic design selection and implementation of intervention programs that provide effective remediation or adaption to individual or group needs.

Williams, director of special programs at the Pulaski County Special district, provided the judge with the start dates for more than 30 initiatives the district has undertaken -- many of them described in the two days of testimony -- as specific efforts to meet the education goals in the Ross plan.

Some of those initiatives include the Advancement Via Individual Determination college preparation program; Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports; Northwest Education Association's Measure of Academic Progress tests; professional learning communities of teachers; the Accelerated Reader supplementary reading program; the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science to enhance success on Advanced Placement tests; the Response to Intervention for academically struggling students; services to students with dyslexia; and the Ford Next Generation Learning career academies that are being phased into the high schools.

Porter noted to Williams that 13 of the initiatives were put into place since 2018. Porter has argued that the district has only recently started its efforts to raise achievement and that those new programs haven't been in place long enough to know whether they are effective.

But Williams qualified the number of newer programs in the district, saying that professional learning communities and positive behavior for students were implemented districtwide in 2018 but had been used in pockets of the district in earlier years. She also noted that the 13 included the state-mandated science of reading initiative and the adoption of new science textbooks.

Warren, the district's assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, testified about the Charles Donaldson Scholarship Academy that she helped design in 2014 to put students -- mostly first-generation college attendees -- on a path to college.

The academy was created in partnership with leaders of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Philander Smith College, as well as the late Rep. John W. Walker, who was the lead attorney for Black students in the ongoing federal school desegregation lawsuit.

The district contributed $10 million to the academy, which provides high school students with college student mentors and after-school and weekend activities, including field trips for seniors to spend a month in the summer on a college campus.

"It's one of the most beneficial programs there is for high school students," Warren said of the academy, which also provides college scholarships to the participating students.

Warren said the academy's mission was pulled directly from the Ross plan's goal of improving achievement for all students, with special attention to Black students and others who are at risk of school failure.

In response to questions from Porter, Warren said that 2,432 high school students have or are continuing to participate in the Donaldson academy. A total of 175 academy participants have gone on to enroll at Philander Smith College and UALR.

Also in response to questions, Warren said the district is "making tremendous improvements" in efforts to reduce the student achievement gap. "It's not where we want it to be," she said of the gap, which she noted is a national problem.

The court hearing resumes at 8:30 a.m. today.

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