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story.lead_photo.caption Community members on Thursday night studied the possible consolidation of the three school districts in Pine Bluff. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

From funding, mentorship, and parent involvement, many problems were presented Thursday night during the "School Consolidation Community Meeting," hosted by Go Forward Pine Bluff.

Presented by Fletcher Education Solutions' Trina L. Fletcher and her twin sister, Tina L. Fletcher, the purpose of the meeting was to provide citizens with data to inspire open and honest dialogue concerning the possibility of a Watson Chapel, Dollarway and Pine Bluff school district consolidation.

A story that was published Thursday in The Commercial, however, said Watson Chapel is not part of a state Education Department analysis of a possible consolidation and only Pine Bluff and Dollarway were being considered.

Round-table discussions were set up to fill the Pine Bluff Convention Center floor, but the low turnout itself represented an example of a lack of parental involvement, one of the issues raised by those in attendance.

"Looking around, we don't see a lot of people here," said Latoya Murry of Pine Bluff, who lives in Little Rock. "Why don't people feel comfortable talking about their child's education."

The small crowd of approximately 40 was divided into circles to have a solution-oriented discussion around three questions. After 30 minutes a group representative reported the responses.

The first question asked that the methods to improve educational equity across the city of Pine Bluff be identified and the reason that method was chosen.

"First and foremost, you have to access the needs of the community and see what they need and get their feedback before you can do anything," said Murry. "It's unfair to tell people what they need when you haven't asked them, and that's what is going on right now, and that's not working."

In a separate group, Teki Hunt, a 1990 Pine Bluff High School graduate and the director of the 4H program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, spoke about the turnover rate of teachers because of low pay.

"If all the schools were giving the same thing then they wouldn't be running to a certain place," she said. "I know teachers who left Pine Bluff making $36,000 teaching the same thing in Bryant making 80,000."

Tina Fletcher pointed out that the state had just agreed to pay for an adequacy study. "There is going to be a study conducted to show where students aren't receiving adequate education, and education finance is a big part of it," she said. "We haven't had an education study in over 10 years."

In that same group discussion, it was brought up that there were inequalities in how taxes were being paid and that the White Hall School District crosses over into the city limits of Pine Bluff.

The same discussion was happening in the third group as a woman and Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Watson Chapel School District, were agreeing to disagree on what the funding issue was.

"We have to realize that Dollarway has been at a disadvantage for years because of the boundary lines," said the woman. "They have been disenfranchised because the boundary lines have caused them to lose funding."

Guess said the biggest difference in the Dollarway situation was the size of the student body, and that was the funding issue.

"We are funded based on the number of kids. The biggest issue in funding is average daily membership," Guess said. "They have 800 kids, Watson Chapel has 2,200, Pine Bluff has nearly 3,000, and White Hall is somewhere around that same number. The difference is primarily the size of the student body and how much money that generates."

Other solutions for the question included the equal distribution of property tax by reconsidering district lines, accountability, knowledge, leadership, fiscal responsibility, elected and appointed board members, and how resources should be allocated equally.

Question two asked the groups to list the components of a high performing school district and why they chose them. In the first group, a back-and-forth dialogue comparing a qualified teacher to a certified teacher brought much passion to the discussion.

A woman in the group said a person could be certified but not qualified, meaning the person would lack proper classroom management and not be able to handle a classroom of students because of the lack of patience, mentally unstable and inability to handle technology.

"Every single child needs a certified teacher. Certified does mean qualified," Jeffrey Neal, an English teacher at Watson Chapel said to his group who disagreed with his statement. "To maintain a certification, you have to continue education."

Group members said not all districts are developing their teachers, and relevant professional development needs to be mandatory in all school districts. R.L. Davis said he believes some things can't be measured by certification, and that's the connection teachers make with their students.

"It varies from each teacher as far as their skills and their gift, and you cannot measure that because each one has their own particular characteristics," said Davis. "A teacher can reach a child by how they connect with them, and you can't measure that on a sliding scale."

Discipline was a topic of conversation, with many saying they felt that the school had to take on the challenge to solve the problems the students brought to school from their home lives.

The need for counselors, representatives from the juvenile court, mental health professionals, and others who are trained to deal with the complex problems that the students are facing was also discussed.

"We have students coming from poverty situations. All three districts are dealing with a high percentage of poverty," said Guess. "Poverty rate is so high and that presents problems the district can't solve because we don't have additional money to hire those counselors and bring psychologists in and have the juvenile court onsite and have social workers go out to the home."

Many also agreed that school choice, charter schools and vouchers created a big problem, but Deloris Robertson-Lovell mentioned an important part of the equation that she felt was missing.

"Let's not give parents all these excuses. We are making excuses for parents," said Lovell, a retired administrator and teacher of 47 years in the Pine Bluff School District. "Parents can do what they want to do; they just aren't going to do what they need to do."

The last question posed to the members was for them to suggest a school reform to ensure students have an opportunity to succeed in the absence of parental guidance. Suggestions included adult education for parents, an inclusive environment for parents to be engaged in, teachers meeting the parents where they are, home visits, parental resources, and a positive climate and culture.


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