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School Board affirms support for Hall High

New magnet program took pandemic hit by Cynthia Howell | March 21, 2021 at 3:38 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

The Little Rock School District's year-old Hall STEAM Magnet High School has a new three-year commitment of support from the district and a direct tie to the more established and successful Forest Heights STEM Academy.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. STEM is the same without the arts.

The district's School Board cast the lifeline to the struggling, under-enrolled Hall STEAM Magnet High School -- linking it to Forest Heights to create a kindergarten-through-12th-grade model -- very late into a seven-hour, presentation-packed meeting that started Thursday evening and stretched into Friday morning.

In the same motion in which the board, in essence, said it won't abandon the new magnet programs in engineering and health sciences at Hall, the board committed to three years of support to the small but growing West High School of Innovation -- including a new digital academy -- and to Parkview Magnet High School, which is losing the engineering component of its science magnet program to Hall.

School Board member Greg Adams said he trusted the district to successfully carry out the plans and made the motion that was seconded by Michael Mason and approved with a 7-2 vote. Board members Leigh Ann Wilson and Evelyn Callaway voted "no."

"I have a hard time voting for a K-12 when I don't know what that means for Forest Heights or Hall," Wilson told Superintendent Mike Poore and his staff before the vote. "You say you are going to tell me more later, but that is not an answer."

"What we are trying to say is that the combination has to be done together with those entities," Poore said about the two schools. "The work you are asking about is going to take all the way up into the summer and even into the fall. In a way you are taking a little leap of faith. Because if you want to wait for a map-out, we have months to go."

"There's a good template for both schools, but now we have got to mesh that and that will take some time," he said.

Wilson, whose husband is employed at the pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school where their child is a student, also asked whether the administration for the two schools would be changed.

Poore said staffing changes are necessary to create cost efficiencies at the Hall and Forest Heights campuses, which are in neighborhoods on opposite sides of North Mississippi Street. He said he would present those staffing changes during an executive session later in the meeting.

The board went into that closed personnel session shortly after midnight. When the public meeting reconvened, however, no motions were made nor action taken other than board President Vicki Hatter saying the board will hold a special meeting March 31.

The focus on Hall came during a meeting in which district leaders provided the School Board with overviews of changes and innovations that are in various stages of design and implementation for the 2022-23 school year. In addition to Hall, those included:

• Expansion of the now 2-year-old West High School of Innovation on Ranch Boulevard adjoining Pinnacle View Middle School.

• The establishment of one digital learning academy for elementary students who want to be remote learners and another digital academy for remote learners in grades seven through 12.

• The reopening of the former J.A. Fair High School as a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school to be called J.A Fair Preparatory School.

The Hall magnet school program that was started this school year has been a focus of the School Board and district administrators almost since board members were elected late last year.

Hall's long-standing traditional high school program was reconfigured into themed academies, and all staff jobs were vacated and refilled for this year. The school's attendance zone was eliminated, and the school was opened to students districtwide.

However, because of the pandemic last spring, school and district leaders were limited in advertising and recruiting ninth-graders. The school did not attract enough ninth-graders to have a freshmen class this year, and the school's overall enrollment is under 300 for a campus that can accommodate 1,000 students.

So far, about 60 students have registered to be Hall freshmen for the coming year as have about a dozen for their sophomore year, Poore said.

Hall has two academies -- one for engineering and one for health sciences. Within each academy are different "pathways" or subject areas such as computer science software development, computer science game design, pre-engineering and integrated manufacturing, biomedical sciences, dental assisting, nutrition and dietetics, and medical office administration.

The academies and career pathways are to tie into the Ford Next Generation Learning model of career academies. The career academies model is being incorporated into all public high schools in Pulaski County in partnership with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and area businesses and industries.

The Hall High academies and pathways will incorporate the national Project Lead The Way lessons and teaching strategies.

Poore and Randy Rutherford, the district's executive director of secondary education, told the board that linking Hall and Forest Heights will result in a better-aligned, less-repetitive curriculum, including the more coordinated use of the Project Lead The Way-based lessons at the two campuses.

District leaders have formed a steering committee of community members for the school, as well as an advisory committee made up of representatives from state education organizations, higher-education and business leaders, including Exxon Mobil.

Anika Whitfield, a community activist and a graduate of Hall, criticized the district for failing to get more community involvement in finding solutions for Hall. In a public forum section of the meeting, Whitfield questioned what Exxon Mobil's role could be in revitalizing Hall.

School Board member Ali Noland relayed parent concerns that Forest Heights was being sacrificed to build up Hall. Noland also said success at Hall will benefit the entire district.

School Board member Jeff Wood observed that Forest Heights parents have the opportunity to influence what is established at Hall, "to own something special." He said he liked that students will have a chance to stay together for their whole school careers, rather than splintering into different high schools after fifth and eighth grades.

SCHOOL OF INNOVATION

In committing to support the Hall program for three years, the School Board did the same for the West High School of Innovation that is in its second year of operation and, while small, is growing with 140 ninth- and 10th-graders this year and 134 new students signed up so far for the 2021-22 school year.

A total enrollment of more than 400 is anticipated in the 2022-23 school year.

A larger enrollment will be accommodated by offering different methods of instructional delivery. That can be full- and half-time days in classroom instruction, full-time online instruction to students at a remote location, or a combination of remote and on-campus delivery systems. The school will use an A/B block schedule in which students take particular courses on alternating days. All classes would meet on Fridays.

The school will feature project-based learning, a growing number of Advanced Placement courses, and courses in film as literature and mass communications as a substitute for English courses. Plant and animal science courses, digital marketing and entrepreneurship courses, and photography and graphic design courses will be offered.

DIGITAL LEARNING

The proposed digital learning academies are in response to families who want online instruction for their students at locations away from a traditional classroom -- such as what has been available this school year because of the pandemic.

The two similar digital learning academy plans drafted by two district committees -- one for elementary school grades headed by Terry Elementary Principal Stephanie Franklin and the other for seventh-through-12th grades headed by West High Principal Karen Heatherly -- call for providing that online instruction in synchronous and asynchronous formats.

Synchronous is live online instruction and interaction among teachers and students. Asynchronous instruction is typically recorded by the teacher for viewing by a student at a later time. Plans are to have teachers dedicated to the online teaching jobs and not require them to simultaneously teach online and in-class.

The digital academy proposals are subject to approval by the School Board in April, after which the district will open the programs to student enrollment, Jeremy Owoh, deputy superintendent, said Thursday.

Once that student registration is underway and the district knows how many families are interested in the option, the district can determine the staffing needs and the cost of the digital program, Owoh said. Poore added that the district will likely be able to use federal pandemic relief money for the digital initiatives.

In synchronous and asynchronous learning options, students are guaranteed a curriculum that meets district and state requirements, planners said. That includes providing state-required courses in art, music and physical education. Special education, various speech and physical therapies, gifted education, counseling, support for students with dyslexia or in need of English language support will all be provided online.

As for testing, students will take classroom and subject area tests online but must take state required tests and NWEA interim tests required by the district at designated district locations. (NWEA stands for Northwest Evaluation Association, the nonprofit organization that provides Measures of Academic Progress exams.)

The draft plan envisions elementary pupils committing to a digital learning program for at least a semester at a time, while the older students must commit for a year at a time.

Students will remain assigned to their home schools while they are learning digitally. If for any reason a student were to exit the digital learning academy he would return to his attendance-zone school.

If a student -- elementary or secondary -- drops below 70% in either a math or literacy course, the student would be required to participate in intervention support, which may include reporting to his academy for face-to-face time with teachers. If academic progress does not improve, a meeting of an administrator, parent and teachers would be held to determine if the Digital Learning Academy is the best instructional option for the student.

Digital students will be supplied with computer devices and technical support by the district.

Digital students will follow the same behavior and dress code expectations as on-site learners. They will be required to adhere to the Student Handbook Policies.

J.A. FAIR

Co-principals Melinda Modica and Michael Anthony told the board that the district's second kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school has enrolled 1,003 in a building that has capacity for 1,075. The students are coming from what were the Henderson Middle, and Romine and David O. Dodd elementary school attendance zones.

The school will feature Project Lead The Way courses and will use the national Leader In Me school improvement model. Pupils will have to adhere to a dress code but not a uniform policy.

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