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Little Rock School Board votes to close Booker, Meadowcliff elementary schools

by Cynthia Howell | February 25, 2022 at 6:21 a.m.
Booker Arts Magnet Elementary School is one of the elementary schools that the Little Rock School District administration proposed closing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Little Rock School District's 26 elementary school campuses will decrease by two in the 2022-23 school year as the result of School Board action Thursday.

Also Thursday, the board:

• Revised and approved a "leadership profile" that consultants will use to screen applicants for the district's superintendent's position. The board tweaked the profile to explicitly state that a superintendent should have demonstrated ability to improve academic achievement. It also removed a phrase calling for a superintendent to be "knowledgeable and understanding of southern culture."

• Added to the agenda a proposal by board member Jeff Wood to make optional the wearing of masks as a defense against covid-19, but defeated the proposal in a 7-1 vote. Board members, however, expressed a willingness to revisit the issue as soon as next week.

A majority of the board -- in separate votes -- accepted recommendations from Superintendent Mike Poore and his staff to discontinue the use of Booker and Meadowcliff elementary schools as traditional prekindergarten-through-fifth-grade schools.

The board also accepted Poore's newly revised recommendation to keep Western Hills Elementary in operation. To do that, the district will assign most of the children now assigned to Meadowcliff to Western Hills.

The board voted 5-4 against the administration's recommendation to close Baseline Elementary School, meaning the school will remain open in the coming school year and possibly until a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school is built on the site of the vacant McClellan High.

The School Board also voted Thursday to relocate prekindergarten programs at three schools -- Carver, Jefferson and Terry -- to other campuses to open up more kindergarten-through-fifth-grade seats.

Poore pulled down an earlier proposal to move the prekindergarten classes at Stephens Elementary to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

The closing of Booker and Meadowcliff is expected to save the district about $600,000 per campus, which can be redirected to other expenses, such as increases to employee salaries, Poore said.

The board had earlier raised the starting salary for teachers to $43,000 for this year and pledged to raise that to $45,000 next school year and $48,000 the following year, with all other teacher salaries increased accordingly.

The board cast the series of votes on the schools and the prekindergarten classes after hearing from the public at a number of online and in-person forums in recent weeks and during the public comment period at Thursday's meeting.

Chris Henry, a Booker Elementary teacher, told the board that Booker's location at the intersection of Interstates 30 and 630 makes it ideal for establishing a flagship elementary school. He said the campus has all the amenities for "everything you would want in a STEAM school" that would teach the arts but also science, technology and math.

Rep. Joy Springer, D-Little Rock, and community activist Anika Whitfield were among the people who spoke Thursday against closing schools.

"Board members, you don't have to support the proposals," Springer said, adding that the district's original proposal to close four elementaries would put a transportation burden on Black students and "is going backwards" 40 years to racial segregation.

As a result of the board actions, the low-enrollment Booker Arts Magnet, which is on leased land at 2016 Barber St., will be merged into the low-enrollment Carver Arts and Sciences Elementary School on East Sixth Street. Carver will continue to feature science and math but with the addition of an arts feature.

The majority of pupils at Meadowcliff, 25 Sheraton Drive, will be assigned to Western Hills, with some assigned to Mabelvale and Watson elementaries.

Initially, Poore and his staff had recommended that Western Hills, 4901 Western Hills Ave., be closed as a traditional elementary and instead house the faculty for the year-old Ignite Virtual Academy. The virtual academy works out of the West School of Innovation and the old Henderson Middle School campus.

Poore said Thursday, however, that only 65 students have registered for the Ignite Academy for next year, down from as many as 1,400 students at the beginning of this 2021-22 school year.

Because of the lower number of anticipated students, the Ignite faculty can be housed at Henderson, he said. The Meadowcliff students can attend Western Hills, which is closer to them than Stephens Elementary where they were initially to be assigned. Western Hills pupils will not have to be transported to the Bale campus as was initially planned.

In response to questions from board member Vicki Hatter, Poore said he and his staff would report to the board in the next couple of months on possible uses for Meadowcliff and Booker so that the campuses won't be vacant.

Also Thursday, the board voted to relocate:

• Carver prekindergarten classes to Rockefeller Early Childhood Education Center.

• Jefferson prekindergarten classes to Fair Park Early Childhood Center.

• Terry prekindergarten classes to Romine Early Childhood Center.

None of the board decisions were unanimous. Board member Sandrekkia Morning voted against each of the district's proposals, and Evelyn Callaway voted against all but the Western Hills plan.

Callaway said she had promised her constituents that she would oppose merging and closing neighborhood schools and that she feared the district would be "warehousing" students in larger school settings.

Those voting successfully against closing Baseline Elementary were Callaway, Morning, Hatter, Norma Johnson and Ali Noland.

Board members said repeatedly during the meeting that the decisions were hard ones and that they appreciated all of the public and employee advocacy for their schools.

"People say we are prioritizing budget over kids," Noland said in responding to comments made by the public in recent weeks. She argued that when the district continually operates schools with low numbers of students, "we are prioritizing brick and mortar buildings over other educational resources that our students need." She said those resources include "well-paid teachers, full-time nurses, counselors at each school and reading interventionists and other resources we can't afford right now."

District leaders developed the proposals that were intended to "right-size" the district to its declining and shifting enrollment.

The district's kindergarten-through-12th-grade enrollment is 20,786 this year compared with 22,338 in 2017-18 and 23,676 in 2013-14. The district also has about 1,000 prekindergarten pupils this year. Prekindergarten pupils are funded differently by the state than kindergarten-through-12th-grade students.

Poore has said that what he has called the Blueprint 2.0 plan for the district is intended to generate savings that can come from operating schools with 300 or more pupils. The proposal is also intended to benefit students academically in that larger schools have multiple teachers per grade level who can collaborate about instruction.

In the wake of the board votes Thursday, district leaders said they will set up meetings with staffers at the affected sites. Poore has said repeatedly that employees at the affected schools will continue to have district jobs.

In the coming days parents of children in the affected schools will be informed of the approved changes and the school options available for their children.


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