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Online option OK’d by Watson Chapel district

by I.C. Murrell | March 17, 2023 at 2:52 a.m.
Kerri McNeal, school improvement special for the Watson Chapel School District, explains a situation that led school officials to change the virtual learning plan, as approved by the school board Thursday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Watson Chapel School District students who might otherwise face expulsion for serious offenses will be able to continue their education through Google Classroom through the end of the school year.

In a special called board meeting Thursday, the district's board approved a change in its interactive virtual plan regarding discipline and students. Students who have committed or are at risk of being expelled for Level III offenses – considered the most serious in the WCSD – could still be educated by Watson Chapel teachers through the online platform.

Superintendent Tom Wilson, however, cautioned that under new rules established by the Arkansas LEARNS Act recently signed into law, such an online platform will not be made available beginning with the 2023-24 school year.

Before the WCSD board could amend the virtual plan, the district had to receive approval from the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to change it. Wilson revealed in a letter requesting approval during Monday's regular meeting.

Kerri McNeal, school improvement specialist for the WCSD, said school officials went to work on changing the plan following an incident that led to an on-campus altercation.

"A student came up to me and said, 'Somebody's supposed to be coming and shooting up the school," McNeal said. Watson Chapel's secondary schools have faced numerous threats of violence and prank calls since a ninth-grade student was shot to death on campus in March 2021.

McNeal asked the informant who the threatened student was, and she notified principals to try to isolate him from potential trouble. The isolated student, however, left the office and another student informed McNeal that a text message circulated among his friends, who found out about the brewing situation.

As McNeal went to another office, she said, the young man in trouble took off into the hallway because another student came in from a side door.

"That's how the brawl started," she continued. "I wanted you all to know a little background so you can understand all the things that we did trying to prevent this from occurring."

In preparation for new policies under the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Wilson told board members the district has been advised to adopt updated model policies that align to the legislation introduced and signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders before May 1 to comply with the law. An Arkansas School Board Association model policy must be adopted by the WCSD by the April 10 board meeting, which would give personnel policy committees and district staff a chance to review the policy within a 10-day timeline as required by law.

A second step for the district is to update new laws from the LEARNS Act during its June board meeting. If applicable, a special board meeting will be called no later than June 30. District policy would then be in place by July 1 and reflect the LEARNS Act for the 2023-24 school year.

"There are a lot of things that have not been discussed yet," Wilson said. "That's why we've got these phases to get them done. A lot of these things deal with finances and stuff, and those are the most important things to a school district. So we've got to make sure we have money to give them raises, and then classified [employees] are asking about raises. They're getting a 7% increase in COLI – cost of living increase – so that's going to be a good raise. ... But nothing's set in stone yet."

Along with the teacher raises under the LEARNS Act, the minimum salary schedule for teachers based on level of education and experience will be replaced with a plan to raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000 per year. But in the WCSD, Wilson said, teachers will be held to a higher standard as raises will be based on performance.

"The bar will be raised and expectations will be higher," he said. "The teachers will be evaluated, and in the future, they'll only get paid on improvements and raising grades in the classroom. It's going to be performance-based raises from now on. So, that's something that's going to come out of this."

Print Headline: Online option OK’d by district


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