Little Rock school board mulls merger of West School of Innovation with Hall High

A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Little Rock West School of Innovation students will be relocated to the Hall STEAM Magnet High School campus for the 2024-25 school year and beyond -- if the School Board adopts a recommendation made by Superintendent Jermall Wright.

The proposal to permanently merge the two small high schools at the midtown Hall campus is on the agenda for a decision at a special meeting of the board at 5:30 p.m. today.

The merger proposal by Wright and his staff comes at a time when the West School of Innovation, 5619 Ranch Drive, in northwest Little Rock is at the very edge of the construction site for a 1,200-seat traditional high school and all the disruption to traffic, access and utility service that construction can cause before the 2026 opening.

The 19,952-student district is actively seeking ways to cut as much as $15 million in expenses for next school year -- an amount that is expected to trigger closing and/or repurposing one or more campuses throughout the district at the same time it will open the new Marian G. Lacey K-8 Academy on Geyer Springs Road.

The school district, which has been losing student enrollment in recent years and is facing rising interest rates on building debt, is holding a series of in-person and online community forums to develop broad plans for simultaneously increasing overall enrollment and cutting costs.

The first two of the community forums were at noon and 6 p.m. Wednesday at Pinnacle View Middle and Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary. The next one is at 8 a.m. Friday at Hall, 6700 H St.

In documents prepared for the School Board in advance of tonight's meeting, Wright and his staff said the district must reduce its five high schools to a smaller number based on existing enrollment and the need for fiscal sustainability.

The administrators also said it is their belief that the new west Little Rock high school should have "a different identity" than the West School of Innovation.

At the same time, "We also believe and know that the West School of Innovation meets the needs of many students and families in the district," the staff recommendation to the board states.

Additionally, district leaders said the emails they have received indicate that district employees, students and parents like the small-school feel of the innovation campus and want to keep current program.

"We could work to create one small high school in the LRSD that could continue to offer these program offerings and flexibilities -- in addition to other programming that could fit under the umbrella of an innovation school" such as a virtual campus and an Early College program," district staff wrote.

District leaders also said that in a 500-plus-student high school, the district could expand its offerings to students beyond what is available at the two smaller schools.

"Having one small school with one administrative team will help unify operations and decrease operating costs (efficiency)" district leaders wrote..

Currently, Hall has 305 students. The previously long-time traditional Hall High School with a campus that can house in excess of 1,000 students, has recently been reorganized into a science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM-themed, school. Hall is loosely paired with Forest Heights K-8 STEM Academy.

The 270-student West High School of Innovation was created in late 2019 -- at about the same time as Hall was re-constituted -- by an order of the Arkansas Board of Education that controlled the Little Rock district at the time. At the time, the school of innovation was part of Pinnacle View Middle School and served ninth graders only.

A plan to permanently merge the two schools is a new wrinkle to discussions in September and October about just temporarily housing the West School of Innovation at Hall STEAM Magnet High while the new high school is being built. School of Innovation parents and students had objected to that proposal.

On Wednesday, Shelly Rhodes, parent of a Central High graduate and a West High School of Innovation junior, advocated for keeping the School of Innovation as it is.

The School of Innovation's individualized approach to delivering curriculum to students -- done in part through project-based learning and lessons in critical thinking -- makes the school unique, Rhodes said. That unique delivery can be attractive to families that are not already enrolled in the capital city school system, she said.

In written materials to the School Board, district staff said that if a decision is made to merge the School of Innovation and Hall, a transition team of staff from the two campuses, along with district leaders, will develop a proposed name for the school, make recommendations on academic programs and make other plans for combining the students faculty and families.

"Students from both schools will have more academic, extracurricular, and athletic opportunities than they had when the schools existed separately," district leaders wrote to the board members.

They also said the combining of the two schools at the Hall campus will "ensure the timely completion of the new 'West' High School without safety concerns and additional costs."

District leaders had asked employees and families at West High School of Innovation for ideas -- due Oct. 30 -- for operating the school while new construction was underway. There were more than 20 responses to the appeal, including ones that suggested locating the School of Innovation in other under-used district-owned buildings or leasing building space in the northwest Little Rock area.

Others suggested creative scheduling -- such as making some some days virtual instruction days for students. The students and staff would work from their homes some days to give construction workers time to complete projects that would otherwise disrupt the school day.

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