Franklin Elementary supporters grill Little Rock superintendent on planned closure | Arkansas Blog

Franklin Elementary supporters grill Little Rock superintendent on planned closure

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TOUGH ROOM: Superintendent Mike Poore speaks to Franklin Elementary parents and others on Wednesday. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • TOUGH ROOM: Superintendent Mike Poore speaks to Franklin Elementary parents and others on Wednesday.

On Wednesday evening, Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore took questions from a large crowd of parents, neighborhood residents and community activists at Franklin Elementary.

Franklin is one of two elementaries slated for closure by the district at the end of this school year, Poore announced yesterday. Wilson Elementary is the other. (Woodruff Early Childhood Center is also planned to close, and Hamilton Learning Academy, an alternative school, would move to the Wilson building.) Poore will be at Wilson to take questions from the community on Thursday, Jan. 19, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The district is closing schools because it will soon lose $37 million annually when desegregation payments from the state cease next year thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit. Poore and his predecessor Baker Kurrus have made substantial cuts to the district budget, but not enough to fill the shortfall. Meanwhile, the district has at least 2,300 unfilled student seats, Poore said on Wednesday.

Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore
"For every one of us, this is a meeting that we wish we weren’t attending," the superintendent told the crowd, which filled Franklin's small cafeteria to near capacity. "I have a tremendous amount of empathy for what you are feeling right now." However, he said, "a lot of our previous reductions that we have made within the district have fallen on our employees," including a decrease in contract days worked per year, a reduction in employees' health insurance contributions made by the district, and a reduction in staffing overall, both at the central office and at school campuses. "One thing that has been on our list, and that we chose not to [do] … was to go further into our employees pockets in terms of reduction of days worked … or taking away stipends for National Board Certified Teachers." The district also considered privatizing some services but rejected the idea, he said.

Final approval on the closures requires the approval of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who acts in the capacity of the district's school board while it is in state takeover. The LRSD was taken over by the state almost two years ago due to the "academic distress" designation of a handful of campuses. Neither Franklin nor Wilson are on the "distressed" list.

Those campuses were chosen to be closed, Poore said, because their enrollments have been falling, the student populations in those neighborhoods has decreased in recent years, and they are geographically situated such that other schools can easily receive their students.

IVY CHAN - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • IVY CHAN
Franklin's students, and many of its teachers, are intended to go to Stephens Elementary next year if it is closed. The superintendent said he was also hopeful that Franklin's existing clinic could move with it and that community partnerships with the school wouldn't be lost. Poore said the district does not yet have a "specific repurpose" in mind for the Franklin building, but that community input on repurposing it would be solicited in the coming months.

Then, it was the community's turn to speak.

Ivy Chan has a second grader and a kindergartener at Franklin, along with a younger child who she said she considers  "a future Falcon," the school's mascot. Chan said she's come to feel the staff at Franklin is family: "I suffer from anxiety, but to my surprise, as soon as I walked in the door I was met with warm smiles and a family environment." As a member of the PTA, she said, "I feel useful, loved and happy." Although her oldest child has had trouble making friends in the past, he fits in well at Franklin, and both of her children have received services at the clinic.

"I would like to ask you to reconsider the decision to close Franklin," Chan said to Poore. "It is so rare to have a school that not only is excellent in teaching our children but also in being a family unit. Children need that."

Ebony Adams with her daughters Zyma (left) a 4th grader at Franklin, and Zoe. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • Ebony Adams with her daughters Zyma (left) a 4th grader at Franklin, and Zoe.

Ebony Adams, the president of Franklin's PTA, asked Poore, "of all of the schools in the district, what would put Franklin on the top of the list to be closed — considering all of the community partnerships that we have, all of the parent involvement that we have, and the support we get from our surrounding neighbors that lived in this neighborhood?"

Poore said that within LRSD's Zone 2, in which the school is located, "there’s been a 14 percent loss of students from 2000 to 2015." Over the past three years, he added, Franklin itself has seen a drop in enrollment of 21 percent. He reiterated that the district is trying to retain the partnerships Franklin has. "Can I say that that is locked and sealed? No. All of the partners … basically said they would like to talk to us after this is done."

Adams replied that the enrollment drop occurred because the district ended Franklin's preschool program. "All our younger children were sent over to Geyer Springs [Early Childhood Center] and other places. ... My 4 year old would have been here with our 9 year old had you guys not assigned her to the other side of town," she said.

Erica Ivy - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • Erica Ivy
Erica Ivy, a teacher at Parkview High School, asked Poore about increased class sizes if Franklin is combined with Stephens. "Is it not true that class sizes at the elementary level make a huge difference, especially for minority students? Do we have a plan to combat the negative effects of class sizes that will inevitably rise?"

Poore said that state law restricts overly large class sizes at the elementary level. "You look at combining Franklin and Stephens ... you're not going to to have a dramatic impact on the class size." Classes could increase by "one or two" students, he said, "but it’s not going to be that the class size all of a sudden jumps up all the way to 30, because you can’t do that." He conceded that research showed that having 14 or 15 students in elementary classes was optimal and could have an impact on achievement — but said that was impossible given the district's financial situation

"Where did all the money go? Where did all the desegregation money go?" Ivy asked Poore. Poore — who, it bears reiterating, was hired to run the district less than a year ago — said that much of the money over the years went to staff, "sometimes in classrooms, sometimes in central office, sometimes in support services. ... In my opinion, [the district] did not put enough money into supporting our buildings in terms of making sure those facilities are being kept up and modernized."

teresa_dewhart_sp_.jpg

Teresa Duhart
 is a single mother of four children who have all gone to Franklin. "The staff members have helped me out so much … I trust these people here at this school," she said.  "My child doesn’t connect with everyone; you have to know my child … If she goes somewhere else, I can’t call them like family. … It’s like you’re taking the kids away from their parents and putting them in a strange land," she said, beginning to cry. "It’s not fair to the kids. It’s not fair to the family. It’s not fair to the community."

Duhart was not placated by the idea of the Franklin building being repurposed into something else. "This is a school — it’s nothing else but a school," she said plaintively. "Y’all don’t understand family."

State Sen. Joyce Elliott - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • State Sen. Joyce Elliott

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock)
, whose legislative district includes Franklin and who lives in the neighborhood surrounding the school, said that she moved to the area "specifically because I wanted to … because I consider this the core of this city that has been so traditionally, historically neglected because of white flight." Without a school, Elliott said, the neighborhood cannot have a healthy community.

"This is the process that should have happened before decisions are made," she said, referring to the forum itself. "Now we just get a chance to say, 'Oh this is tough, this is hard.’ ... I just want there to be some appreciation for the core of this city, and the neglect that has taken place. ... We go to bed at night and we hear gunshots and we hear sirens but we have not left, because we believe in this place. And now, we can’t even have a school." It's unfair, Elliott said, that the district's problems span the city yet only "a few people" are asked to bear the costs.

"Ask the folks who are fat and happy and comfortable, 'If you want to make a contribution, do something to make sure those schools don’t close' — the way you are asking us to do this — and see who stands up," she told Poore.

Elliott was not alone in pointing out that a few million dollars in private donations could potentially bridge the district's budget shortfall — a not unreasonable sum in a city with many wealthy people. Several others speakers called for a campaign to seek private donations. However, Poore was skeptical of the idea and pointed out that the district's operating budget requires a permanent solution, not just one-time funds.


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