Columns » Max Brantley

Build it or …

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The Little Rock School District has been relatively peaceful since the school election confirmed that the school board would continue for a second year with a majority of black board members. But major issues, inevitably tinged with race, continue to face the board.

The biggest lately is the new school planned at Cantrell Road and Taylor Loop in western Little Rock. The board has not finally decided whether it will be only an elementary school or include a middle school.

Interim Superintendent Linda Watson favors an elementary school. This seems to reflect the thinking of the board majority. Board president Katherine Mitchell told me that when the school was first discussed, it was to be an elementary school (then K-6). She said the district has empty middle school seats. She said demand for middle school might rise and an additional school could be considered later.

Later could be too late. Little Rock is at a tipping point. The city is majority white, barely. The school district, which doesn't include Chenal Valley, among other western neighborhoods, is likely majority minority, counting blacks and the growing Hispanic population. The district is growing poorer by the minute, particularly in Southwest Little Rock. Though district enrollment is up slightly, white enrollment continues to decline. Many in the black community resent the suggestion that an all-black district would be a negative, but, in their hearts, they know that a successful district must have support across all sectors of the community. One way to do that is to retain white children in public schools.

The state is making that hard, by approving a charter middle school in western Little Rock geared to high math and science achievers, and moving to end magnet school support. The state also makes school construction decisions hard for a land-locked urban district. The 18-acre site at Cantrell and Taylor dwarfs, for example, the Pulaski Heights elementary-middle school complex, but it is considered too small by today's standards for both an elementary and middle school. The state could, and should, work with the city on this.

But the main obstacle is the school board. To the extent white students have stayed in the Little Rock schools, they've been attracted to successful neighborhood elementary schools like Fulbright, Jefferson and Forest Park. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to hold those children in middle school. There are none to attend west of Interstate 430.

Parents are reluctant to make a long ride to be part of a shrinking minority in a poor part of town if they have easier choices, such as nearby private schools full of neighbors. Public schools can't compete where they don't exist.

I hope the school board will give careful thought to building a middle school in western Little Rock. It would broaden district support. This would help, not hurt, all board members' interests at tax millage time. It also would be a hand of friendship to a number of district parents who've come to feel — rightly or wrongly — that their views count for little in board deliberations.

Katherine Mitchell told me that a middle school was sure to be considered at some point in the western part of the city. But we are still two years away from opening the new campus on Cantrell, if then. If further study of a middle school doesn't begin until after it is built, there might not be a need for study. The children may already be gone.

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