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Don't give up on LRSD

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I hate it. I hate that the Arkansas Board of Education took control of the Little Rock School District. I hate that the board ignored the broad-based community support for the LRSD, including the incredibly powerful voices of student leaders. I hate that the takeover will overshadow the great schools, educators and programs in the LRSD. I hate that families of means will see the LRSD as a failure and move their kids to private schools and move from Little Rock as quickly as they can. I hate that race and class divide — and in many ways define — Little Rock and the division will only grow worse because of the state action.

I hate that this is where we are, and I hate how we got here. But I love my kids, and I love my community too much to let that be the final word. Now I'm going to work my tail off to make sure the takeover is a success. I hope you will, too.

Little Rock has no future without a great public school system. And there is no education system that works without the community engaging, shaping and supporting it.

I know that many reasonable public education defenders supported takeover. But some of the small factions who pushed the takeover are frightening. Some blame the teachers and their union for the districts' woes. Some think the LRSD simply needs a silver bullet, a magical superintendent or a new whiz-bang program. Others do not believe a public education system can work at all. They see an opportunity to replace it wholesale with charters, for-profit schools and private school vouchers, a la the failed New Orleans and Philadelphia experiments.

I don't want my kids, or yours, to be part of some grand ideological experiment. I'm afraid that these radical factions are organized and have the resources to push their agendas and drown out reasonable voices.

The path forward in Little Rock engages teachers, students, parents and our whole community as partners in education to make sure the LRSD serves everyone. The LRSD's problems, by and large, are not about programs but are about culture, trust and division. Our community is the only place to solve those challenges.

Blaming the teachers union for our education system's failures is a cop out. The teachers union wants ineffective teachers out of the classroom, too. It just wants due process. The vast majority of teachers care a lot about the students they serve, and bad teaching makes them angry, too.

The path forward must use research-proven strategies and not fall victim to the ideological bents of powerful interest groups. My kids are at the amazing Rockefeller Early Childhood Center, but the LRSD needs far more early childhood seats. We need quality afterschool and summer programs. We need to improve teacher quality and cut administrative bloat. We need an equity scan to make sure students across the district have access to high-quality facilities, curriculum, programs and teachers. We need racially, culturally and economically diverse campuses that welcome all. We need to make sure our students aren't hungry or sick, and we need to make sure they can read well by third grade.

The path forward knows that even the best schools cannot overcome all of the challenges that poverty, segregation and displacement create for our families.

The path forward quickly needs some clarity from the state on the plan ahead. The state board cited a 2010 strategic plan repeatedly in its deliberations. Is it now the template forward? The longer questions fester the more fear, rumor and division will grow.

We are in this together. I hope you, too, will stay involved. Ask the teachers and students you know what they need. Join your PTA. Volunteer in one of the great programs that are supporting our schools and students. Come to community forums on the future of the LRSD and share your needs and concerns. Bring your concerns to state board meetings. Join one of the groups organizing to make sure the path forward includes everyone.

Don't give up. Little Rock has some incredibly successful schools and is such a strong community. Public school systems with far greater challenges are overcoming the odds and excelling. The constant in their success is meaningful community engagement, stakeholder collaboration, research-proven reform and stable leadership.

A great Little Rock requires a great public school district that serves every student well. Maybe the state just made that easier; maybe it just got harder. Either way we have to make it work.

Bill Kopsky is a parent of two children in the LRSD, is active with his school's PTA and is a long-time education reform advocate.

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