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Downsizing at the LRSD

Proposed changes could leave the district unsettled.

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'I STILL FEEL SLIGHTED': Ebony Adams, Zoe (above) and Z'Mya (right) attended a community meeting at Franklin Elementary in January 2017 to plead for the school's survival.
  • 'I STILL FEEL SLIGHTED': Ebony Adams, Zoe (above) and Z'Mya (right) attended a community meeting at Franklin Elementary in January 2017 to plead for the school's survival.

More than a year has passed since Franklin and Wilson elementary schools were closed by the Little Rock School District, but bad feelings linger for parents, including Ebony Adams.

Adams, a mother of two LRSD students ages 11 and 6, was formerly the PTA president at Franklin. Even after she moved her family to West Little Rock, she kept her older daughter, Z'Mya, enrolled at the Fair Park neighborhood school. It was worth the transportation hassle to Adams because Franklin was home for Z'Mya, who had developed close connections with school staff and benefited from an after-school tutoring program through St. Mark Baptist Church.

Like many parents, Adams opposed Superintendent Michael Poore's decision to close Franklin at the end of the 2016-17 school year and shift its approximately 270 students to nearby Stephens Elementary. In January 2017, she delivered those objections firsthand at a community meeting Poore held in the Franklin cafeteria. Why, Adams asked the superintendent, was the school at the top of the district's closure list when it had strong community partnerships and support from parents?

Poore told her it was a matter of fiscal necessity. The district zone in which Franklin was located saw a 14 percent drop in its student population from 2000 to 2015. Enrollment at Franklin itself dropped by a fifth over the previous three years. Meanwhile, the LRSD's budget was shrinking because of a loss of special desegregation payments from the state and other pressures, and a school with slack capacity costs more per student to operate. The district simply had too many buildings with too many empty classroom seats and not enough money — all at a time when other facilities were crying out for repair and LRSD employees had already endured recent staff reductions and benefits cuts.

Eighteen months later, Adams remains unsatisfied with that answer. Meanwhile, the LRSD is facing the possibility of more school closures as enrollment continues to shrink. On the 10th day of the 2018-19 school year, overall enrollment was 22,644 — a drop of about 1,100 students from the same point in 2017-18.

"All the things that we feared happening happened when they closed Franklin," Adams said in a recent interview. The rest of that spring 2017 semester was "horrible," she said: "The whole spirit of the school was down. The children were depressed, the staff was depressed, and it was just like everybody had kind of checked out. It was tough."

After Franklin closed, Z'Mya spent her final year of elementary school at McDermott, the school for which the family's current address is zoned. Z'Mya struggled that first semester of fifth grade, Adams said. "It wasn't because of the work; it was just because it was different. She was having to readjust to people," she said. "A new place, learning a new environment, all while getting what she needed to get academically."

In the end, McDermott proved to be a fine school, Adams said; by last spring Z'Mya had bounced back and was participating in activities such as cheerleading. This fall, she's a sixth-grader at Henderson Middle School, while her younger sister, Zoe, attends kindergarten at McDermott. Nonetheless, Adams questions why her family and hundreds of others had to undergo such dislocation to begin with.

"I still feel slighted," she said. "My biggest question would be, what are we doing with all of these savings that we're supposed to be having now that we've shut down all of these schools? ... We're cutting costs somewhere, definitely, so where are we seeing those savings going to? I haven't seen anything beneficial for the children yet."

The big picture

The Franklin and Wilson closures were just the beginning. Larger changes are coming to LRSD facilities in the years ahead, as Poore outlined in a draft "blueprint" of a five-year plan he presented to the public Aug. 27. The draft, he said, should "evolve" in the coming weeks as the district holds a series of community meetings to solicit input.

This much is sure: In 2020, two of the district's high schools, McClellan and J.A. Fair, will be replaced by a new $55 million campus being built in Southwest Little Rock. The new high school will also absorb around 300 students from Hall High, which will have its attendance zone boundaries redrawn. Sometime after that, Cloverdale Middle School will move to a new building slated to replace the old McClellan building, though financing has yet to be identified for the project.

Other changes are less certain. Some middle schools might consolidate with one or more elementaries to become K-8 campuses. A small-scale high school may be installed in far West Little Rock adjacent to Pinnacle View Middle School. The district might offer more pre-K options in various locations and it may redraw other attendance zones. And, more elementary schools — especially on the east side of the city — may be closed due to a shortage of students.

In addition to losing the state desegregation funding, the Little Rock School District is shrinking overall. Based on 10th-day enrollment counts, the Springdale School District has this year outpaced the LRSD to become the largest in the state (though Little Rock is still a larger city). Because districts are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, losing kids means losing dollars, and Poore was forced earlier this year to trim about $5.5 million from the budget. Increased competition from charter schools is likely responsible for much of the enrollment decrease, though it's difficult to say exactly what proportion. (Other competitors also play a role, such as private schools and neighboring districts.)

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It's against this backdrop that the LRSD is contemplating its future building needs. Poore said the planning process had three targets: "First and foremost ... we have to have learning environments that are conducive for all students throughout our entire community," he said. "Second, we need to provide choices to parents."

The third goal, once again, concerns costs. Poore tied the proposed facilities overhaul to a need to improve teacher pay, especially for new hires. If the district runs more efficiently, the savings it generates could be applied toward salary increases. In theory, at least, closing schools with slack capacity would help free up more resources for personnel.

"Our staff has not received any kind of salary percent increase for a number of years," he said. "They've had their health insurance go up, and even had the contributions by the district go down. ... We rank between 95th and 100th [in the state] in our starting teacher salary, right at $33,000. The competitors we have in this region ... far exceed that amount."

When a reporter mentioned the upcoming community meetings, Ebony Adams was not impressed. "Oh — like the fake ones they had when they shut down our school?" she asked, with a bitter laugh. "They're placating us. Yeah, OK."

Adams isn't the only one to feel skeptical. At Poore's August announcement, state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) asked similar questions. Elliott, a former high school teacher whose district includes Franklin and who lives in the Fair Park neighborhood, spoke out against closing the school in spring 2017.

"Last time we had a round of school closings, we had community meetings and people showed up and stated their opinions, and it made not one whit of difference, except for maybe Carver [Elementary]," she said. Carver, an under-capacity magnet school in East Little Rock, was initially on the 2017 likely closure list but was later spared, in part due to an outcry from parents. "Why should the community believe that it matters if they come to these sessions?" she asked.

Poore told the senator he disagreed. "I believe it did matter," he said. "I believe there were changes beyond Carver ... other things we did that modified the plan as it was initially generated." He said the community meetings also helped generate public awareness of the district's facility and other needs, which may have contributed to a recent increase in volunteerism in the schools.

"It's good you believe that, but that's not reality," Elliott replied.

She pointed out to Poore that the proposed changes laid out in the draft facilities plan seem to be concentrated south of Interstate 630 — that is, the predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods of Little Rock. "Once again we're asking folks south of 630 to bear all the brunt of any changes that take place," Elliott said. "Nothing happens to anybody north of 630. ... Why is it always the case that it's the same families' kids ... who are the displaced people?"

TOUGH QUESTIONS: State Sen.Joyce Elliott confronted Poore at his Aug. 27 presentation of the draft facilities plan. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • TOUGH QUESTIONS: State Sen.Joyce Elliott confronted Poore at his Aug. 27 presentation of the draft facilities plan.

Poore said the district has recently made investments in schools south of I-630, noting the Southwest Little Rock high school — the largest capital project undertaken by the LRSD in decades — as well as recent improvements to facilities at Cloverdale Middle School and McClellan. "I'm very proud of the work that we have done to invest in the Southwest community," he said.

Finally, Elliott asked Poore whether the final decision for the facilities overhaul would rest with state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, as it did with the Franklin and Wilson closures. "That is correct. He still acts as our board," Poore said.

Typically, a facilities plan would be approved by a locally elected school board. But in 2015, the LRSD was taken over by a vote of the state Board of Education, ostensibly because a handful of schools were designated "academically distressed," with low test scores. As long as the district remains under state takeover, Key, the head of the state Education Department, makes all decisions that the board would normally make. That also means he has the ability to hire and fire the district superintendent.

Asked whether the district should wait to impose such a sweeping facilities plan until after local control is returned and a new school board is elected, Poore said the district couldn't afford to wait. "We've got to tackle issues now ... there's no way that you just wait for two years and say, 'Well, let's see how a board does this.' The board's going to have plenty to do when they arrive," he said.

It's easier for a superintendent to make painful decisions — such as closing schools — when the politics that come with an elected board are removed from the equation. But decisions made without democratic governance also may undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

That dynamic emerged in the spring of 2017, when Poore asked district voters to approve the refinancing of debt on an existing bond that would have raised up to $200 million to construct the Southwest High School and pay for improvements to district facilities. The measure was soundly defeated, likely in part because of discontent over state control and the recent closures of Franklin and Wilson. (Poore turned instead to an alternative financing measure to raise the capital necessary to build the Southwest school and fund a more modest list of other improvements.)

The state can keep a district in takeover for a maximum of five years, though it can release it earlier. One question is unresolved: When exactly does the five-year deadline arrive for Little Rock? If the LRSD must be returned to voters by January 2020, board elections would have to be held next year.

JORDAN LITTLE
  • JORDAN LITTLE

Asked by email what date the takeover must end, Key said the question was being examined by Education Department attorneys. "This topic is being reviewed by ADE Legal, as a state board member requested that we address it at the September board meeting. Until Legal has concluded the review, it would be premature to answer these questions," he wrote.

Key also expressed confidence in the superintendent's approach to facilities. "Mike Poore has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to improving the quality of educational facilities in this district," the commissioner wrote. "In the face of doubt and criticism, he has carried out solid plans for facility improvements throughout the district, not just in isolated areas. When you consider the new Southwest High School, Pinnacle View Middle School, air conditioning in older gyms, improved cafeteria facilities, and other significant projects, no reasonable observer can deny the positive investment that has occurred over the last three years. I trust Mike to work with the community and develop a solid plan that outlines the next steps to meeting the long-term facilities needs of LRSD."

The specifics

Tentative though the details may be, Poore's presentation Aug. 27 laid out a proposal that could affect thousands of students district-wide over the next five years.

The new Southwest High School is on track to open in fall 2020. It will absorb all students from McClellan (currently 750) and Fair (currently 846), along with 300 students from Hall. Hall houses a specialty program for non-native English speakers, many of whom live in Southwest Little Rock.

"Those 300 students are English-language learners, primarily, and they would go back down to their home area where they live. And that's a positive thing, because those kids right now ride a bus that's 30 to 45 minutes long," Poore said.

Under Poore's outline, the old, flawed McClellan building would be razed (except for the gym, which is newer) and the land would be used to build a new K-8 school replacing Cloverdale, a facility that has had chronic structural problems. One option for the Cloverdale building, he said, would be to tear it down and turn it into soccer fields.

STEERING THE SHIP: Budget realities will likely force Poore to close more schools in the months and years ahead. - MICHAEL POORE
  • Michael Poore
  • STEERING THE SHIP: Budget realities will likely force Poore to close more schools in the months and years ahead.

Because Cloverdale is a grade 6-8 middle school, creating a K-8 would likely require closing one or more elementaries in the area — Poore listed Wakefield, Watson, Baseline and Meadowcliff as possibilities — to join with the new K-8. Poore noted the district doesn't have the capital to do that new construction at the moment.

"It would cost $45 to $50 million to do what we're talking about" he said in a later interview.

Poore said the J.A. Fair building, unlike the McClellan building, is in good shape. It, too, could become a K-8 under his proposal. If that occurred, the K-8 would replace Henderson Middle School, perhaps supplemented by adding in Romine or Dodd elementaries. The Fair building is a "much better facility" than the current Henderson campus, Poore said.

As for the Henderson building, he suggested that the property could be sold, given that it's in a growing part of the city. Alternatively, it may be eligible to become a disaster recovery center with the help of a federal grant. Poore said 2nd District U.S. Rep. French Hill has expressed interest in helping with that process. (Hill was in attendance for the announcement.)

In addition to losing 300 students, Hall High would become subject to an adjustment to its attendance zone boundaries. Depending on what other facilities decisions are made, other boundaries in the district could shift as well.

"We also, as a recommendation, will be trying to promote the idea that Hall can have a greater tie to Forest Heights STEM ... and be a career development center," Poore said. Forest Heights is the district's only K-8 campus today.

Then there's Pinnacle View, the LRSD's new middle school in far West Little Rock. In 2016-17, the first year of the school's existence, it was temporarily housed in a former office building while a larger building on the same property was being renovated. Today, the school has moved to the larger building, leaving the office space unoccupied.

That creates a potential problem for the district. Under a state law passed in 2017, a charter school operator can force a public school district to sell unused or underutilized property. Poore said he's been informed by the state Education Department that a charter wants to obtain the old office building adjacent to Pinnacle View.

"There's a challenge coming from the state, from the community — an entity — to say they'd like to take that property over," he said. "I want this clearly heard — the commissioner and Mike Poore want to repurpose ... that office space, so that we use that facility for our own district kids." His draft plan listed several options for the building, including turning it into a "small high school w/ blended, project learning."

A charter operator is also investigating a now-vacant building that once housed Hamilton Learning Academy. That property is adjacent to Bale Elementary, a K-5 campus that Poore said is underutilized.

"Again, the commissioner and I are firm to say we'd rather repurpose [Hamilton] to have it for Little Rock students," Poore said. He suggested turning Bale into a pre-K-2 campus and Hamilton into a 3-8 school, perhaps divided by gender. The Central Arkansas Library System has expressed interest in a partnership at the facility, he said, as has UA Little Rock.

Asked whether he is opposed to selling Hamilton or the building adjacent to Pinnacle View to a charter operator, Key declined to respond. "As a member of the Commission on Public School Academic Facilities, which by statute may be called on to make decisions regarding unused facilities ... it would be improper for me to respond to your question as posed," he wrote in an email. "Mr. Poore's statement simply means what it says. I want Mr. Poore and the district to have a reasonable opportunity to develop utilization plans for those facilities for the students of LRSD."

Finally, Poore returned to the topic of under-populated elementary schools in the eastern part of Little Rock, which has several buildings operating under capacity.

One recommendation is to turn Rockefeller Elementary — which today includes a robust early pre-K program, along with a K-5 elementary — into a "birth-to-Pre-K" center. Elementary students would shift to nearby Washington Elementary. Poore said other schools in East Little Rock might also face changes, though. "We need additional solutions for that particular area because there [are many] seats available ... and we need to use our resources as effectively as we possibly can," he said.

The view from Stephens

Shuttering a school can create downstream changes that upend routines at other campuses. When Franklin closed at the end of the spring 2017 semester, most of its students and staff were shifted that fall to Stephens Elementary, located a little over a mile to the east in a building much newer than Franklin's. Last year, Stephens Principal Phillip Carlock saw firsthand how tough the transition can be for both kids and adults.

"The fifth-graders, the older kids, they had a difficult time from the beginning," Carlock said recently. "There were a lot of 'whys' that still weren't answered. ... 'Why did my school close? What did we do?' You know, it was a self-blaming thing. ... I'd say, 'What's wrong, you don't like [Stephens]?' They'd say, 'We like the school, but we miss our old school.' "

Carlock reached out to Franklin's former principal, Lori Brown, to speak to the older students. "That was a big deal for them. ... She came in just fully supportive of what we're doing over here, and she said, 'You were Team Franklin, but I need you to be Team Stephens. I need you to give it your best.' It helped smooth things over."

The changes were perhaps harder for adults, he said. Despite news coverage of the closure, some Franklin parents apparently didn't realize their school was closing. "So, it was just — big surprise. Our first day of school last year, we had about 100 parents at the door registering students," he said.

A reporter who spoke recently to about eight parents dropping off their students at Stephens one morning found two who had been displaced by the 2017 closures. Jessica Chun, 27, said she'd had a smooth experience switching from Franklin to Stephens. Her two children, Trinity and Treshun, are in first and third grade respectively.

"It was a little bit sad, but, you know, things happen in life," Chun said. "They had a little thing where the kids came and saw the school and stuff before they came. ... That was good." Carlock and his staff, along with the district, arranged for incoming students to tour the Stephens building during their final semester at Franklin, which he said helped with the transition for many kids.

NAVIGATING CHANGE: Stephens Elementary Principal Phillip Carlock shows off a card used by students in the school's point-based positive behavior system - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • Benjamin Hardy
  • NAVIGATING CHANGE: Stephens Elementary Principal Phillip Carlock shows off a card used by students in the school's point-based positive behavior system

For Danielle Clay, Stephens is her third school in as many years. Her daughter started at Wilson as a kindergartner in 2016-17, and moved to Bale Elementary after Wilson was closed. This year, she's just starting at Stephens as a second-grader.

Clay said she "hated Bale with a passion" because of various problems; she said her daughter, a first-grader at the time, was once allowed to walk home from school with another child. She's reserving judgment about Stephens for now. "I mean, so far it's OK, but I just really wish they would've kept Wilson open," she said, since it was right around the corner from her house at the time. The closure was "horrible," Clay said. "It was too many kids they had to put other places."

Carlock said the transition was also tough for former Franklin teachers. "They were forced to be in a place they didn't necessarily choose. And when anybody's forced, I don't care how good it is — it's going to be difficult," the principal said. Some struggled to learn Stephens' rules and routines, such as the school's positive-behavior-reward system.

So far, the beginning of the 2018-19 school year has been much smoother, Carlock said. "I'm really impressed. I just thank God first of all, but I also thank my staff for being committed and doing what needs to be done."

Last year, class sizes at Stephens were "maxed out," Carlock added. State standards allow for up to 20 kids per kindergarten class, up to 25 for grades 1-3 and up to 28 for grades 4 and 5. Having large classes was especially hard on teachers coming from Franklin, he said, because classes at Franklin were generally smaller.

After all, that's why Poore made the decision to close Franklin — if there are fewer kids in a building, the LRSD must spend more per child. From the district's perspective, keeping class sizes at or near the maximum allows it to operate more efficiently and conserve its limited resources. Yet research shows that reductions in class size — especially in early grades — can improve academic outcomes. For a district struggling to make do with fewer dollars, class size can feel like a catch-22.

"As a principal, I'm biased," Carlock said. "I would love to keep low class sizes, but I know the district has to look at money to support the teachers and their benefits and all of those other things, so there's some other dynamics."

The vast majority of students at Stephens are from low-income homes, and state data from last year show about 90 percent are African American. In 2017-18, Carlock said, the school included 74 students classified as homeless — out of about 700 total homeless students district-wide.

But along with its challenges, the school has unique assets. When Franklin closed, its in-school clinic moved to Stephens and expanded. Today, the school-based health center provides immunizations, physical exams and counseling to students and their siblings. Stephens also partners with First Security Bank to provide bank accounts for students and incentivize them to save, a program of Carlock's invention. Stephens students receive points for good behavior, which they can then spend on any number of treats — a haircut, a snack, a visit to a game arcade.

The dilemmas faced today by the LRSD and its superintendent were decades in the making, Carlock argues. "The person to be mad at probably isn't the person that's here now. It's the person, or group of people, way back there," he said. "This is the effect of something that was caused many years ago. ... You see the storm coming, but you never prepare for it. And then when it comes, it's just devastating, and that's where we are now.

"The hurricane is over us, and ... things are going to get swept away. And ultimately the kids are kind of in the middle, being juggled around. So I hate that part of it, and I hate that money is that factor — but money is a real thing."

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