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Free at last?

Or will obstacles persist in getting LR schools out of court?

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KAREN DEJARNETTE: Wrote controversial report to board.
  • KAREN DEJARNETTE: Wrote controversial report to board.

Over the last 50 years, the Little Rock School District has fought black parents, the federal government, the state, Pulaski County’s other two school districts, its own teachers, and, through the Joshua intervenors, every black student in Little Rock in a series of court cases seeking to establish a “desegregated” system of public schools.

But as district administrators head into what could be their final court hearing on Dec. 18 — when Judge Bill Wilson could at long last declare the district “unitary” and free it from court supervision once and for all — the biggest threat to its success appears to be coming from within.

Karen DeJarnette, director of the Planning, Research and Evaluation Department — hired in 2004 specifically to deal with Wilson’s latest deseg order — went public last month with her claims that not only is the district not in compliance with the court’s requirements, but that district administrators — including Superintendent Roy Brooks — have kept information from both the court and the district’s board of education about the obstacles her department has faced meeting the court order. Omission of that information “allows a reader’s false impression that the district has progressed further than it in fact has,” DeJarnette wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to board members.

The Little Rock School District’s first desegregation case began in 1956, the year before the Little Rock Nine enrolled at Central High. Court supervision has been continuous since then, under several different lawsuits.

Through the 1960s, the district’s desegregation plan was simply “freedom of choice,” letting students go where they wanted, but that was ruled unconstitutional in 1968. So the district instituted geographic attendance zones, but those were tossed out as well because segregated neighborhoods naturally produced segregated schools. Crosstown busing began in 1971.

The current desegregation suit was filed in federal court by the Little Rock School District in 1982. The district sued the state, the Arkansas Department of Education, the Pulaski County Special School District and the North Little Rock School District on the ground that they had practices that hindered desegregation. The suit asked that all three districts be consolidated to address Little Rock schools’ declining white population.

That solution was eventually thrown out, but the LRSD’s borders were expanded to match, for the most part, the city limits, and boosted the district’s white population somewhat.

During the 1980s, other parties got involved as well, most importantly the Joshua intervenors, who represent the district’s black students and are represented by well-known civil rights attorney John Walker. Today, the lawsuit has evolved to a point that the Little Rock School District is a de facto defendant, with the Joshua intervenors its primary adversary. North Little Rock and Pulaski County schools are still subject to court supervision, but have not filed motions to be released as Little Rock has.

It seems counterintuitive that a district that is almost 70 percent black is not officially desegregated; whites may be concentrated at a relatively small number of schools in the district, but those schools still have large minority populations.

But the desegregation case left that simplistic definition behind almost 20 years ago. In 1989, a settlement in the case recognized that Little Rock was unitary in terms of student assignment, staff hiring and similar issues. From that point, the case focused instead on “secondary” desegregation issues — such as improving the academic achievement of black students, whose standardized test scores perennially lag behind white students’.

By 1996, though, it was clear Little Rock couldn’t meet the conditions set out in the 1989 agreement, so the district negotiated a revised settlement, approved in 1998. That agreement set the end of the 2001-02 school year as the deadline for compliance, with the promise of a release from court supervision if the district succeeded.

In September 2002, however, Judge Wilson ruled that the LRSD had complied with all the requirements of the settlement except for a section that required the district to assess and evaluate programs it had established to improve black students’ achievement.

The district came back in 2004 claiming it had met the program evaluation requirements, but Wilson wasn’t convinced. Citing numerous weaknesses in the evaluations, he ruled against the district and gave it two years to meet the terms of an even more specific compliance remedy for dealing with the evaluation program.

He ordered the district to “reinvigorate” its Planning, Research and Evaluation Department — the division that dealt with gathering and analyzing data on district programs — by hiring a director with a Ph.D., several statisticians and necessary support staff.

He ordered the district to hire outside consultants to put together in-depth evaluations of eight “key” programs, and said the district’s own staff, led by the PRE department, must “deeply embed” a comprehensive program evaluation and assessment process as a permanent part of its curriculum and instruction program. (The district submitted the last of those eight reports, on a pre-kindergarten literacy program, earlier this month.)

It’s that requirement that’s likely to be the focus of the Dec. 18 compliance hearing — not just because of its prominence in Wilson’s 2004 order, but because DeJarnette and one of the PRE’s three statisticians, Jim Wohlleb, are openly disagreeing with district officials, including Brooks and attorney Chris Heller, who claim the district is in compliance with it.

DeJarnette was prompted to go public with her concerns after Heller made what she and Wohlleb considered to be significant changes to a quarterly update report submitted to the school board and the court in August. DeJarnette’s original version included more than a dozen paragraphs outlining problems such as inaccuracies in the data the outside evaluators used in compiling their reports, specifically a report on magnet school programs.

“It bothers us that no one we know about has ever questioned the quality of the data we use,” Wohlleb said.

DeJarnette said that while the PRE department recommended the district purchase a database program called TetraData that’s designed for educational uses and could have had a database complete by last summer, Brooks chose to use a program originally designed for retail businesses that did not include a projected completion date and is still unfinished.

And she wrote that district officials had cut several positions from the PRE department, including secretarial support, and had let the department go without a full-time testing coordinator for more than a year.

In the version edited by Heller — the only one given to board members and the court — those paragraphs are cut down to three sentences that say only that one of the district’s limits is its lack of access to multiple types of data, which PRE is “working diligently to improve.”

After trying unsuccessfully to get the omitted information to board members through district administration, DeJarnette on Nov. 3 sent out an e-mail detailing both the changes Heller had made to the report and what she describes as a history of Brooks and assistant superintendent Olivine Roberts trying to prevent the PRE department from following the court’s order. Brooks threatened to fire her more than once, DeJarnette wrote.

At a sometimes heated meeting Nov. 9, at which some board members questioned DeJarnette’s motives, others defended her, and Brooks said that any problems with desegregation compliance were the PRE department’s fault, the board responded by agreeing to allow the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull and Burrow law firm to conduct an investigation of DeJarnette’s allegations. The firm’s report was submitted to board members Nov. 22. The gist of the lengthy report is that Brooks and Roberts say they don’t remember the conversations and meetings that DeJarnette says included the threats. The board had scheduled a special meeting for Nov. 30, after press time for this article, to discuss the report.

Brooks did not return a call seeking comment, but according to the Quattlebaum report, he denied threatening to fire DeJarnette or trying to keep information from school board members.

Wohlleb said he and DeJarnette are also very concerned that with a staff of only four people, there is no way the PRE department can conduct yearly assessments of the eight programs, as required by the court. The outside evaluators used teams of up to 30 researchers to compile their reports, he said.

“In my opinion, the assessment process is more important than the external evaluations,” DeJarnette said. “The ‘deeply embedded’ process is everything — that’s what we’ll continue to do in the future.”

Heller said there’s no doubt the district has already met the “deeply embedded” requirement.

“The process of conducting program evaluations and assessments and using the information to make decisions about programs has become a part of what the district does every day,” Heller said. “PRE has grown. The board adopts a program evaluation agenda every year. The board just adopted a resolution declaring its intent to continue, even after unitary status, to evaluate programs and make decisions based on information that comes from those evaluations.”

There have been some problems with the accuracy of data, but “some of those have been greatly exaggerated,” he said.

But John Walker, the attorney for the Joshua intervenors, said DeJarnette’s concerns prove the district is not in compliance with the court’s 2004 order. He filed a motion in November asking Wilson to keep the district under court supervision for an additional two years.

“The previous administration, continuing with this administration, have perpetrated fraud upon the court,” Walker said. “That’s one of our bases for contempt of court. They’ve submitted data that are wrong and they know it. They didn’t expect to be caught here, but the board majority changed. And Dr. DeJarnette decided to be honest.”

Walker said it’s clear the district hasn’t had any programs that worked to raise black students’ achievement.

Standardized test scores do show a significant achievement gap at every grade in every subject tested districtwide. Without exception, the achievement gap on the state Benchmark Exams is wider in Little Rock than statewide, ranging from a low of 28 points in grade 3 literacy to a high of 45 points in grade 5 math.

Of the 12 grade/subject Benchmark combinations, however, the gap narrowed in eight of them from 2005 to 2006, and widened in four — grades 4 and 5 math and literacy.

Even in schools where black students do very well, they still lag behind their white classmates. For instance, at Forest Heights Middle School last school year, 91 percent of black students who took the algebra end-of-course exam scored proficient or above, while 100 percent of white students did.

“I don’t think that the district has a good argument” for getting out of court, said Katherine Wright Knight, president of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association. “If you look at the statistics … it’s clear that the kind of significant progress that should be made has not been made. In fact, it looks worse.”

However, the court’s 2004 order doesn’t set a requirement for the district to narrow the achievement gap. It simply says the district must evaluate the key programs aimed at improving black students’ achievement, and use the results to modify or replace programs that aren’t working.

Whether or not a release from court supervision would be a good thing for the Little Rock School District is open to debate.

It would no doubt cut the district’s legal bills significantly, and, as board member Baker Kurrus said, it would show the community that the district is capable of governing itself and operating a unitary school system.

On the other hand, it could mean the end of $27 million a year in state funds channeled to the district as part of the desegregation case. “I don’t think this new board will say to the court they want to be released if the consequence is losing [$27 million],” Walker said. He said that the Joshua intervenors would oppose the state ending that funding.

Board President Katherine Mitchell said she has mixed feelings about the district possibly being declared unitary.

In 2002, when the court released the district from supervision on everything but the program evaluations, “I was really elated that we’d satisfied the court order,” she said. “I was really feeling good about it, and I thought we were doing the right thing.”

But more recently, she said, she believes there is a lot of discrimination in the district, both against individuals and in the allocation of resources.

“It shouldn’t be something that a court makes us do,” she said. “It should be something that we as human beings want to do.”

Still, she said, she doesn’t believe that continued court supervision will benefit the district.

Neither does Kurrus. He credits the federal courts with playing a major role in the desegregation of Little Rock schools, but that it’s time for the district to demonstrate it has complied with the court’s order.

“The incentive is we need to demonstrate self-governance and independence,” Kurrus said. “That’s the way school districts are supposed to operate in the state of Arkansas.”

As for the evaluation program, Kurrus said the district has an “abiding commitment” to continuing it.

“I’m not going to back down a bit from our obligation to make sure these programs work,” he said.

“… Compliance with the court order is more important than anything else.”

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