- TOUGH QUESTIONS: Tameka Jackson and her son Javier, 7, a first grader at Wilson Elementary. LRSD Communications Director Pam Smith holds the microphone.
Tameka Jackson, the mother of a child at Wilson Elementary School, had strong words for Mike Poore at a community meeting on Thursday, Jan. 19, after the Little Rock School District superintendent explained to parents why he seeks to close the campus at the end of the current school year.
"How dare you?" Jackson said to Poore. "How dare you choose our community, our neighborhood, our school? Our kids matter. The teachers there matter. The principal matters, and he treats the kids like they matter. Like my neighborhood is not important enough to have a thriving school? How dare y'all make the decision without us? ... I've been in the military fighting for my whole country and now I have to come home and fight locally? Why? This is crazy."
Two days earlier, at a press conference, Poore had announced several planned school closures as part of his efforts to absorb a loss of $37 million in the LRSD budget when desegregation payments from the state come to an end next year as a result of a legal settlement. Poore and his predecessor, Baker Kurrus, made substantial cuts to the district budget in preparation for that change, but not enough to fill the shortfall. Meanwhile, a study of district-wide building capacity showed the LRSD has at least 2,300 unfilled student seats, Poore said.
One elementary school that had been on the closure shortlist was spared: Carver Magnet. Although Carver is located in an East Little Rock neighborhood that has suffered major population losses in recent decades, Poore said at the press conference that the district must continue providing parents with strong magnet choices, and noted recent revitalization efforts in that part of the city. Wilson, a K-5 school of 316 students located on Colonel Glenn Road near University Avenue, was not so lucky. Also slated for closure are Franklin Elementary School, a K-5 campus with 269 students located just off Fair Park Avenue near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Woodruff Early Childhood Center, which serves 150 preschoolers in the Stifft Station area.
Poore's "repurposing" plan would distribute Wilson's students among four nearby elementaries — Bale, Brady, Romine and Western Hills — while Franklin's students would transfer to Stephens Elementary. (Parents would also be able to apply for a slot at one of the district's magnets: Booker, Carver, Gibbs and Williams.) Woodruff's youngsters would be divided between the pre-K programs at Carver and King Elementary schools. Hamilton Learning Academy, the district's alternative school, would relocate to the building vacated by Wilson. The old Hamilton building might be absorbed into the nearby Bale campus, which may be redesigned as a K-8 school.
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 remains under the control of the state Department of Education. The LRSD was taken over by the state Board of Education two years ago due to the "academic distress" designation of a handful of campuses. None of the schools slated to be closed are on the "distressed" list, however.
Factors that went into the selection of schools to be closed, Poore has said, were that their enrollments have been falling, student populations in those neighborhoods have decreased in recent years, and they are geographically situated such that other schools can easily receive their students.
"For every one of us, this is a meeting that we wish we weren't attending," the superintendent told a crowd in Franklin Elementary's small cafeteria on Wednesday. "I have a tremendous amount of empathy for what you are feeling right now." However, he said, "a lot of our previous [budget] 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 that idea, he said.
Still, that's cold comfort for the angry parents, neighborhood residents and community activists who showed up at the two meetings last week.
Ivy Chan has a second-grader and a kindergartner at Franklin, along with a younger child whom she said she considers "a future Falcon," the school's mascot. Chan said she has 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," Chan told Poore. 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 school's clinic.
"I would like to ask you to reconsider the decision to close Franklin," Chan pleaded. "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."
The clinic at Franklin is one of the school's strong suits, pointed out Ebony Adams, the president of Franklin's PTA. "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 live in this neighborhood?" Adams asked.
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 said the district is trying to retain the partnerships Franklin currently has, including its clinic. "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."
One big question mark: What will become of the Franklin and Woodruff buildings? Some activists in the community fear the district's properties could end up in the hands of charter school operators; at the press conference last week Poore said that he didn't see the need for more charter expansion in Little Rock, given the district's surplus of seats. At Franklin, Poore reiterated to parents that the district does not yet have a "specific repurpose" in mind for the Franklin building, but that community input on repurposing would be solicited in the coming months. There's also no specific plan for the Woodruff building.
At the Wilson meeting, some parents and neighborhood residents expressed unhappiness about the idea of the building becoming the new home for Hamilton Learning Academy. "This is not the neighborhood" for an alternative school, Tameka Jackson told Poore. Others echoed that sentiment as they spoke warmly of Wilson's staff and noted the effectiveness of the school's principal, Clifton Woodley. Signs around the brightly lit cafeteria broadcast pleas to preserve the campus. "Wilson Elementary Is The Heart of our World!!" read a piece of red posterboard decorated with yellow hearts and taped to the podium on the stage behind Poore.
Rosa Acosta was one of several Spanish-speaking parents who asked Poore questions through an interpreter provided by the LRSD. (About 20 percent of Wilson's student body is classified as "limited English proficiency," and about 24 percent is Hispanic or Latino, according to district data.) "I don't speak the language, but my question is, basically, what exactly do you need for this school to keep it open?" she asked through the translator. Acosta worried about the impact of "trying to put these kids in a school that is already crowded or full" and said that the teachers at Wilson were working hard and putting in their best effort to educate her child and others.
"I want to reiterate that there is wonderful staff at this school," Poore said, adding later, "if you went to any elementary in this district you would have similar comments ... . Especially at the elementary level, communities love their schools." But, he said again, it is not sustainable for the district to have 2,300 vacant seats.
"I believe that we will have a better district next year, even with this recommendation," Poore told Acosta.