I have long appreciated the balanced and fair reporting of the Arkansas Times and Max Brantley regarding public education in general and the Little Rock School District in particular. My perspective is, however, quite different from that recently expressed in Brantley’s June 12 column about the present and future of the LRSD. The worries, fears and doubts expressed by Brantley and others in the community are real and understandable. As one who is up close and personal to the district and whose position is to take the big-picture perspective, I see a more hopeful and yet reality-based narrative.
Beginning in 2013, a litany of significant progressive changes has occurred. A reform-minded superintendent was hired and land was purchased for a needed middle school in West Little Rock and a new and improved high school facility in Southwest Little Rock. An aggressive community outreach effort was begun with stakeholders across the district and leaders from government, business and service organizations. We already are seeing positive results from this effort as evidenced by a revived Public Education Foundation and new business partnerships in our Career and Technical Education programs. The first phase of an ambitious 1:1 technology program for fourth and fifth graders was started in 2013. Two underperforming schools were approved for transformation to innovative, needed, unique-in-the-state schools in the forms of Forest Heights K-8 STEM Academy and Geyer Springs Gifted and Talented Academy. Against very long odds, LRSD initiated new negotiations in the long-running desegregation case, which led to a new overall agreement that allows for an orderly end to the case and increased control of the district’s own future. Finally, a facilities study is being completed in preparation of a districtwide facilities improvement plan where the needs of the whole district are identified and addressed rising above narrow parochial concerns. This is a very impressive list of accomplishments in a fairly short time, and it is only the beginning.
For those who have seen superintendents, board members and new programs come and go and feel naturally skeptical about potential for real progress, there are three factors that make this time different from before. These three factors present high-stakes pressures and risks that can be harnessed as effective motivators for areas where needed change has been resisted and difficult to achieve.
The first factor is the reality of competition in the education marketplace. Now that LRSD is under the School Choice Act, LRSD students have increased choices to attend neighboring school districts, several of which are improving and/or expanding their facilities. Private school and charter school options also continue to expand. Secondly, school districts can now be found in academic distress when a single school in the district is in academic distress. In the past, the risk for state takeover for academic distress was only if the whole district met the criteria. Lastly, there is the risk of state takeover due to financial distress. With the upcoming loss of desegregation funds, the district must significantly reduce expenses, and with nearly 90 percent of the budget committed to salaries and benefits, it is in this area where most of the savings must come. Avoiding the hard budgetary choices will risk being found in financial distress in just a few years.
The pressures to dramatically improve academic performance and to develop a more sustainable budget have been present before but never to the intensity that they are now, and these pressures will continue to increase. These increased pressures provide us with a new and unique opportunity to make bigger and more innovative changes in the district both academically and financially. In reality, those changes have already begun, as described above.
What the LRSD is attempting is something that is very difficult to do — find common ground and vision for reform in a large multicultural organization with a multicultural board. There are not many examples of such organizations and even fewer that demonstrate great success at reform. What is at stake is the education of over 25,000 students per year and the economic vitality of Little Rock and Central Arkansas.
So, with all the pressures, challenges and risks, why be hopeful?
I am a social worker by trade and have spent most of my career in the areas of serious illness, grief and loss. I have seen firsthand how the pressures of a crisis can lead people to find strengths never found before and to adjust in ways they (and others) never thought possible. This is also seen more broadly as Americans, and perhaps people around the world, are better responding to a crisis than they are constructively responding to chronic problems.
Writer and therapist David Seaburn says, “to be hopeful is to believe that the story can change and that we can be the ones to change it.” Such a perspective is a core value in education. We believe that the student met on the first day of school will not be the same student on the last day of school. In between there will be learning and growth. Since hiring a new superintendent and the ending of the long-running desegregation case, the district is like a new student in the first quarter of the school year working to adjust to a much higher level of rigor and consequences. It is no surprise that at times there are struggles and messiness. But big change is coming and has already begun, and it has a chance to succeed like never before because the pressures and risks are greater than ever before. We are changing the story and will continue if we don’t lose our focus and lose our heart. And there are over 25,000 good reasons why we must continue.
Greg Adams is president of the Little Rock School District Board. His views are not meant to represent those of the board or the LRSD.