Tuesday, July 10, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Base school shines again

In two years, the federally mandated, state-required benchmark exams will go the way of the dodo bird and be replaced with another assessment tool. But in the meantime, the state will use the scores to determine which schools are succeeding and which ones are failing.

Combing through Benchmark test data provided by the Arkansas Research Center verifies what most people in the area already know: Cabot schools are doing well and schools in Jacksonville and Sherwood are failing.

Before we praise the Cabot School District, there is a bright spot in the beleaguered Pulaski County Special School District, which runs roughshod over the schools in Jacksonville and Sherwood.

That bright spot is Arnold Drive Elementary on Little Rock Air Force.

Here is a school built more than 50 years ago to be used temporarily, and like most Jacksonville schools, it is ignored by district officials, yet its third-, fourth- and fifth-graders have surpassed the state average on the Benchmark exam in literacy and math every year since the research center started tracking test scores back in 2008.

This year, Arnold Drive’s fourth- and fifth- graders were 100 percent proficient or advanced in literacy and were almost there in math. The third-graders just missed perfection in math and literacy, scoring 95 percent and 90 percent proficient, respectively.

So the question is twofold: Imagine what Arnold Drive could do if PCSSD really cared about Jacksonville schools. And if Arnold Drive can do this well against all odds, why aren’t other area schools succeeding just as well?

All the Jacksonville and most of the Sherwood area schools are clearly outdated, lacking in space and technology, so that’s not the difference.

Is it Arnold Drive’s principal? If so, why isn’t the district using her as a model for other schools across the district?

Is it the teachers? They are doing a great job—the test scores show it—but are they the only great teachers across the district? That answer had better be no, otherwise PCSSD could be in worse shape than anyone imagines.

Is it the kids? Possibly. The student body does come from military families for the most part, which means a higher rate of two-parent families, a steady paycheck and the security of a roof over their heads.

That does make a difference, but is it the reason for a 40- to 60-point gap between Arnold Drive and Harris Elementary? It’s doubtful.

The commitment is there for better schools—for more Arnold Drives. The desire is everywhere but at a central office on Dixon Road in Little Rock housing the school district’s core leadership. Until the district stops spending millions on lawyers and lawsuits, it will be hard to dedicate the resources necessary to replicate Arnold Drive, which needs to be rebuilt because of the age and condition of the building.

How good are Cabot elementary schools? The details will be published in Saturday’s edition and, hint, the news is very good.

How about the secondary schools across the area? Those test scores will be delved into next week.

But let’s just look at the district numbers as a whole: Over the last five years, from third-grade through eighth-grade, on both the math and literacy benchmark scores, the Cabot School District has scored higher than the state average every time, every year, every grade.

The Beebe and Lonoke school districts had mixed numbers according to the research center statistics, but almost always, the districts surpassed the state averages. Beebe third-grade district-level scores were the best in the area with 97 percent of third-graders scoring proficient or better in math.

But in PCSSD, from 2008 through the 2012 tests, third- through eighth-graders beat the state average only for scores in math or literacy once—this year, at the district-level, in third-grade literacy.

Carlisle also beat state averages most of the time, but it was the only district in the area to actually end up with worse scores over the five-year period in some grades.

Although many people have problems with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates these tests, the lofty goal has to be admired—all students are supposed to be able to read, write and work math proficiently at their grade level by the end of the 2014 school year.

PCSSD students would have benefited tremendously if the district had not ignored Arnold Drive Elementary for so long and had looked to other school districts like Cabot for inspiration. All kids want a chance to learn and improve their lives.

That can be achieved only when all schools become centers of excellence. Accepting anything less is cheating our kids and stealing their future.