Friday, August 02, 2013

TOP STORY >> Support for new District

Leader staff writer

At Thursday night’s city council meeting, the Pulaski County Special School District superintendent reiterated his support for Jacksonville’s efforts to break away from PCSSD and become its own school district.

Superintendent Jerry Guess told aldermen and guests that it would benefit both Jacksonville and the district.

He explained that in the decades-long desegregation case PCSSD can meet eight of the nine requirements to become unitary or free of federal desegregation monitoring, but the one category it is struggling with is facilities.

While the district has spent more than $8 million last year and plans to spend $4 million this year, it just can’t seem to get its schools, particularly those in Jacksonville, up to an acceptable standard for the federal court.

Guess explained that if Jacksonville can become its own district, under current state formulas, the state will cover 60 to 65 percent of new school construction for Jacksonville.

The state will only cover 5 to 10 percent for PCSSD. The superintendent said breaking away would be the best and quickest way for Jacksonville facilities to become top-of-the-line.

Alderman James Bolden praised Guess for his support of a separate district. “As you know, I was on the school board for a long time, worked with many superintendents, and you are the first to publicly give us support. Thank you.”

The superintendent was at the council meeting at the bequest of Mayor Gary Fletcher, who was not happy with recently released scores on the state mandated 11th grade literacy exams and end-of-course exams in Algebra I, geometry and biology.

The scores showed Jacksonville schools rank near the bottom on most of the test results. According to test results, only 44 percent of juniors at Jacksonville High School scored proficient or advanced, meaning that 56 percent of the students can’t read or write at grade level.

Guess pointed out that tests are improving. If you look at the math scores, they are up by 30 points.

He credited Lourdes Goodnight for the improvement. She was the assistant principal at Jacksonville High School last year and is now the principal at the middle school.

Goodnight told the council last month that she was tired of seeing Jacksonville at the bottom. She announced that play time was over.

Lourdes is the fifth principal at the middle school in six years. The most recent principal and vice principal were suspended earlier this year for unspecified reasons and then they resigned.

Guess applauded the city of its active involvement in its school, but made it clear that more can be done by parents as well as the district. He said there were a lot of variables in a student’s success and a lot of untruths out there.

“Just because a child comes from a poor family doesn’t mean he’ll fail, or, if the child is from a middle-class family, that is no assurance that he’ll succeed. Likewise, rural students don’t always fail and urban children don’t always succeed,” Guess explained.

But he did emphasize that poverty was a major anchor on a child’s success. On average, 70 percent of all students in Jacksonville schools are on the free or reduced lunch program “If the parents are struggling to make ends meet, they often don’t have the time or energy they need to spend with the children and motivate them to do well,” he said.

In that vein, Guess made it clear that the two most important things a parent can do is spend positive time with their children and visit the schools. “An hour a day now will save you days, weeks, months later,” he said.

The superintendent also invited parents to come to the schools. “We want you there, communicating with the principal and teachers and seeing what is going on,” he said.

As an example, Guess said the new principal at Maumelle Middle School had an open house recently and 400 people showed up.

“Your new middle school principal is also having an open house and I’d like to see the same number or more show up for that,” he urged. The Jacksonville Middle School open house is set for 6 to 7 p.m. Aug. 14 for sixth-graders and their families and from 5:30- to 7 p.m., Aug. 15 for seventh- and eighth-graders and their families.

Guess told the council that burden is not all on the parents, that the district has to and is doing things too.

“Jacksonville High School has a $2 million grant to spend on ‘extraordinary measures’ to help students achieve,” the superintendent said, adding that the money will be spent judicially and properly to best help students.

The district is also making all if its middle schools, including Jacksonville, wireless to aid in technology learning. “We have started with the middle schools and will then work at making our high schools wireless,” he said.

Guess said the district is also implementing the new common core standards, which are more rigorous than current standards and are more nationally-based. “This will make our students more competitive nationally and internationally,” the superintendent explained.

The Common Core standards were started in the primary grades, then moved to the middle grades and will start in high school this year.

Guess also said the district and parents need to combine forces to work on attendance. “Our absence rate is too high for students and teachers too. We spent $2 million on substitutes last year and that’s way too much.”