Friday, June 13, 2014

TOP STORY >> Splitting district not end to funds

Leader senior staff writer

Even if Jacksonville/north Pulaski residents form their own school district out of the mammoth Pulaski County Special School District, its high school students will still be eligible for the Donaldson Scholars’ Academy and scholarships authorized Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall.

Those residents will have the opportunity to form a standalone school district at the Sept. 16 annual school elections.

“Things seem to be moving forward on the Jacksonville front. What about students ending up at Jacksonville?” Marshall asked during the hearing.

“Any new district would come with the same burdens, responsibilities and benefits,” PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess testified.

“PCSSD is committed to pay for it,” he said. “We propose to live up to our commitment regardless.”

Daniel Gray, spokesman for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski detachment seekers, said, “We’re encouraged...It’s a good opportunity for kids in Jacksonville.”

Patrick Wilson, attorney for the proposed Jacksonville district, said, “We’re pleased that they stated on the record that Jacksonville students will be eligible and said that PCSSD is going to pay for the program...It sounds like a good program that they put a lot of thought into.”


The innovative, $10 million Donaldson plan would track, tutor and guide at-risk PCSSD students from ninth grade, sending them to college on some Saturdays and, upon graduation, to a three-week, on-campus, summer residence immersion, then on to college with scholarships.

While the joint motion before the judge is from the Joshua Intervenors and PCSSD, the academy is a collaboration between the district, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Philander Smith College. It would identify students as at-risk beginning in ninth grade and provide tutoring and interventions, as well as the college visits and the three-week summer bridge program after graduation. Those accepted to UALR or Philander Smith are eligible for a $2,500 scholarship, renewable three times with acceptable progress.


Students may self-select to participate in the program, according to John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Intervenors.

White students in the district average in the 21-25 range on the ACT tests, while scores for black students range from 13 to 18, Walker said.

Students with scores of 20 or below wouldn’t be eligible for scholarship money for college at either of those institutions, Walker said. Those with scores above can generally qualify for existing scholarships or financial help.

Marshall approved a desegregation agreement settlement on Jan. 13 between PCSSD, the Joshua Interveners, the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts and the state of Arkansas, relieving the state of its current $60 million-a-year support for desegregation after the 2016-17 school year and also clearing the way for a standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district vote.

But major changes must still be vetted and approved by the federal court.

That’s what Marshall did to the proposed Donaldson Scholars Academy at the end of Wednesday’s two-hour hearing.


Although this is considered a step toward addressing the academic achievement disparity between white and black students in the district, any poor-performing PCSSD student, regardless of race, is eligible the program and college scholarship money.

Before approving the academy, Marshall wanted assurances that it served as a supplement to Plan 2000 and not a change.

Alluding to the successful outcomes testified to by Summer Bridge Coordinator Amber Smith, Marshall said he had high hopes. “We’ll see if the amazing success (of the existing program) can be expanded.” He cautioned against overconfidence in the new program.

PCSSD will repurpose some of the roughly $20 million a year it will receive through the next four school years to fund the program, along with about $1.8 million a year in cuts to programs and personnel.

Among cuts identified by Janice Warren, PCSSD superintendent for pupil and equity services, are 10 counselors and in-home consultants.


Guess said, by streamlining bus routes, the district can eliminate 20 routes — 20 buses and 20 drivers.

The teachers’ and support staff’s unions have yet to be heard from on these issues. They no longer have negotiating power, but have been quick to court when they feel aggrieved.

The Donaldson Scholars’ Academy is already in place at UALR, where its architect, Charles Donaldson, is the retired vice chancellor of educational, student services and student life.

The preliminary budget suggests that PCSSD’s $10 million contribution will fund the program for four or five years. Donaldson said he hoped that corporate and foundation grants and federal money could pick up the tab after that.

Donaldson’s current program receives funds from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and Bank of America, among others.

PCSSD graduating seniors or parents can get more information by calling Summer Bridge Program coordinator Amber Smith at 501-569-3328 or by emailing her at