Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TOP STORY >> Lifeline possible for local schools

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville High School, Harris Elementary and Mills High School — three Pulaski County Special School District schools among 26 in the state deemed academically distressed by the state Board of Education — could be eligible for some help from a new partnership between the state Department of Education, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

That partnership is called ForwARd.


The state Board of Education on Thursday accepted a proposal for help in producing a comprehensive plan to enhance education from preschool through college — P-16 in their parlance — with recommendations for academically distressed schools and districts.

PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess said his three schools are getting a lot of help right now, and might not be included if there is further triage of the distressed schools.

Guess said that each of the three schools has nearly gotten out of academic distress. He said improvement at Harris Elementary has been phenomenal under the leadership of Principal Darnell Bell.

Guess, who was hired as PCSSD superintendent after the state dissolved the board and took over the district to bring it out of fiscal distress, says he has already brought in Arkansas Leadership, Learning Services and elementary people to pull schools out of academic distress.

The state board had been discussing strategies for academically distressed schools, and both the Walton and Rockefeller foundations approached the board in July to form a strategic partnership, according to Sam Ledbetter, chairman of the state board.

“They have made a commitment to use their resources to support this,” Ledbetter said, adding that the Arkansas Department of Education has committed personnel to assist.


“We know what the indicators (of poor school performance) are,” he said, “poverty and challenges that go along with low socioeconomic status.

“I’m hopeful that the Walton Family Foundation will show it’s committed not only to charter schools and school choice but to traditional schools,” he said.

Both foundations are known for good works and for being interested in education, although the Waltons have seemed preoccupied — to some — with support of charter schools at the expense of public schools.

“At the center of any vibrant community is a strong public school system with high achieving students, engaged parents and residents, dedicated teachers and visionary school leaders,” Ledbetter said.

PCSSD is already indirectly in a new partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which has helped fund the Summer Bridge Program and the Donaldson Scholars Program to help bring at-risk high school students up to speed and to help them enroll and succeed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Philander Smith College.

The ForwARd timeline called for commissioning a research report by the Rockefeller Foundation this summer, with the beginning of the development of plans this fall.


In Winter 2015, they would complete the plan for academically distressed schools and districts and, by next summer, complete the strategic plan.

It calls for ongoing establishment of “strategic partnerships, meetings of committees, implementation of recommendations identified within completed plans.”

According to Rockefeller Foundation research, “The economic impact of ensuring all Arkansas students graduate high school prepared for college would save the state approximately $50 million annually in college remediation costs and lost earnings.”

The partnership’s vision is “Every Arkansas student will graduate fully prepared for success in college and the workplace.” It’s mission is “To help create one of the finest public education systems in the nation.”

It’s goal is “To create a comprehensive strategic plan for P-16 education in Arkansas, with specific recommendations for academically distressed schools and school districts, that will provide actionable recommendations to shape and guide the state’s time and resources to realize this vision and mission.

The two foundations have worked in partnership for more than a decade.