Tuesday, September 23, 2014

EDITORIAL >> What’s next for district?

By a resounding, overwhelming, huge, making-a-statement margin, Jacksonville residents have said loud and clear that they have had enough of second-class treatment under the Pulaski County Special School District and are ready to soar higher.

Now what?

First, maintain this high level of enthusiasm and channel it toward what is best for the students.

So what needs to be done first?

A promise by all parties not to turn the school district into a conglomerate of fiefdoms, which precipitated the downfall of PCSSD.

And, above all, find a superintendent and administrators who will allow teachers to teach. No one knows the students better than the teachers — let them do their job and reward them for it.

Develop a systematic — read that as careful and quick — plan for building, remodeling and revamping the schools.

Many would like to pop out of the gate with a brand new high school, but the new district needs to start where the tests scores take a turn for the worst — the middle school.

Jacksonville Middle School has had a long track record of poor test scores, so bad that even with the hard work of high school teachers, the scores don’t jump up much and make the high school look bad.

Build a new top-notch technology-advanced middle school, not a Taj Mahal, just a nice solid middle school.

While working out the details on a new middle school, the new district needs to bulldoze the Main Street side of the current middle school — the boarded-up side. That alone will be a major spirit booster to students, teachers and the school district, getting rid of the prison look on Main Street. It is a safety and health hazard.

Also, bulldoze the decrepit and closed buildings. Replace them with nice green sod or, even better, sell the whole middle school to a developer and build a completely new middle school on a new location to get a new start.

After tackling the middle school mess, the district needs to build walls. Warren Dupree and Pinewood elementary schools have classes divided by only partitions, filing cabinets and bookcases. Hard to believe, but take a look. The idea of open-space schools was an idea that even California decided didn’t work more than two decades ago.

But PCSSD has kept the open-space concept in these schools to the detriment of students. It restricts what the teacher can do — no fun, loud activities — and it puts an unnatural burden on students to be extra quiet. The teachers at these schools are great, work hard and love their students, but could do so much more working in real school buildings and not in experiments-gone-wrong facilities.

The quick fix would be to build walls in those schools. Make sure the room sizes are up to modern-day requirements, not the 1950 size.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to build a couple of new elementary schools right off the bat — again, not eighth-wonder-of-the-world level, but solid, clean, efficient and nice looking.

Then take some time to look at a new high school. Chances are this is where a millage increase might be needed. If the new district has shown the moxie to solve the middle-school crisis and bring better facilities to its elementary students, residents will be willing to back an increase for the high school.

But, unlike the $60 million Maumelle High School, Jacksonville doesn’t need to pay extra for custom-made 10-foot-tall restroom doors. Stay focused on education.

The district also needs to be succinct in its new name. It should simply be the Jacksonville School District. The simplicity works for Cabot, Lonoke and Beebe, and their districts exceed the limits of those cities just like the Jacksonville district will. Let’s not go for long and cumbersome because that’s what folks voted against in the breakaway.

Plus, no offense to the schools in the northern part of the county that will be a part of the new district, we just don’t need the word “Pulaski” anywhere in the name, as it will be a reminder of bad times.

And, speaking of names, the new district will have to find a Jacksonville mascot if the high schools merge someday. This idea will garner more noise and controversy than anything else, but let’s get off to a new start. The “Devil” factor has always caused some concern, and what does it have to do with Jacksonville anyway?

Maybe the district could have a mascot contest and take suggestions from students and their parents. A board of city officials, parents and students could narrow down all the suggestions to the Top 10 for a citywide vote.

Someone has suggested the Red Falcons, but we like the Hercules — the mighty hero of Greek mythology and the namesake of the C-130 heavy lifters at Little Rock Air Force Base.

It will tie into the air base and Jacksonville’s motto: Soaring Higher.

Touchdown, Hercs! It’s got a ring to it.