Friday, September 04, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Long road for schools

Not only are facilities substandard in Jacksonville and the Pulaski County Special School District school district, so is academic performance at nearly 25 percent of the schools.

Eight PCSSD schools are among 151 one ranked in the bottom 10 percent of Arkansas schools academically.

Student performance on Benchmark exams for math and literacy in grades three through eight, algebra I, geometry and grade 11 literacy from 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 were used to determine the newly identified priority and focus schools.

Although the designation came during the first week of school, PCSSD is already shifting personnel to troubled schools, including those in Jacksonville, to help correct the problem.

Nearly a quarter of PCSSD schools were among the worst, according to testing data.

Of those, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville Middle School, Harris Elementary School and Mills High Schools were among 46 “priority schools,” meaning they are in the bottom 5 percent, while Murrell Taylor and Daisy Bates elementary schools and Fuller and Maumelle middle schools were among 105 schools designated “focus schools,” meaning they are in the bottom 10 percent. Cabot’s Academic Center of Excellence is also ranked in the bottom 10 percent.

Three of the schools — Jacksonville High, Jacksonville Middle and Murrell Taylor — will be part of the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District when it is entirely on its own beginning next July.

This leaves another huge challenge for both districts.

The new JNP salary schedule, based on a conservative guestimate of the amount of minimum foundation aid the district will receive from the state, is pretty frugal, except for competitive starting salaries to attract good young teachers.

We think the new JNP school board, which will be elected Sept. 15, may need to add an additional position or two to perform the duties now being performed by PCSSD administrators.

Starting last week, PCSSD reassigned three central office administrators to help guide teachers and principals in correcting problems that led to poor student outcomes, and collectively, to the bottom-of-the-barrel ratings of “priority” and “focus.”

PCSSD Deputy Superintendent John Tackett is assisting at Jacksonville Middle School three days a week, with another PCSSD staffer there a fourth day, according to JNP Chief of Staff Phyllis Stewart.

Pam Black, director of career technology education, will be at Jacksonville High School four days a week, working with the principal and school leadership.

Susan Fletcher, an administrator for instructional technology, will work with the principal and the school leadership team at Murrel Taylor. Those are the three troubled Jacksonville schools in the group.

That’s great, and we appreciate the help, but those folks won’t be available to us next year.

Three of the 10 schools that will be in JNPSD next year are either focus or priority schools.

The fine people of Jacksonville and their neighbors did not work this hard for this long to have a district comprised of failing schools in substandard buildings.

That’s why district patrons will have to find more money for teachers and pass a millage increase to fix or replace nearly all buildings.

A few people have suggested that local residents could chip in $10 a month to pay advanced teachers what they are really worth and to build new schools.

We encourage local donations to the new district, but we’re not talking about taking a collect ion and holding bake sales for new band uniforms here.

Even with help from the Defense Department in constructing a new building to replace Arnold Elementary School, it’s likely going to cost $55 million to build a new high school, and — even with state matching money — that’s more than $25 million for the district’s share.

Like every other aspect of the fiscal distress and desegregation problems facing PCSSD and JNPSD, Superintendent Jerry Guess has grabbed this latest bull by the horns, sending top administrators to “drill down,” as they like to say, and find solutions to the problems confounding under-achieving students.

Tackett did that as a principal and a superintendent at the Lonoke School District, and, if anyone can use data to get a handle on this, he can.

As big the problems facing the startup of the JNP district, PCSSD will be going through changes of its own next school year.

It is widely assumed that, after five years of state control following the 2011 takeover by the state for reasons of fiscal distress, PCSSD will again have control of its own district for the 2016-17 school year. By law, the state can only run a district for five years, and this is the fifth. Thanks to aggressive changes at Guess’ hands, including decertification of PCSSD unions and changes to the salary schedule, it’s nearly certain the state Board of Education will find the district no longer in fiscal distress. That presumably means school board elections and the hiring of either Guess or another superintendent. He is currently an appointed superintendent. We wish him the best.