Friday, June 10, 2016

EDITORIAL >> The sun also rises

At the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Board meeting Monday night, the board finalized the sale of $15.3 million in bonds to build a new high school.

The new high school is the buzz of Jacksonville. Set to rise from the closed, soon-to-be-dust middle school, and be seen by tens of thousands of people daily driving along Hwy. 67/167, it will be the “jewel” of the new district.

But will the “jewel,” with all the up-to-date-technology infrastructure, solar energy saving design and new school smell be enough to turn the district around? We’d like to think so.

Even so, the $60 million Maumelle High School, open now for five years, has seen no improvement in discipline and about 30 percent of its juniors still can’t read or write on grade level according to state testing.

The annual state test scores at the new Sylvan Hills Middle School, opened in 2011, have been just as poor as before it opened. This past year about 40 percent of its eighth graders scored Level 1, the lowest level of state testing.

So as nice as it will be to have the new high school, only the machinery (the teachers and staff) inside can produce outstanding students and citizens, with lots of help from their parents.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, the district also hired 80 teachers and staff employees for the new district. Each, much cheaper than the planned high school, but collectively, about 75 percent of the district’s total budget.

Take a look at Warren Dupree Elementary, a school with partition walls and a ceiling that was falling down, yet it produces winning stock-market competition teams year after year and has had more national and state essay winners than almost any other school in the state, despite the quality of its brick and mortar.

Pinewood Elementary, which has no interior walls, has an outstanding junior honors society that certainly isn’t due to the facilities fine features.

And Arnold Drive Elementary on Little Rock Air Force Base has been a Blue Ribbon School, named that for its achievement, not for that fact that as a temporary building it is still standing nearly 50 years later.

In fact, according to the RAND Corporation think tank, “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities and even leadership.”

The Coleman Report, written 50 years ago, and still cited today, said, “The quality of teachers shows a stronger relationship (than school facilities and curricula) to pupil achievement. Furthermore, it is progressively greater at higher grades, indicating a cumulative impact of the qualities of teachers in a school on the pupil’s achievements. Again, teacher quality seems more important to minority achievement than to that of the majority.”

The conclusion that “teacher quality is one of the few school characteristics that significantly affects student performance” is quite consistent with more recent research.

Don’t let this lessen the excitement about the new high school and a planned new elementary school, combining Tolleson and Arnold Drive. But when the new school opens in three years there will still be a lot of work to be done.

As the new JNP district hires each new employee and takes bids for new projects, it brings us closer to improving schools in Jacksonville.

Good teachers and good facilities go hand in hand. Jacksonville will eventually get rid of its dilapidated schools and finance new campuses all over town. They will be as impressive as the Lighthouse Charter School and those in Cabot and other nearby cities.

Jacksonville’s time has come after a 30-year-long battle to split from the Pulaski County Special School District. Sadly, many of the people who fought for a new district are no longer with us, but their children and grandchildren will soon see the fruits of that long struggle — and perhaps a plaque commemorating their success.

District officials are trying hard to hire the best teachers on a limited budget. Financially, no one can argue with that business philosophy, but let’s hope, pray even, that it works educationally.

Dare we say it? Better days are ahead.