Friday, August 19, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Remarkable school year

We wish a successful new school year to all area students, teachers and the school administrators who support them. May they focus their efforts on education, not politics, and be ready to tackle the challenges ahead.

Classes began Monday, so enrollment numbers are preliminary, but they provide a clear indication of where area school districts rank in quantity and may hint at quality issues as well.

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District reports that 3,800 to 4,000 students attended classes this week. It’s the first school year the new district is completely in control of its affairs after breaking away from the troubled Pulaski County Special School District.

Growth is possible even if Jacksonville’s enrollment is comparable to Beebe and Lonoke rather than Cabot’s whopping 10,257 enrollment. Beebe has 3,256 students, and Lonoke has 1,755.

Many parents want small, but high-quality schools. It could be a way to lure young families to Jacksonville.

Believing its student body will double, the JNPSD administration is moving quickly to build three new campuses. Symbolically, on the first day of classes, district officials began demolition on the old middle school site near Main Street, where a new $60 million high school will open in August 2019.

It will be a modern building with first-rate athletics facilities that will attract students. Drivers on Hwy. 67/167 will see it on their daily commute, making a powerful declaration that Jacksonville is determined to compete educationally and economically with the best communities in central Arkansas.

JNPSD is preparing to build two elementary schools. One will be near the air base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson. Another, for which a location hasn’t been chosen yet, will probably consolidate Pinewood and Warren Dupree.

The old North Pulaski High campus has been converted to the district’s only middle school.

The new schools will be paid for with a property-tax increase that was narrowly approved by voters in February. We know the district and students will prove their critics wrong by working hard to show that the money will be well spent.

Improved test scores and good grades will quiet all the critics.

It’s not just the schools that have a tough haul ahead. The long-closed Jacksonville Elementary by East Main Street between Spring and Oak streets needs to be razed. It’s an unsightly, abandoned campus that can never be salvaged. The city should bulldoze it fast because there will be more empty schools left behind as new ones are built.

Jacksonville officials need to find a way to develop the sites of the old schools that will be shuttered soon.

When the new high school opens, its old campus could be a golden opportunity for redevelopment, which could incorporate the adjacent old-Walmart shopping center.

Jacksonville should relish this new beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done, but the city can enjoy setting goals and uniting as a community to achieve them.

That wasn’t possible under PCSSD.

Several churches have already given away school supplies and backpacks to hundreds of pupils to get the new school year off to a new start.

One such back-to-school event is going on now: Free backpacks and school supplies will be given away from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today in the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce parking lot, 200 Dupree Drive. The event is sponsored by Vision Ministry and Beyond-4-Church-Walls Ministry.

Cabot United Methodist Church recently held its annual community back-to-school fair, where more than 300 students received free clothing, shoes, toiletries, backpacks and school supplies, haircuts, eye exams and eyeglasses and a pancake breakfast. More than 70 volunteers pitched in.

Several others, including Jacksonville’s First Baptist and Second Baptist churches, gave away hundreds of backpacks and other school supplies, as did Victory Praise and Worship Church in Jacksonville during its annual Back to School Bash.

Jacksonville Alderman Tara Smith is encouraging people to volunteer by reading to kids in the new Jacksonville school district by joining the AR Kids Read program. This will be the third year Smith has mentored two students for half an hour a week. She and the pupils will take turns reading, and sometimes she’ll help them with spelling and math.

“I love to do this…When they see me coming, their little eyes light up and it’s so rewarding,” Smith told The Leader this week.

We look forward to highlighting more volunteer work throughout the school year.