For the last 22 years I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen that the Little Rock School District is not adequately educating African American, Latino and special needs kids. The reasons for this are complex, and I’ve learned there is probably not a simple answer that will immediately and permanently solve all the issues that cause this failure. Instead, we take one step forward and two steps back. We are at one of those crossroads where we, as a city, will choose the status quo and do nothing, or we will make bold, difficult moves that have the potential to help the kids we have left behind for all these years.
The Little Rock School District is once again discussing closing schools. Why are we having this conversation now? There are at least two good reasons. First and foremost, the state takeover of the Little Rock School District had many consequences, but a major one was the massive increase of charter schools and the loss of many students from our district. Because the number of student determines how much money a school district receives, we now have to make cuts that will give our district greater financial flexibility to provide a serious, world-class education for the children who have remained in our schools.
Why don’t we cut from other areas of the budget? On average, a school district’s budget is pretty inflexible. Close to 80% of the budget goes to payroll and benefits. Buildings and expenses related to keeping buildings open make up a second large chunk of the budget. The bottom line is, it’s better to cut spending on buildings than on humans.
A second reason we are discussing school closings cuts to the heart of the matter. If we look at any metric on student success among the most vulnerable kids in our district, the small neighborhood school model is not working for so many of these kids. These students are important human beings and they deserve far more than the pious platitudes we have thrown at them for decades. We need to make bold changes to increase educational opportunities for these kids.
But don’t small schools with small classrooms work better when educating kids? You will hear teachers and other educational experts quote research. You’ll see some who cite studies showing small schools help vulnerable students more than larger schools. While these are quality studies, this conclusion has not proven to be true for most of the vulnerable kids in small Little Rock schools. On the other hand, you will see some educators quote research on how larger schools allow districts to provide more services to kids. There is good data on both sides. Instead of playing the game where we choose the study that best matches our desired outcome, I suggest we try to see how we could put the studies together and develop a new vision for educating our kids. We need our board to create larger schools that can provide services to kids, provide opportunities for collaborative work among teachers, and provide safe, clean buildings. But at the same time we need the board to make clear they want small communities created inside those schools that allow kids to feel part of a smaller learning environment. We can do both with the right leadership.
Why are we closing schools south of 630 and east of University? The reality is that this city has systematically ignored this area of town for decades. The buildings are in horrible shape. We now have an administration and school board that is focused on this part of town. The first thing we must do is find a way to get these kids into safe and secure buildings that can provide services that the smaller schools cannot provide.
Another reason we must close schools in this area is that because of the old “separate-but-equal” school system, we have more school buildings than we need in this part of town. You can trace this back to our history from 1868 to the 1960s, when we a school for white kids and a separate school for Black kids. Now there are simply more school buildings in this area than we need, and many are in bad shape.
Third, we have lost a lot of kids in this part of town. If we examine census figures from 2010 to 2020, we find the number of school-aged children east of University Avenue and south of 630 declined. Only three census tracts out of 20 in this area saw growth, and the growth was small. The decrease in school-age kids in these census tracts ranges between 14 and 41%. All growth for school-age kids, regardless of race, is to the west of University Avenue. The bottom line is we have too many schools in areas where there simply aren’t enough students to fill them.
So our democratically elected school board has three tasks:
- First, they must develop a data-driven plan on where our schools need to be, based on projected growth. We need a 5-, 10- and 20-year plan for development of new schools.
- Second, our board must begin to close buildings and move programs around. The reasons for this are described above: we have too many schools in sections of town that don’t need them and the model of the small neighborhood school is not improving kids academically or socially.
- Third, our board must develop an educational plan that focuses in on the children still living south of 630 and east of University. These are the kids this city has systematically forsaken. This will require academic, social, emotional planning that takes into consideration the whole needs of the families in that area of our community.
I believe the current plan before the school board is a good plan. This plan closes underutilized buildings and prepares kids for the new K-8 school at the McClellan site. It gathers kids into buildings that will allow teachers to collaborate more and allows children to receive more services. It also consolidates many of our Pre-K programs into dedicated buildings that can focus specifically on this age group.
I hope our board will move forward on this plan as a whole. Giving special favor to one segment of the population over another would be devastating to the hope many have put in them. This will be their hardest vote to date. I hope they have the will to make changes that have been delayed for too long.
This is not the final answer, but it is a big, bold move that will allow us to better serve all the children of our city.
Former LRSD school board member Jim Ross is an historian, parent and longtime advocate for Little Rock’s children.