Community members spoke against a state takeover of the Little Rock School District to a packed crowd of roughly 150 people at the Willie Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center Monday night for the "Protect Our Little Rock Schools Forum," planned by Arkansas Community Organizations.
Arkansas State Board of Education Chairman Sam Ledbetter, civic leaders, and members of the Little Rock School Board attended the meeting. The forum was held in advance of the State Board of Education’s Wednesday decision about whether to take over the LRSD because of six schools in academic distress.
Zone 5 School Board member Jim Ross spoke about a struggle for equality in the district since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision and described the current literacy levels in the district as severe. He said the district is now in a “horrific” crisis.
“Now you all know the history of what happened next. Folks who look like me first tried to stop it. And then when the courts said no, we began to slow the process down for equal education. And then when the courts said no to that, we just started throwing money at the problem,” said Ross who added that billions of dollars had been spent without research or clear goals, leading to the current state of affairs.
He told the crowd the school board can change the district with more time.
“We cannot continue as we have done year after year, to take money, go buy the latest program that some administrator heard about at a conference and put that program into a school and pretend like one program fits all,” said Ross.
Board member Tara Shephard of zone 6 encouraged the audience members to speak up.
“You’ve heard from the Little Rock School District, you’ve heard from the business community. Everyone has had their voice except for you. It is public education. It is about the public. We need to hear from you, your voices need to be heard. You have the right people in here at the right time," she said.
"We’ve got state legislators in here. We’ve got Mr. Ledbetter here who is with the State Board of Education. Everyone needs to hear your voice, don’t allow people to talk for you,” said Shephard.
Erica Ivy, a Little Rock school teacher, told the crowd she believes the SBE’s move to decide about a state takeover has been driven by business interests.
“You know, the business community has come out against our district big time. And I’ve seen it more in the last month than I’ve seen it ever. Now that the state is really considering taking us over, they’re behind the state. But where have the been the last five years? Where have they been the last ten years? Where have they been?”
Malik Marshall, student body president at Little Rock Central High School, said he campaigned for new LRSD board member Jim Ross last fall because he was tired of being the only African American student in some of his Advanced Placement courses.
“He gets elected, we get this new school board in, they start doing things. I’m working with the dean and student body and Central High School, and the government comes in and starts telling me they’re going to remove my voice,” said Marshall.
Hannah Burdette, a senior at Parkview High School, said she doesn't believe students will have as much of a voice if there is a state takeover.
“Our state district was elected democratically. To take away the only voice that our community has in our education is to take away not only the voices of we students but of the parents as well,” said Burdette.
Beverly Divers White, a former Associate Superintendent and teacher, told the crowd that local control of the school district must also begin at home with more parental involvement.
“Community organizations have got to get involved. How many of you are allowing your children just to play on the computer, not learning how to make the computer work for them?” she asked the crowd.
Retired principal Joyce Williams questioned whether the Arkansas Department of Education is competent to reform the district in the event of a state takeover.
“I have watched State Department employees for years, I’m talking about 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and more years," Williams said. "And let me tell you about their help. It was worthless. It was time, and it was money, it was highway mileage, you name it and it was worthless.”
As of last year, the six schools categorized in academic distress are Baseline Elementary, Cloverdale and Henderson Middle Schools, and J.A. Fair, McClellan and Hall high schools.
The State Board of Education will meet at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning to decide whether to take over the district.