This week the Little Rock School District has been presenting plans for “High Ability" and a "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy for middle and elementary students.
The plans would revamp the Geyer Springs Elementary and Forrest Heights Middle schools and allow gifted students from throughout the district to apply. Though plans have not yet been finalized, district officials have been answering questions from teachers and parents whose children may be affected by the changes.
KUAR’s Chris Hickey caught up with a recent presentation at Geyer Springs and has details of the plan, as well as what some parents and educators are saying.
Before parents and school staff gathered in the school’s auditorium Tuesday, Sadie Mitchell, Associate Superintendent of Elementary Education and other members of the academy’s planning committee explained the district’s tentative plans for what the school would become and who it would serve. The plan originates from new superintendent Dexter Suggs, who has spearheaded policies to better serve the district’s high ability learners. Laurie Altschul who leads the Gifted and Talented program for the district, talked about the program's possible selection process.
“We might be looking to pull like the top one percent. And the fact of the matter is that one percent, oftentimes when they're in their classes, they sit and wait and they do things that they learn how to do last year. So this school would give them a chance to have the rigor and the challenges that they are eager to participate in,” she said.
Gifted and Talented programs include roughly 5,000 of the 25, 000 students in Little Rock public schools and already allow those designated students to participate in a special curriculum meant to ignite curiosity and creative ways of learning. But what administration officials hope is that by concentrating the gifted students in one school, they’d be better able to serve the kids who find regular classes boring because they’re already ahead of the game.
Over some upbeat music from the Jackson Five, a video montage of kids learning in a fun, creative environment showed what another of the academy’s planners Christine Deitz, said would be good for all kids. But some need that environment more than others, she said
“Let's think for just a second about mountain air. Good clean mountain air is also good for everybody...but it's also critical for people with some conditions,” she said.
The good clean mountain air would include mornings filled with literature and math courses while the agenda for afternoons—which Deitz and Altschul dubbed “Imagine-noons”—would be filled with courses the students choose based on their interests. Options include Orchestra and Choir, Fine Arts, Latin and Spanish Language courses as well as Engineering and Robotics.
Despite widespread enthusiasm on the part of administrators, many current Geyer Springs teachers and parents are uncertain about where the new program leaves them. Any potential academy teachers would have to be certified to teach gifted and talented students, criteria very few of the current Geyer Springs Staff meet.
The new academy will likely be set up for next year and the district says any teacher who has a job now will continue to have one, but details have been skimpy as to exactly where those teachers will end up. Officials said teachers will be reassigned to any school where there is a need. Students who are enrolled now at Geyer Springs and who may not meet the criteria of the new academy will be bussed to either Bale, Franklin or Stevens elementary.
After the presentation some parents like Jonathon Doyne worried that the new school designation may mean the separation of his kids. He has three children at Geyer Springs, one of whom is already in the gifted and talented program,
“They've always went to school together,” he said. “The two boys are twins but they're also a tight bond. So I feel like my daughter might get in, but my two sons might not.”
Doyne said he believed administrators should instead try and apply the new academy’s philosophy to every school in the area, to “spread it around the district.”
“What about the others that are having low test scores? What about Franklin? What about the other ones in the southwest community that are also having low test scores. Find a way to bring them up as well without having to shut down a school and just basically tell everybody they're out of luck,” he said.
Though questions about which students will be accepted into the new program may have only been partially answered at the meeting, district officials like zone 5 board member Jody Carreiro emphasized the benefit of the new academies drawing students equally from around the city.
“You know they mentioned we have 5,000 kids that meet the GT criteria...with that many kids it's clear that there's a real variety of kids,” he said
Still, questions remain as to how exactly the selection process will work and how the surrounding communities will be affected. School administrators plan to host additional informative events at Geyer Springs and Forrest Heights next month as the District Board begins to finalize plans in its upcoming meetings.
Correction: The article had previously stated that both Forrest Height and Geyer Springs are planned to become "High Ability" Academies. Forrest Heights is actually planned to become a "STEM" Academy (Science, Tecnology, Engineering and Math).