Law, vote to relabel districts as Level 5
Goal is a refocus of accountability
The state-controlled Little Rock and Dollarway school systems will be reclassified effective Aug. 1 as districts “in need of Level 5 - Intensive support” because of a 2017 state law and a vote of the Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday.
Current efforts to monitor and help the school districts could be expanded, altered or ended as the result of transitional plans that will be developed over the coming weeks by the state Department of Education and school district staffs.
The content of the transitional plans will rely in part on the 2017 Aspire test results that were released earlier this month, state Education Commissioner Johnny Key said.
The new Level 5 label comes as the state moves from a school accountability system in which some schools and districts were classified as being in “academic distress” for chronically low student test scores to a new accountability system outlined in Act 930.
The Little Rock and Dollarway school districts were taken over by the state, their elected school boards dismissed and their superintendents appointed by Key.
In Little Rock’s case, the January 2015 takeover was because the state Education Department labeled six of the district’s 48 schools as being academically distressed. The number of Little Rock academically distressed schools has since been reduced to three.
The state Education Board voted in December 2015 to take over the Dollarway district in Jefferson County because its high school was in academic distress and because of conflicts between the district’s School Board and district administration.
The new law directs the state Department of Education to provide all school districts with support — the level of which could be general, collaborative, coordinated, directed or intensive — depending on criteria to be established in rules that will be adopted by the Education Board.
To ensure a smooth transition to the new accountability system, Act 930 requires the state to continue to provide support and intervention strategies to the schools that are in academic distress or are “priority” schools because of low achievement or “focus” schools because of large achievement gaps between subgroups of students.
Additionally, the new law specifically requires school districts designated as being in academic distress and under state authority — which currently are the Little Rock and Dollarway districts — to be reclassified by the Education Board as needing Level 5 - Intensive support, on the effective date of the new law, which is Aug. 1.
The districts operating under state authority are to remain under state authority and be provided with intensive support, the law directs, until they meet the requisite exit criteria.
Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said later Thursday that the new classification won’t cause any abrupt changes in operations. He called it “an almost status quo move of kind of keeping things the same.”
“I actually don’t see a dramatic difference immediately, anyway,” Poore said. “It kind of puts us back in the same place we were. Instead of distressed, you’re at a Level 5. We have to get our three schools out of that box, so to speak on our end. That is what we can do to get local control back. I think it is kind of the same.
“The rest of the rules that come in August will be more interesting, to see how they affect the Little Rock district,” he added.
Without discussion Thursday, the Arkansas Education Board unanimously adopted the Level 5 - Intensive support classifications for Little Rock and Dollarway districts.
The Education Department staff had provided the board with a written statement elaborating on the assistance that the agency will provide to the Little Rock and Dollarway districts, as well as to individual schools that are labeled as being in “academic distress,” “priority” or “focus” schools.
That statement commits the Education Department to providing data analyses and strategic planning in the areas of academics, communications/stakeholder engagement, facilities, fiscal operations, human capital management and student support services.
There also will be mentoring provided by the state to staffs at schools and at the district level, according to the statement. Academic content specialists in the Education Department and the education service cooperatives will be available to support the schools and districts.
“In addition, the department will conduct a systems analysis that will be used, in collaboration with the public school district, to develop a transitional support plan for public school districts that have public schools classified in academic distress, priority or focus status,” the statement concluded.
Key said in an interview that the Education Board’s vote was required by Act 930.
“Things will stay the same,” he said about the immediate operations of the Little Rock and Dollarway districts. He said the Education Board’s vote provides for “a seamless transition” between the existing and the new accountability systems for the two districts.
“The interventions that are established will stay in place,” he said. “The work we are already doing with them on academic distress, priority and focus schools will all stay in place. In Little Rock, the Community Advisory Board will stay in place,” he added. “Those are all interventions that we will carry forward.”
The Little Rock advisory board meets monthly to hear and respond to reports on district operations and provide advice to the commissioner on district matters — including employee and student disciplinary actions.
In the long term, state and district officials will develop transition plans that could change some aspects of efforts to help the districts regain local control.