Crisis in Little Rock: 5,000 Students South of Arkansas River Eligible for Opportunity School Choice Transfer

Little Rock is in crisis.

By July 30th of this year, nearly 5,000 public secondary students south of the Arkansas River have a right, by Opportunity School Choice law and rule, to transfer to the non-Academic Distress school of their choosing for the 2016-17 school year.

The crisis? There is zero non-Academic Distress capacity in the Little Rock School District, as Central and Parkview High Schools are at 170% and 103% capacity, respectively.

It’s worse among the middle schools, as non-Academic Distress Forest Heights STEM Grades 6-8 are at 198% capacity, Pulaski Heights is 150%, Dunbar is 127%, Mann is 121%, and Mabelvale is 106%. Even Academic Distress Cloverdale and Henderson are at 103 and 102% capacity, respectively.

With over 8,000 on their combined wait lists, eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy are full as well.

The only capacity south of the river is at Pulaski County Special School District Fuller Middle School and Robinson High and Middle Schools. However, because Superintendent Dr. Jerry Guess has been allowed to unilaterally exempt from school choice, Robinson is only available to Opportunity School Choice transfers from Mills.

The only new seats scheduled to open in the Little Rock School District for 2016 are 150-200 for sixth grade in the Leisure Arts-converted West Little Rock Middle School. But with a combined 253 fifth graders at feeder Roberts, Fulbright and Terry Elementary Schools, it is doubtful any of those seats will be available.

That leaves only other school districts such as North Little Rock, Benton or Bryant as Opportunity School Choice options, but only if they have capacity.

Imagine the optics: the Little Rock School District’s paying another school district up to $400 per student to transport resident students out of their neighborhoods, district and city, and into another.

Even worse, picture those with both a desire and legal right to transfer who are denied, because there is simply no room. Why? Because two State-run school districts have not met demand when and where it exists.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Late in the evening of Thursday, March 31st, the State Board of Education wisely affirmed plans to expand two public schools. Between them, new non-Academic Distress seats will open in 2016 at 12200 Westhaven Drive, in 2017 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and in 2018 on Shall Avenue in Little Rock’s East Village.

Now that the State Board has affirmed these approved expansions, we implore its members to create a sense of urgency in the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts to prioritize individual student-centered academic performance and growth, and match or exceed the charters’ expansions over the next three years, through collaborative, consolidated, converted and constructed facilities, complemented by inter- and intra-district school choice.

In the ten years between censuses, Cabot grew 54%, Benton 36%, Conway and Bryant 35%. By contrast, Little Rock only grew 6% and North Little Rock 3%, while Jacksonville declined 7%.

Yes, Little Rock, indeed Pulaski County, is in crisis. But the Board’s actions on Thursday, while only a start, must be an empowering catalyst to grow public traditional and charter school seats to finally meet decades of pent up demand.

As always, may the immediate best interests of students, families, the community, region and state guide decisions to ensure excellent education options for all students, no matter their culture, economic status or ZIP Code.

A start would be demanding School Choice in PCSSD. To do that… Opportunity School Choice Rules, Application (Deadline July 30, 2016)

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