State panel wants review of academic-distress rules for alternative schools

LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education on Thursday approved academic-distress status for 26 Arkansas schools but chose to postpone a decision on six alternative schools, saying accountability standards for such schools need a review.

Under the state Department of Education’s new academic-distress rules, a school qualifies for the classification if 49.5 percent or less of its students scored at proficient or advanced levels on standardized math and literacy tests for the most recent three-year period. The status allows the state board to impose a variety of sanctions, but the board did not choose to impose any sanctions Thursday.

Department officials told the board that 32 schools had qualified for the status. In Southeast Arkansas, the list included:

- Dollarway High School — 28 percent proficient

- Fordyce High School — 44 percent proficient

- Pine Bluff Belair Middle School — 48 percent proficient

- Pine Bluff Oak Park Elementary School — 46 percent proficient

- Pine Bluff High School — 37 percent proficient

- Watson Chapel High School — 47 percent proficient

Also among the statewide list were six alternative schools: One each in Beebe, Cabot, Fort Smith and Hot Springs, and two in Little Rock.

Superintendents of the alternative schools’ districts appealed the classification. The first to address the board was Fort Smith Superintendent Benny Gooden, who gave a 25-minute speech in defense of Belle Point Alternative Center in Fort Smith.

Gooden said Belle Point is “a place of last resort” for high school students who are not succeeding in a traditional learning environment. Behavioral issues, troubles with the law, substance-abuse problems, pregnancy, poverty and homelessness are common among the students the center serves, he said.

The goal is to return each student to a traditional school if he or she begins achieving, so by its very nature Belle Point cannot maintain the level of academic success expected of traditional schools, Gooden said.

“The assumptions and rubric you’re using may be appropriate for some schools, but it’s not appropriate for our school,” he said.

Several board members said they agreed that alternative schools should be evaluated differently, as did newly appointed state Education Commissioner Tony Wood.

“I think success for these kids has a different definition,” Wood said.

The board voted unanimously to table action on the alternative schools, pending a review and possible revamping of the rules on academic distress as they pertain to alternative learning environments.

Also Thursday, the board ordered that the Horatio School District be monitored for two years and that a full accreditation report on the Lee County School District be presented at the board’s October meeting. Both districts have been on probation for violating accreditation standards for two consecutive years.

Board members said they were particularly concerned about the Lee County district, which also is in fiscal and academic distress. The board ordered a state takeover of the district in April.

“We are looking at strike three,” said board member Vicki Saviers.

Lee County Superintendent Willie Murdock said the district faces many challenges, including difficulty in attracting teachers to the impoverished Delta region, declining enrollment and racial segregation.

She told reporters later that blacks make up about 60 percent of the population in Lee County but about 95 percent of the public school district’s student population. She said the district is projected to have about 880 students this fall.

“We have a private school in Marianna, we have KIPP (charter schools) that we are challenged with now, we have our public schools that are on the (surrounding areas), so because of school choice we’ve had a lot of kids that go outside of the district,” she said.

The board also voted Thursday to grant a request from the Mulberry-Pleasant View Bi-County School Board in Franklin and Crawford counties to reduce the size of its school board from seven members to five.

Superintendent Dana Higdon told the board the district has had difficulty keeping all seven positions filled.