Construction begins on first high school built in Little Rock School District in 51 years

Posted: October 3, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

An artist’s rendering shows the 400,000-plus-square-foot high school campus under construction in southwest Little Rock.

Construction is underway on what will be the largest school in the Little Rock School District and the first high school built in the district since work began on Parkview High School in 1966.

A dozen pieces of earth-moving equipment have begun clearing the more than 55 acres of undeveloped land between Mabelvale Pike and Mann Road for the 400,000-plus-square-foot southwest Little Rock high school campus.

The tract, which is south of the Home Depot at 11 Mabelvale Plaza Drive, is scheduled to open in August 2020 to as many as 2,250 students in ninth through 12th grades. The school will replace both McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools in the Little Rock district.

"This is about as exciting as it gets," Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said at a ceremony Monday at the site to mark the commencement of work and to announce the school's colors -- green and purple -- and the mascot, a gryphon with the head of an eagle and body of a lion.

"We are a district on the rise," Poore said as he highlighted some of the district's recent academic accomplishments, including the highest average ACT college entrance exam score for 2016 among the four school districts in Pulaski County.

The latest cost estimate for the new school is $101 million, which includes a $5 million contingency fund, district leaders have said in recent days. That's up from a $90 million figure used over the summer. The district is using a portion of the proceeds from a $93 million second-lien bond issue, as well as district savings and the final state desegregation-aid payment to the district this year of $37.3 million.

[EMAIL UPDATES: Get free breaking news alerts, daily newsletters with top headlines delivered to your inbox]

Poore attributed the increase to higher-than-expected costs for site preparation and more precise figures as the school's design and construction move forward.

The construction of the new school -- which has not yet been officially named -- comes at a time of huge amounts of school construction in Pulaski County.

The North Little Rock School District completed the expansion of North Little Rock High School last school year, the largest piece in a systemwide consolidation and rebuilding of schools in that district.

The Pulaski County Special School District is in the midst of building new Robinson Middle and Mills High schools and will soon start on expanding Sylvan Hills High.

EStem Charter Schools just opened a new high school on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is working on new elementary and junior high school buildings east of Interstate 30 in Little Rock.

Academics Plus charter school system opened its newly constructed Maumelle Charter High School just a few weeks ago.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who acts as the school board for the state-controlled Little Rock district, was among the dozens of dignitaries, school district employees and students from four of the district's existing schools who attended the white-tent event for the new southwest Little Rock school Monday.

"The strength of our state education system is well represented by the strength of the public school system in our capital city," Key said. "What we are doing here today is adding to that strength.

"When teachers have the facilities and the equipment to deliver a top-notch education to students who are hungry to learn, you are going to see great things happen in this school and in this district," Key said.

Sarah Bennings, an architect for Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, described for the crowd the elements of the campus, which will include a three-story, 310,000-square-foot academic building that will be designed to encourage student collaboration, nontraditional teaching methods and use of technology.

The school's auditorium will seat 1,200. Dance studios, band space and a black-box theater are components of the arts space, Bennings said.

"On the athletic side, the basketball arena will seat 2,250 and, combined with the auxiliary gym, will be large enough to now host tournaments," she said. "We'll have an awesome football/soccer stadium that seats 4,000. The school will also have baseball, softball, tennis, track -- and we'll even have facilities for wrestling. We believe this school will rival any school in the state of Arkansas."

Dexter Doyne, president of Doyne Construction Co., said his company is joining with Nabholz Construction Co. and Carson Construction Co. to make up the construction management team to build a school that "will be the finest, state-of the-art facility in the entire state."

Amari Doss of J.A. Fair and Amiya Mardis of McClellan High were among Monday's speakers, who included Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and businessman Gary Smith representing the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"Two schools that are constantly being put down every day will change for the better," Mardis said about the coming together of McClellan and Fair for the new school. "We will have new students, faculty and a chance to start over. Southwest high school will guarantee a new start to rise above our reputation. There are too many intelligent students being defined as something they are not, just because of the schools we attend."

Mardis said she is excited about the expanded academics and extracurricular activities that will be available, and she predicted that academic achievement will improve. Both McClellan and Fair were among the six schools labeled in 2014 as being in academic distress, resulting in the state takeover of the district. The two were relieved of the label last year.

"Today is the day we change our mindsets. We are not John L. McClellan any more nor are we are J.A. Fair, but we are now southwest high ... with new attitudes and a new focus," Mardis said.

McClellan, which opened in 1965, and Fair, which opened in 1982, were both Pulaski County Special School District schools acquired by the Little Rock district in 1987 because of an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order in the long-running school desegregation lawsuit. The district's other high schools, Central and Hall, opened in 1927 and 1957, respectively.

Marvin Burton, the Little Rock district's deputy superintendent who has worked at both McClellan and Fair, highlighted features of the new school, including "collaboration stairs" where students can work together, oversized classrooms to allow for flexible grouping of students, state-of the-art science classrooms and laboratories, a cafeteria with five food-serving lines, and studio apartmentlike classroom space for special needs students to better learn life skills.

Burton and Poore said school planners drew heavily from the ideas of students, teachers and community members for the school's design.

"It is truly a school designed for students by students," Burton said. "We took a lot of what the kids had to say to heart."

The idea for a new high school dates back to former Superintendent Morris Holmes, who left the district in 2013, and to the elected school boards that purchased the property and authorized the planning before the state takeover of the district in January 2015.

Several of those school board members and former Superintendent Baker Kurrus attended the Monday ceremony.

That ceremony included them as well as students and members of the Little Rock district's Community Advisory Board, Little Rock Board of Directors, and state Board of Education, all of whom used 100 gold-colored shovels to break ground at the site.

The ground they turned over with those shovels sparkled with green glitter.

Little Rock students, school district officials and community leaders were among the 100 people who helped break ground at a ceremony Monday for a new...

Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore talks with Mabelvale Middle School student Dylan Hewing, 12, on Monday after the groundbreaking ...

A map showing the location of Southwest Little Rock high school

A Section on 10/03/2017