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The Arkansas Board of Education has added low academic achievement, overstaffing and a litany of other problems to its reasons for assuming control of the Pine Bluff School District.

The Education Board voted unanimously Thursday to classify the 3,189-student district as Level 5 -- Intensive Support, a category indicating the highest priority of need in the state's school accountability system.

As a result of the Level 5 classification, Arkansas Department of Education staff members -- headed by Mike Hernandez, state superintendent for the Office of Coordinated Support and Service -- will audit all aspects of the district's operations to determine how the state agency can best help the district in the district's support of its schools.

Early findings in those audits show that academic achievement has declined in the district between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, hundreds of students have left the district and dozens of employees were working without contracts on file.

The Level 5 vote and a subsequent vote confirming state authority over the system on the basis of the Level 5 classification comes on top of the Education Board's Sept. 13 decision to take control of the district for fiscal distress -- spending practices that threatened to deplete or nearly deplete all of the district's revenue before the end of this school year.

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The Education Board at the September meeting removed the locally elected Pine Bluff School Board and acting superintendent. Jeremy Owoh was subsequently named superintendent. He operates under the direction of Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

Hernandez reported Thursday that five of the Pine Bluff district's six schools recently received F ratings from the state for the 2017-18 school year and the sixth school received a D.

The school letter grades are based on a numerical "ESSA School Index" score, which takes into account student scores on last spring's ACT Aspire tests and any gains students showed on the tests since 2017. Also in the calculation of the index score are school quality indicators such as student attendance, graduation rates and reading proficiency.

The overall ESSA index scores at five of the six Pine Bluff schools declined, as did the achievement scores and scores for school quality and student success. The academic growth score improved at three schools.

"The Pine Bluff School District currently has 5 out of 6 schools that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of all Title I schools by grade span," Hernandez told the Education Board.

He also noted that the reading proficiency levels -- indicators of school quality and student success in the ESSA index calculation -- had dropped for each of the five schools that had two years of scores available.

Those grade-level reading scores ranged from 12.45 at the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Elementary School to 16.09 at W.T. Cheney Elementary School. Pine Bluff High School had a grade-level reading score of 14.23, down from 16.43 the year before.

In contrast, Don Roberts Elementary School in the Little Rock School District, a state-rated A school, had a grade-level reading score of 69.8. Little Rock Central High, a C school, had a grade-level reading score of 40.2.

In regard to staffing, Hernandez said the initial review showed that about 79 staff members on district staffing lists had no contract with the district on file. On the other hand, there were about 50 contracts on file that did not tie to staff members on school staffing lists. Both situations have been corrected, he said.

He also noted that the district had 10 lawsuits pending against it at the time of the takeover and seven staff grievance cases.

Most of the issues in dispute deal with improper procedures being followed in regard to job assignments and adhering to salary schedules, he said, also noting that significant numbers of staff members had been moved to jobs without training, support or supervision.

Hernandez called the district "vastly overstaffed for the number of students enrolled." The district's enrollment of 3,189 on Oct. 1 this year is down from 3,648 in October of 2017 and 3,912 in 2016.

The drop in student enrollment over time has led not only to overstaffing but also to inefficient use of school buildings. At the elementary school level, for example, Hernandez said that enrollment supports the use of 57 classrooms, but there are 160 kindergarten-through-fifth-grade classrooms in use in the district.

He said there are many classes in the district with three, six or nine students in them, far below the 25-student cap that is the state standard for most classes.

Also an issue is the number of administrators in the district and the size of the administration building: six stories with a basement. Only two stories and the basement are being used at this time, resulting in an effort by Hernandez and Owoh to develop some options for the use of the downtown site.

The Pine Bluff district has the right under the state accountability law to appeal the Level 5 classification but is not choosing to do so, Owoh said.

Owoh described the students in the district as lacking motivation and interest in academics.

"Juniors and seniors don't feel they are being prepared and don't see the point of school," he told the Education Board.

And the parents of elementary schoolchildren don't see the need to get their children to school on time, he said.

Education Board member Ouida Newton of Poyen said the report made her want to cry, and she thanked the men for their work..

Later, Owoh and Hernandez acknowledged the despair in their reports to the board but said "all is not doom and gloom."

Owoh said the district does have some outstanding educators and students, many of whom have not been recognized as such.

Hernandez said it is the intent to take every element of the district's operations into account -- not just the budget -- to develop a comprehensive approach to resolving the issues.

Board member Diane Zook questioned whether Hernandez and Owoh had adequate flexibility to "right size the number of principals and central office staff," and suggested that additional waivers of state law be approved to allow for that.

"I was trying to communicate that they should use everything at their disposal to ensure students have good quality instruction," she said, telling Hernandez that he is "on the ground" working in Pine Bluff and she wants him to make the decisions he needs to make without waiting for the next state Education Board meeting to approve them. She said she didn't want his hands tied in any way.

Key said any further action regarding waivers would be premature. He noted that the district can't reduce staffing or even change work assignments that are in existing 2018-19 employment contracts.

Photo by handout
Dr. Jeremy Owoh
Photo by handout
Mike Hernandez
Photo by Jeff Mitchell
Diane Zook
Photo by Jeff Mitchell
Johnny Key is shown in this file photo.

A Section on 11/09/2018

Print Headline: State lists Pine Bluff School District as in intensive need

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