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State's schools all accredited, board advised

Districts’ remote-teaching plans also given approval by Cynthia Howell | June 11, 2021 at 7:05 a.m.
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All 262 Arkansas public school systems and 1,050 schools are accredited by the state with none on probation and none even accredited-with-citations for the 2020-21 school year that has just ended.

The state Board of Education approved the annual school accreditation status report at a meeting in which it also approved another round of more than a dozen school district plans for offering remote, virtual instruction in the coming year.

The annual accreditation status report is an indication that schools and districts met state-set standards for operating or had obtained a state waiver of a standard for a period of time.

Act 1240 of 2015 as amended in subsequent years allows school districts and charter schools to obtain waivers of state laws and rules -- including standards for operating -- so the accreditation status of districts and schools is not cited for employing teachers who work out of their area of certification. Nor are schools and districts that have waivers placed on probation for failing to comply with requirements such as producing an annual report to the public, teaching a particular high school course or limiting students per classroom to state maximums.

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"This is a really big accomplishment," Education Secretary Johnny Key said about Thursday's clear accreditation report. He attributed it to the state's technologically enhanced system of tracking school data.

That leads to quicker identification of violations that can be corrected during the course of the school year, he said.

"It's not waiting until the end of the year to see what turns red and everybody is scrambling to get it fixed or do overrides or to rush in here to get waivers," Key said.

THE WAIVERS

The state board on Thursday did approve waivers for the Pulaski County Special, Newport and Atkins school districts -- resulting in a recommended status of accredited for those districts just before the board's vote on the overall status report.

Key said those waivers were primarily the result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pulaski County Special and Newport districts asked for and received waivers for one year of the requirement for school board training. In Newport, a board member narrowly missed the minimum number of required training hours after the board member was dropped from a training session on the Zoom online meeting platform.

The Atkins waiver was for a teacher who was licensed to teach general science but was assigned to a high school science course for which the teacher was not licensed. The job assignment was made by a superintendent who died early in the school year from covid-19 and was replaced by an employee who was not an experienced superintendent and who had a number of teaching and administrative duties until a new superintendent was put in place in mid-April.

Education Board member Ouida Newton of Leola praised the state leaders and school system operators for the accreditation report and their hard work leading up to it.

"This is fantastic in any year," Newton said, "but to do it this year under the circumstances we had this past year -- keeping school going and making sure students were getting what they needed and just being able to keep that high bar set and not lowering standards during this past year -- it's amazing.

"You did it. Congratulations. It's a big deal," Newton said.

REMOTE LEARNING

Also Thursday, the Education Board approved almost two dozen plans by school districts and conversion charter schools for offering online, remote instruction in the coming school year.

Those included the plans submitted by the South Conway County, Riverside, Kirby, East End, White Hall, Sheridan, Stuttgart, Centerpoint, Bismarck, Arkadelphia, Alma, Bald Knob, Deer/Mount Judea, El Dorado, Brookland and Elkins school districts.

The board also approved plans submitted by four district-operated conversion charter schools that were previously given approval by the state's Charter Authorizing Panel. Those are Siloam Springs High, Lincoln High, Harrison High and Mountain Home High School Career Academies.

The digital learning plans vary by district in terms of the grades that will be permitted to be online and whether teachers will be assigned to virtual instruction only or will have in-person and online students at the same time or at different times of the day.

In some cases local teacher-created lessons will be used with the online students and in other cases the districts will rely on outside organizations such as Virtual Arkansas and Pearson, a corporate education provider, to deliver material and/or instruction.

In some cases the state's education service cooperatives are providing the online instructional programs for their member school districts.

The Education Board late last month approved virtual instruction plans from the first 20 of 152 school systems that have submitted proposals and asked for waivers of some state laws and rules to carry them out.

The dozens of digital academy proposals that have been submitted to the state come after many Arkansas school systems scrambled in the just-ended 2020-21 school year to offer students an online instructional option as a way to combat the spread of the contagious and potentially fatal coronavirus.

States and school districts nationwide are now grappling with whether to continue with online learning options for the coming 2021-22 school year.

In January, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Education Board invited school districts to submit virtual instruction plans for the coming school year.

With that invitation came the offer of waivers of state rules and laws that cap maximum class sizes to no more than 30 students, limit teacher workloads to no more than 150 students, require 120 clock hours of instruction per course and six-hour instructional days, set student attendance requirements, and require a minimum number of recess minutes.

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