The North Little Rock School Board faced a standing-room-only group of parents, teachers and community members who expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the school system at a meeting last week.
They talked about teacher shortages, efforts to overhaul the academic program of an elementary school, district-wide problems with fighting among students and the state licensure of an administrator.
"As you know, we have lost over 100 teachers since January 1, which is a major problem," said Amy Friedman, a substitute teacher in the district. "We have also lost hundreds of students because of this. Hundreds. That means you're losing thousands and thousands of dollars. ... It terrifies me to think that this school district is [heading] towards failure."
The comments come at a time when the North Little Rock School District is preparing for the start of a new school year and struggling to find enough fully licensed, qualified teachers. New teacher orientation sessions are scheduled for Aug. 4 and Aug. 7, according to the district calendar. Teachers report to work Aug. 8-11. The first day of school is Aug. 14.
From 2020 to 2021, the district had 131 licensed retirements and resignations; in the 2021 through 2022 school year, 143 licensed retirements and resignations took place and last year, the district had 142 licensed resignations and retirements.
The district has approximately 1,260 employees, roughly 710 of whom are certified -- meaning they fill a school or educational position requiring the issuance of a certificate or license.
Friedman noted that the board has heard many complaints about this, but she believes teachers still do not feel seen or heard.
"They feel intimidated, micromanaged and scared to speak up and tell you the board, Dr. Pilewski and the administration their wants, needs and suggestions," she said.
Friedman offered to be a volunteer liaison between the board and district teachers, so those with concerns can come forward without fear of retaliation.
She also suggested filling the 34 open positions the district currently has with administrators until licensed teachers can be hired later in the year.
"There are enough administrators to fill almost every single open position. [This] would also give the administrators better insight into the challenges that our teachers face on a daily basis. This could solve our crisis tonight."
Of the 34 openings, the seventh and eighth grade campus has the most with 13, Human Resources Executive Director Jacob Smith said in a presentation to the board.
Members from the E4 community advisory board for Seventh Street Elementary -- which is undergoing a staffing and curriculum overhaul -- also spoke about their concerns with the academic themes under consideration for the school's curriculum in the coming year.
"Is it in the best interest of the young people from this community?" Kimbla Newsom asked. "Is it going to meet the needs? Are we going to be able to get grades up to where they need to be with some of the things that are being considered for Seventh Street Elementary School?"
Newsom added that the advisory board does not feel that they are truly a part of the decision-making process.
"We do feel that the school is not being very transparent in what it is doing," she said. "And we really want to make sure that these young people start improving on their outcomes and get what they need at the school."
John McClellan, another member of the advisory board, said they had a short-notice meeting with the principal last Wednesday in which there was "low turnout," and administration "was not present."
When the curriculum for the school was announced, "jaws dropped," he added, because they were not expecting that to take place.
"I'm just concerned, and I wish that someone was there to introduce our new principal to us to show support for her," McClellan said. "I just want the best for these kids, so we're here, and Seventh Street's here. We're not going nowhere. We're here to support the kids. We need your help."
Jimmie Cavin, a concerned resident, drew attention to whether the Executive Director of Elementary School Performance Tracy Lightfoot is licensed for her position.
"To perform her current job duties, she would need a district administrator license, ... which is a stated requirement in her job description," he said. "What is also very disturbing is that Miss Lightfoot began her career with the district in her current capacity July 1, 2022. She had no license at all and did not obtain one until 11 months later on May 22 of this year."
Cavin discovered this through public records.
"You have not only put someone in charge of elementary schools who is not qualified, you've also put Ms. Lightfoot in a supervisory and elevated position over elementary administrators when she's not qualified to do that," he added. "As a patron in the North Little Rock School District, I would like you to explain why you failed to put someone qualified in such a crucial role, while 75% of the students at the North Little Rock School District cannot read at grade level."
Once the issue was discovered, the district was provided a waiver from the Arkansas Department of Education for Lightfoot to take the required courses for proper licensure.
"Where's the accountability for your unethical, unlawful actions?" Cavin asked. "Where's Ms. Lightfoot's accountability? Where's your HR Director Jacob Smith's accountability?"
The board and Pilewski did not respond to the questions during the meeting.
Tiffany Davenport, a parent of two students in the district, said the biggest concern is the loss of teachers over the last three years.
Another issue is the lack of ability principals have to discipline children, she said.
Class sizes were also not in ratio for teachers to manage classrooms, and the administration was unwilling to provide teacher aids in her children's classes, Davenport explained.
"Nobody wants to share their opinion," she said. "... Fear of retaliation, both against parents and against the teachers, that's a really big concern. If your teachers and your parents don't feel like they can make a comment, that's a bad thing. People didn't even want to get up and speak today because of fear of retaliation. That is a toxic work environment to a tee."
Last year, teacher positions at the seventh and eighth grade campus were not filled by a permanent educator, so students received "exemption grades" for classes like English and Math.
"Meaning they just passed on. They didn't actually give them an "A" to "F" score, and it's in a core, foundational class that they needed," Davenport said. "And someone today mentioned 75% of the children in the North Little Rock School District can't read, and then we're exempting them from seventh-grade English? And expecting them to be prepared for eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade English to be prepared for college?"
She remembered that her children's principal at Crestwood was physically assaulted by a student and then reprimanded for disciplining them with suspension.
The district board announced that new police officers have been hired to guard the entrances of every school in North Little Rock.
"The security guard is visible every day, but then you have disciplinary issues going on inside the school that the principals aren't able to deal with," Davenport said. "So our students are still unsafe because they're not dealing with the actual issue right inside the school."
Smith reminded the community that the district's policy on fighting has been updated, and the administration is "hyperaware" of the concerns at certain campuses in regards to discipline and is "addressing those daily."
Teri Westbrook, a parent in the district, said she is disappointed in board member Natalie Wankum for calling concerned community members "terrorists" in a Facebook group called "Friends of Public Education Network NLRSD."
Wankum's message read in part: "They are not looking for change, they just complain and cause a lot of division within the community. Not once have they requested to meet with the NLRSD superintendent. Not once have they brought forth solutions."
Members of the group had never heard of such a group and expressed confusion in response to Wankum's post.
"I would like for her to look us all in the eye and actually tell us why she's saying the things that she's saying," Westbrook said. "Instead of just making -- to me [those are] threats, and it's disrespectful, and especially as a board member, she should behave better than that. ... She had every opportunity to be positive and make amends, and she doesn't. It doesn't appear that she has any remorse or any intention to do that. So she's just trying to point the finger at all parents. ... We [have] legitimate concerns, and we do show up."
Wankum addressed the audience after Smith's presentation, saying she "prays" that they listened and paid attention.
"I really hope that you parents help us make a difference in our school district," she said.
Valerie McLean, a board member, asked Smith if exit interviews are being conducted to gauge why teachers are leaving.
Smith said he is conducting interviews by himself as needed but hopes to extend duties as the HR department grows and requires an exit interview for future resignations.
CORRECTION: Amy Friedman's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.