Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

TOP STORY>> PCSSD could spend $25M on improvements

IN SHORT: The distressed school district is seeking federal and state aid to build a new structure on the middle school campus and fund several academic programs.

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

The Pulaski County Special School District, which has been struggling financially and losing students for years, is seeking $25 million in state and federal grants for innovative programming and an ambitious construction program, including a new building for the middle school campus that will be segregated by sexes for the core curriculum.

Marvin V. Jeter III, assistant superintendent for learning services, told a general membership luncheon of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that the district is submitting several innovative ideas to both the U.S. and state education departments, which he hopes will result in up to $25 million in funding not only for the middle school but also for academies at the two high schools and for other programs.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if next year we’ll be seeking funds for the high school,” Jeter said. “There are a lot of funding sources available for innovative education.

“If we continue to do things the same way, we’re not going to get better,” Jeter told the chamber.

The district is applying for as many as 27 grants to help pay for new school buildings and programs, he said.

Many of the buildings in the district are aging and in disrepair and few improvements have been made in the Jacksonville area, which were among the reasons area residents had tried to form their own school district until a federal judge shot down that idea.
Jeter said the district wants to build a $5 million media center and cafeteria between the two gymnasiums on the middle school campus, which includes both the old junior high and middle schools. If the grant application is approved, the funds would come from the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary building fund.

There’s a $5 million cap for the proposed new building, but Jeter said an architectural firm has done a drawing of the building at no charge and could build the structure for under $5 million. The building would also include classrooms and drama and choral performance spaces.

Students in grades 6-8 will attend the middle school campus, which includes the current middle school, where girls will be going, and the old junior high, which becomes the middle school for boys. Ninth graders will go to one of the high schools.

The in-school detention would be moved from its current location at the old Siam restaurant to a wing of the junior high school.
The school district also qualifies for a $200,000 annual grant for three years to help pay for new academies at Jacksonville and North Pulaski High schools.

The district has proposed establishing an aviation and aeronautics academy at JHS in conjunction with Henderson State University and Central Flying Service. Pulaski Tech and UALR are also interested in the program. Graduates would get their exams for a commercial pilot license at the age of 18, Jeter said.

North Pulaski High School would not only have an ROTC academy in association with the air base but also promote a food and hospitality program through its award-winning Simply Delicious restaurant and the Arkansas Hospitality Association.
In addition, NPHS has a strong arts program, which could evolve into an entertainment academy.

Forty percent of high school students are pursuing their specialties, and the new academies would encourage the other 60 percent to specialize. “Next year, you’ll be seeing some exciting things happen,” Jeter told the chamber.

“Help us get the message out.”

Separating boys and girls in the middle school wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, he said, because courts have opposed the idea, but courts have recognized that there are advantages for separate schools during the middle school years.
The district must make changes because of a rising dropout rate between middle school and high school, as well as because of disciplinary problems and falling achievement scores.

“We must have an educated citizenry to preserve democracy,” Jeter said. “It’s very important that we keep expectations high,” he added. “There is no reason to expect less from our students.”

In an after-lunch meeting with the chamber board of directors, Jeter apparently eased concerns of those who wanted to make sure the new plans would continue with the announced retirement of School Supt. Donald Henderson.

The district has started a search to replace Henderson, the third superintendent in five years.

Jeter told the chamber board there would be only one assistant principal at each school, but that central office personnel would be available as needed.

“He solidified a lot of things,” said Bishop James Bolden III, Jacksonville’s representative on the school board, after the meeting.
He said some chamber members volunteered to help if they could.

Leader reporter John Hofheimer contributed to this report.