Leader Blues

Friday, September 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Judge upbeat on district despite report

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

High percentages of black students being suspended from school in the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD) earned the district poor marks in a report released this week by the federal Office of Desegregation Monitoring (ODM).

It is uncertain how much the report will affect efforts to establish a stand-alone school district for Jacksonville and north Pulaski County.

The opinion of Judge Andree Roaf, director of ODM, is that the report may not have the negative impact some fear.

“I don’t think it would have any bearing on it,” Roaf told The Leader. “Every-one seems to agree that this case needs to be resolved. It would be good for the district and good for the state.”

The district was found to be in compliance in several areas with its court-ordered desegregation plan, the purpose of which is to assure that black children are receiving a fair and equitable education in the PCSSD.

Generally good marks were given for racial balance in student assignments, facilities planning and maintenance, special education, recruitment of black administrative staff and teachers, and reducing the black-white gap in academic achievement.

Deficiencies were found for racial balance in student assignments to inter-district schools, infusing multi-cultural learning into the curriculum, multi-cultural and diversity training for teachers, and the numbers of black students participating in honors, gifted and talented, and advanced placement programs.

But discipline was the area that most concerned the monitors, who contend that other districts – and some schools within the PCSSD – have demonstrated that the high rate of black students, males especially, being kicked out of the classroom at many PCSSD schools is avoidable, that there are effective ways to maintain order and mete out consequences for bad behavior without denying students instruction.

The report states:

“While the district has devoted time and effort to monitoring discipline in the schools, the district has not developed a comprehensive battle plan for addressing discipline problems. Instead, the PCSSD has initiated several unrelated programs, one of which has already been dismantled, that have yet to abate the growing numbers of black boys who are suspended from school, out on the streets, not learning, and who are bound to fail or never return to the school.”

Over the past three years, the suspension rate for middle and high school black boys in the PCSSD has worsened: 44 percent (2005-06), 46 percent (2006-07), and 48 percent (2007-08). For black girls, the rates have also climbed: 29 percent (2005-06), 35 percent (2006-07), and 33 percent (2007-08).

The percentage of white students suspended has also risen: 26 percent (2005-06), 29 percent (2006-07), and 30 percent (2007-08).

“Some schools (in other districts) have very minimal rates, so somebody is doing something right,” Roaf said. “But (the PCSSD) doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

Margie Powell, an ODM monitor, formerly was the at-risk youth coordinator for the state Department of Education. Her job was helping school districts statewide develop strategies to deal with discipline problems. She contends there are effective alternatives to suspension.

“They need to look at schools and districts that are working, right here in the state,” Powell said. “In the North Little Rock district – there are so many things in place that keep students in school.”

When asked what is an acceptable rate, Powell said, “It depends. They need to set a goal, say a 5 percent reduction each year, and be specific about what it takes to get there, and say, ‘Let’s see how low we can go.’”

Brenda Bowles, the assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services for PCSSD, defended the district’s desegregation efforts and suspension rates.

“The students break the rules of conduct and there are consequences,” Bowles said. “We don’t make those choices, the students do.”

Bowles said that the district has made efforts to help at-risk students, as with the expanded Pulaski Learning Academy.

Schools now have in-school suspension for students committing less serious offenses. But, at some schools, the capacity is limited to 30 students.

Bowles said that the district is making an effort to look at each school’s discipline problems and help them improve. She said a school-by-school approach is better than imposing the same strategy for the entire district.

“I think with steady effort we are building something,” Bowles said. “We are going to continue, sit down and look at the report, and work on those things.”

The report concluded that the PCSSD had adhered to its plan for maintenance of schools, planning for construction of new facilities, and school closures. The district was faulted, however, for failure to notify the Joshua Intervenors, an advocacy group for black students in local public schools, or the court when portable classrooms were to be installed. The relevance to racial balance is that portables increase school capacity, which can threaten racial balance, more so at some schools than others.

The report concluded that the PCSSD special education programs continue to be in compliance with the district desegregation plan.

The report concluded that the PCSSD was meeting goals for recruitment and retention of black administrative staff in proportion to black certified staff, as well as increasing the number of black teachers. However, the report concluded that the district was not providing incentives for certification of black teachers in areas of need.

The report concluded that the district had not fully complied with the plan’s mandate for multicultural instruction on all levels. Infusion into the curriculum has been more successful on the elementary level. Teachers have not received requested in-service in multicultural instruction and diversity training. The ODM monitors argue that these kinds of training would help with the serious discipline issues in the district.

The report commended the district for its “high quality AP and GT programs” and for “vigorously recruit(ing) black students to these programs.” However, slightly under a third of the schools met the06), 29 percent (2006-07), and 30 percent (2007-08).
“Some schools (in other districts) have very minimal rates, so somebody is doing something right,” Roaf said. “But (the PCSSD) doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

Margie Powell, an ODM monitor, formerly was the at-risk youth coordinator for the state Department of Education. Her job was helping school districts statewide develop strategies to deal with discipline problems. She contends there are effective alternatives to suspension.

“They need to look at schools and districts that are working, right here in the state,” Powell said. “In the North Little Rock district there are so many things in place that keep students in school.”

When asked what is an acceptable rate, Powell said, “It depends. They need to set a goal, say a 5 percent reduction each year, and be specific about what it takes to get there, and say, ‘Let’s see how low we can go.’”

Brenda Bowles, the assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services for PCSSD, defended the district’s desegregation efforts and suspension rates.

“The students break the rules of conduct and there are consequences,” Bowles said. “We don’t make those choices, the students do.”

Bowles said that the district has made efforts to help at-risk students, as with the expanded Pulaski Learning Academy.
Schools now have in-school suspension for students committing less serious offenses. But, at some schools, the capacity is limited to 30 students.

Bowles said that the district is making an effort to look at each school’s discipline problems and help them improve. She said a school-by-school approach is better than imposing the same strategy for the entire district.

“I think with steady effort we are building something,” Bowles said. “We are going to continue, sit down and look at the report, and work on those things.”

The report concluded that the PCSSD had adhered to its plan for maintenance of schools, planning for construction of new facilities and school closures. The district was faulted, however, for failure to notify the Joshua Intervenors, an advocacy group for black students in local public schools, or the court when portable classrooms were to be installed. The relevance to racial balance is that portables increase school capacity, which can threaten racial balance, more so at some schools than others.

The report concluded that the PCSSD special education programs continue to be in compliance with the district desegregation plan.

The report concluded that the PCSSD was meeting goals for recruitment and retention of black administrative staff in proportion to black certified staff, as well as increasing the number of black teachers. However, the report concluded that the district was not providing incentives for certification of black teachers in areas of need.

The report concluded that the district had not fully complied with the plan’s mandate for multicultural instruction on all levels. Infusion into the curriculum has been more successful on the elementary level. Teachers have not received requested in-service in multicultural instruction and diversity training. The ODM monitors argue that these kinds of training would help with the serious discipline issues in the district.

The report commended the district for its “high quality AP and GT programs” and for “vigorously recruit(ing) black students to these programs.” However, slightly under a third of the schools met the mandated 5 percent target for black students in gifted programs. Three of seven middle schools and none of the six high schools met the proportional enrollment mandate for blacks in advanced placement classes.

The report concluded that the district fell short on racial composition goal for Chenal Elementary, one of three inter-district schools for which there are race proportion targets. The monitors contend that only 100 seats of 550 were made available to blacks from the Little Rock School District, far short of the 50 percent “ideal” stated in the plan. Bowles contends that the district was acting appropriately because the plan does not mandate a specific number of seats, but only gives an ideal.

“Where does it say how many seats we have to give Little Rock? The plan gives a specific number for Clinton and Crystal Hill, but not Chenal,” Bowles said. “Our lawyer’s opinion was that we delegated the seats appropriately, and the Office of
Desegregation Monitoring thought we had not. It is just an instance of where we agreed to disagree.”

The report concluded that the district had implemented several measures to improve black academic achievement and that the black-white gap in several areas of student testing was narrowing. However, the district has taken “observation measures” at only the 17 schools in most need of improvement, rather than all the schools.

Roaf and Powell were reluctant to speculate on the report’s impact on a court ruling about the unitary status of the district, which would free it from monitoring of its desegregation efforts.

“One could make the argument that they are in compliance with most sections,” Roaf said. “They could still be found unitary.”

“I don’t think any of these problems are anything that is not fixable, that can’t be addressed,” Powell said.

Roaf noted that some efforts by the district have not had time to come to fruition because they were put in place within the last year.
Roaf and her staff at the ODM seem ready for closure on almost 20 years of court-ordered monitoring of desegregation efforts of the county school district as well as the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts. When, in 2007, federal Judge Bill Wilson declared that the Little Rock district no longer was under court-supervision, those at the ODM thought the same would come soon for PCSSD.

“Last summer, after the end of the Little Rock case, we thought it would be done soon,” Margie Powell said. “I didn’t anticipate being here after the end of this year.”