Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

TOP STORY >> School visit shows years of neglect

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor and publisher

It was early last Friday morning, when the kids at Jacksonville Elementary School still looked a little sleepy.

They were trying hard to learn their lessons from their dedicated teachers and ignore their rundown surroundings and concentrate on learning how to read and count. They tried to make sense of this crazy, mixed-up world, where adults make youngsters go to school under the most difficult circumstances, while new schools are going up all around them.

Thereís the nearly completed Lighthouse Academy charter school across the railroad tracks. Ten miles up the road in Cabot, new schools are going up every couple of years. Lonoke is building a $10 million high school, while even the Pulaski County Special School District is putting up new schools in Maumelle and Sherwood.

Jacksonville Elementary is a rundown place with a couple of buildings that should have been condemned a generation ago. The main building opened in 1964, but it wasnít built to last. The oldest building, a brown, wooden structure, the so-called federal building, was part of the ordnance plant during the Second World War, according to old-timers.

The miracle is that lessons are taught and learned. Principal Sonia Whitfield and her staff are as enthusiastic as if they were assigned to a sparkling new school in the suburbs.

That was the lesson Mayor Gary Fletcher, city administrator Jim Durham and school board president Tim Clark of Maumelle walked away with after their school tour Friday.

They found shower curtains and bed sheets separating classrooms, just like in refugee camps. There were dangerous electrical outlets, and protruding objects stuck out of floors, where youngsters could easily trip.

The cafeteria and hallways had broken tiles that were glazed over to cover up asbestos. The school district has allocated more than $400,000 in federal stimulus money to make improvements at the school ó most of it for bathroom renovation ó but those funds would fall far short of paying for the necessary repairs.

Jacksonville Elementary reminded Fletcher of the schools he visited in Romania, one of the poorest countries in eastern Europe.

This isnít even the worst school in Jacksonville. The middle school is much worse, Fletcher told Clark.

Jacksonville Elementary was outdated even back when it opened. Architects designed hundreds of these boring schools in the 1950s for millions of baby boomers, who were packed into squat, dimly lit, dungeon-like structures that didnít exactly encourage learning.

They made you homesick and made you wish you could run home in time for the Three Stooges.

Until Lighthouse Academy moved into Jacksonville, the city hadnít seen a new school in 35 years.

Yet Jacksonville has found the resources over those years to build a new community center, city hall, library, railroad overpass and water park, but no new public schools. Little Rock Air Force Base officials have begged the district for a new elementary school near the base to replace the crumbling Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools.

Theyíve been begging for at least 20 years till their faces turned the color of their uniforms. The districtís response, which is pretty common around here when someone seeks help from those in authority: If you donít like it here, why donít you go somewhere else? No wonder more military kids are going to school in Cabot, Beebe, North Little Rock and Sherwood.

Thereís hope that a federal judge later this month will let Jacksonville form its own district and tear down its worst schools and start anew. Do it for those eager young kids at Jacksonville Elementary, Arnold Drive, Tolleson and Pinewod and elsewhere.

They deserve schools as good as those in Cabot and Lonoke and Maumelle. Tear down those sheets and shower curtains and start building new schools.