Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> District seen as racial

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

It is the Joshua Intervenors’ turn in court, as they opened the third week in the hearing on whether Pulaski County Special School District has complied with its desegregation plan and is ready to be released from federal court oversight.

John Walker, attorney for the group representing the interests of the black students in PCSSD, on Monday and Tuesday honed in on school board machinations, decisions about school construction and the district’s performance on compliance with Plan 2000 requirements for reducing racial disparities in academic achievement, discipline and school attendance.

Monday morning proceedings began with a wrangle between Sam Jones, attorney for PCSSD, and Walker, who only that morning had sent new evidence to Jones, an e-mail string among white members of the district’s school board and interim superintendent Rob McGill. Walker sought to demonstrate that board president Tim Clark, board member Charlie Wood and former board member Shana Chaplin were engaging in back-room meetings via e-mail, a violation of school board policy, to advance an agenda that “had a racial intent if not effect,” Walker said.

Walker presented e-mails showing that Wood was pushing others to say that the district had achieved unitary status and that board members needed to make sure that Brenda Bowles, assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, was in agreement. Walker said that white board members bought off black board member Gwen Williams with offers of trips on behalf of the board.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller commented, “I am not going to make a determination based on internal fights, but the facts.

Ultimately my decision is not going to be based on feelings or who bought who off.”

Witnesses on Monday and Tuesday included McGill; assistant superintendent for learning services June Elliott; former assistant superintendent over secondary education Bill Barnes; school board member Bill Vasquez, and a former Northwood Middle School student who was shoved several times by a teacher, according to a school security tape. The boy’s mother also took the stand.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION QUESTIONED

Walker sought to demonstrate that construction of Maumelle High School, to replace Oak Grove High School, was a racially motivated move by the school board that wasted district funds.

Several witnesses – McGill, Elliott and Barnes – admitted that the demolition of Oak Grove High School was never in the district building plan nor in any consultant recommendations.

McGill, in answer to Walker’s query about whether the district’s strategic plan or any consultant’s report called for replacement of Oak Grove High School, admitted that it did not, then added in frustration, “But it doesn’t say we can’t, though.”

McGill said that the decision to build a new high school in Maumelle was already in the works when he came on board as interim superintendent a year ago.

Elliott, also a new hire to the district in July 2009, said that Oak Grove High School had a current enrollment of 400 and 700 openings. She said she knew of no study that projected high school enrollment in the area served by Oak Grove High School to exceed 1,100 in the next few years.

When asked if she knew of any written report calling for the demolition of Oak Grove High School, she replied, “No, sir.”

Barnes said that he thought the decision to replace Oak Grove rather than fix it up was not based on “growth, but rather how the facilities looked,” as well as the desire to break the 7th-12th grade school into a middle school and high school.

“Oak Grove has its negatives, but so do all the schools … No one liked all the grades there.” Barnes said.

Walker told the court that the decision to not repair Oak Grove High School, but rather build a new school in Maumelle was the result of an effort by some board members to “re-segregate the district.”

Walker contended that other schools, such as College Station and Harris elementary schools, that are located in areas predominantly populated by blacks have been passed over for repairs while west Pulaski County, Sherwood and Maumelle are getting new schools built.

Walker asked Vasquez how Chenal and Maumelle would feel about a school like College Station in its midst. Vasquez replied,

“Would anybody like to have a 50 year-old-school transplanted to their neighborhood? The answer is no.”

Barnes recalled that when his son, now 29, attended College Station Elementary School, it was in good repair, but said, “It is probably now the worst elementary school in the district. It is probably a waste of money to fix it up.”

Walker tried to prove that the expansion of Pine Forest Elementary School, estimated at $5 million, was a racially biased decision on the part of the school board to cater to Maumelle constituents. He presented 2000 census figures showing that Maumelle has a 5 percent black population. On cross examination, Sam Jones, attorney for PCSSD, presented 2006 census data showing that the black population in Maumelle has increased to almost 10 percent.

Pine Forest Elementary School is 30 years old. Thirty-one percent of its students are black.

In regard to the condition of district schools, Vasquez said, “Twenty-five schools are over 50 years old; 13 are over 40 years old, and five schools have been built in the last 15 years. The schools need a very comprehensive building and renovation plan.”

Barnes, who worked for the district 26 years before being terminated in January, said, “At a time, Jacksonville (High School) was premiere, but we’ve lost control of repairs, as we once did. Schools have kind of gone down.”

CENTRAL OFFICE AND THE DESEG PLAN

Walker hammered on McGill and Elliott about how their knowledge of the court-ordered Plan 2000 desegregation plan, what they or others have done to comply with its requirements and how well district programs were being evaluated for their effectiveness in reducing racial gaps in academic performance, discipline rates and other mandates.

McGill and Elliott said that the district has numerous initiatives and “strategies” in place to meet Plan 2000’s requirement that the educational achievement of all students is improved, with “special attention to African-American students and those at risk of academic failure due to socioeconomic disadvantage and other factors.”

Elliott cited daily enrichment periods at the schools that are tailored to individual students’ gaps in skills, based on assessments that occur throughout the school year. Other initiatives reported include the STAR Academy to help students recover credits and graduate with peers, after-school programs, building audits and professional learning communities to help teachers focus on students’ individual needs, literacy and math intensive programs, freshman academy and Odyssey of the Mind.

“Enumerating something is not the same thing as an evaluation” that looks at outcomes, Walker said.

While the schools and district collect and report data on a plethora of indicators on student academic performance, school attendance, dropout rates, participation in advanced studies and gifted and talented programs, and discipline, neither McGill nor Elliott could point to any analyses of data to tell the district if the programs are making a difference.

Nor could they give evidence that disparities in academic performance or discipline are the focus of cabinet meeting discussions, written memos or other directives from central office.

Elliott said the data show that the racial disparities in academic achievement are narrowing.

Barnes said that the district has lost the momentum of the 1990s and efforts to comply with the desegregation plan are slackening. He said with changeovers in central office personnel, “history” had been lost. There was re-focus in 2000, but since then, “We’ve kind of drifted,” he said. “It seems like we are going backwards in all areas. It seems like we are not focused like we were then.”

Barnes recalled the glory days of Mills High School when he was the principal for 19 years. The school garnered national attention as a top-flight college preparatory high school numerous times, the number of minority teachers exceeded the district average and special efforts, such as Saturday and after-school tutoring, were made to help minority students succeed in advanced courses.

“That went by the wayside,” Barnes said.

Barnes, who started with the district in 1983 and was the director of secondary education from 2006 to January of this year, said he knew of no effort on the part of the district to establish a biracial committee for scholarships.

At one point, Jones took issue with the reports from the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, calling them “hyperbole.”

“I am not disputing their authenticity, but some portions are not supported by the evidence,” Jones said.

BARNES’ TERMINATION

During a court recess, Barnes that he was terminated because he backed Mike Nellums, former principal of the Jacksonville Boys Middle School, rather than agree with the school board that Nellums should be fired.

“I didn’t want to be raked over the coals in the paper,” Barnes said. “I spoke at his hearing at the Oct. 6 board meeting. The next day, it was ‘go after old Barnes because we can’t get Nellums.’ I wasn’t planning on retiring early.”

McGill conducted an investigation into accusations leveled at Nellums by teachers. Walker charged that race was the motivating factor in the superintendent taking on an investigation of a secondary-level principal rather than leave it to the director of secondary education, who was Barnes. Both Barnes and Nellums are black. McGill is white.

“I thought the information was serious enough to keep confidential to protect him and the school,” McGill said.

The board voted 4-3 to terminate Nellums, but later transferred him to Mills High School, where he is now the principal.

NORTHWOOD INCIDENT

A former Northwood Middle School honor student took the stand to talk about an incident in which English teacher Melissa Moore shoved him several times after he talked back to her when she called him “psycho” as he and friends danced in the hallway. The incident was caught on security tape.

The boy is black, the teacher is white. McGill said that the boy was “big and the teacher very small.”

The boy testified that he is 5’5” and weighed 100 pounds at the time of the incident.

The boy’s mother testified that she had had her son removed from Moore’s class earlier in the year after she had “mimicked him,” when he put his head down on his desk and cried during a writing exercise. At the time, he was grieving the death of his cousin and was on the counselors’ “watch” because he had “shut down” after the loss.

The Northwood principal, who sought to have the teacher disciplined, was transferred the next year to serve as principal at Jacksonville Girls Middle School. The school board unanimously voted against McGill’s recommendation that the teacher be terminated.

The incident inflamed white teachers and the teachers union. Thirty white teachers rallied in support of Moore.

McGill said he transferred the principal “so faculty could put it behind them … (and) so students could concentrate on their studies.”

“Doesn’t this send the message that when a black principal disciplines a white teacher … that the black principal is mostly likely to be disciplined?” Walker asked rhetorically.

Walker contended that school board member Charlie Wood tried to influence McGill with petitions from white teachers before Moore’s personnel hearing, prompting this commentary from Judge Brian Miller:

“Charlie Wood is the district busy-body. Every district has one. We all know those people, and he is that person – running around, doing investigations, sending e-mails, trying to get everybody to do what he wants them to do.”