Leader Blues

Friday, March 19, 2010

TOP STORY >> PCSSD feels heat as hearing ends

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

On Friday, the Joshua Intervenors, advocates for black students in the Pulaski County Special School District, rested their case in federal court, saying the district has failed to achieve unity status in the delivery of education to blacks compared to nonblacks.

The case opened in the court of U.S. Judge Brian Miller on March 1. Miller is expected to make a ruling on the PCSSD desegregation case, as well as for the North Little Rock School District, later this year.

Both sides must still file briefs summarizing their cases. Before that, John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, will take depositions from Mildred Tatum, PCSSD school board member, and Tim Clark, board president.

Walker wanted Tatum to testify in court on Friday, but she could not be located.

Walker told Miller when court started Friday, “Ms. Tatum has eluded us as well as Mr. Jones (PCSSD attorney). Perhaps that is the wrong word; she is not available.”

Walker wants to find out from Clark what his connection is with the $3.2 million deal to acquire the 60 acres on which the new high school in Maumelle will be built.

The deal was solidified before Clark joined the school board.

Walker contends the decision to build the new school rather than renovate Oak Grove High School at considerably less expense went against consultants’ recommendations and disadvantages black students from poorer parts of the district. He faults the district for not following due process in the site selection process and says the deal was the product of secret dealings to satisfy Maumelle residents.

Miller told Walker he didn’t see that the board politics around the land deal would materially affect his decision about whether or not PCSSD has complied with its desegregation plan – known as Plan 2000 – and should be released from federal court oversight.

The district developed Plan 2000 along with the Joshua Intervenors and the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, an arm of the federal court. The court approved the plan in 2000.

To conclude his case that PCSSD has repeatedly dropped the ball over the years in regard to Plan 2000, Walker called a host of witnesses, including the former principal of the Jacksonville Middle School for Boys, two PCSSD parents, an educational researcher and two desegregation monitors.

MIDDLE SCHOOL REINTEGRATION

Mike Nellums has been with the district for 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. He was the principal for the Jacksonville Middle School for Boys for three years, until the school board voted in 2009 to recombine the single-sex schools into one. Last fall, he became the principal at Mills University Studies High School.

The boys’ middle school has high proportions of black students, as well as those referred to special education or qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Despite that, the rate of discipline referrals decreased markedly, while state Benchmark test scores soared during Nellums’ tenure.

In his first year as principal at Jacksonville Middle, a mere 4 percent of the black boys tested proficient or above on the math Benchmark exam. In 2009, 61 percent were proficient or above in math.

Nellums testified that relations with district officials and the school board became strained because of his outspoken challenges to their policies. He said he had repeatedly complained to district officials that the school did not get its fair share of federal Title I funding, which is apportioned to districts according to the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

He said he wanted the funds to pay for literacy and math coaches and a curriculum specialist, rather than have to use the school’s general funds to meet the cost. The district did eventually provide the literacy coach.

In regard to discipline, Nellums said that he tried “any number of plans and schemes” and counseled with teachers who had high discipline referral rates rather than rigidly meting out punishment according to the student handbook. He brought in volunteer mentors to tutor kids and provide positive male role models.

Nellums said he did not “know what conclusion (the school board) came to when they voted to re-integrate the boys’ and girls’ schools. We made tremendous strides, but they decided to close it.”

When the boys’ and girls’ schools were recombined, Nellums first was terminated, then reassigned to Mills.

Last fall, he was investigated by interim Superintendent Rob McGill and nearly lost his job again, but was exonerated by a 4-3 school board vote. He has a discrimination lawsuit pending against the district.

PCSSD PARENTS VOICE CONCERNS

Witnesses, Donna Houston, a lifelong resident of College Station, and Rizelle Aaron of Jacksonville testified about the poor condition of the schools attended by their grandchild and son, respectively.

Houston, who attended College Station Elementary School, as did her children, said she took a renewed interest in the aging school when she retired and her granddaughter began attending school there.

News reports about school funding made her question why the school was not getting a larger share.

How she felt when she visited the school after many years was “indescribable,” Houston said. She found broken ceiling tiles, non-functioning bathrooms, dust in the air from disintegrating carpet, mold and leaky roofs in some classrooms.

“The odors, the smells, in the bathrooms – it’s terrible,” Houston said. “The cabinets in my old classroom were the same as when I was there. The floor tile is the same.”

The district is now in the process of repairing the bathrooms and making other renovations.

“We need a facility that is clean and healthy and safe for our children,” Houston said. “All children are entitled to that. It would enhance the learning process.”

For years, white enrollment at College Station Elementary was 50 percent white, and there once was a waiting list for the school’s gifted and talented program that drew students from the far reaches of the district.

But white enrollment has dropped in recent years. Houston says the reason is the dilapidated condition of the school.

Houston said she chooses to not exercise her option to transfer her granddaughter to another school because College Station is her community and she wants to stay. The well-being of other children there matters too.

“We are a proud people and we want to build our community. If everybody leaves, it will deteriorate,” Houston said. “There are other children there, so it would be my duty to say something about the condition of the school.”

Aaron is a parent of two children attending Jacksonville schools. His son attended Jackson-ville Middle School for Boys when Nellums was principal. Aaron has been a vocal critic of conditions at the school as well as of decisions by the district administration and school board.

“In the past two years, there have been almost identical things wrong – in the boys’ restroom, electrical wires hanging from the ceiling. Ceiling tiles fallen. Pipes broken, flooding in classrooms and the library.”

Aaron said he would favor a separate Jacksonville school district only if there was minority representation in the school leadership.

“A separate district has the potential to be more productive, to do more for our children,” Aaron said. “Our children have to see our people in authority leadership roles to see that there is someplace to go from where they are now.”

Aaron said that his 16-year-old son, while at the district administration building, saw architectural models of the new schools for Maumelle and asked, “Why can’t we get new schools like that?”

“He still has to sit in classrooms with the tile falling off the ceiling and wires hanging out of the walls,” Aaron said.

“That is concerning, way beyond concerning. People don’t realize how much that affects children. When you deal with minority children, what our children see is the majority white over there,” referring to Maumelle, “that you have to move over there to get a better education.”

MAJOR DISCONNECT WITH DESEG PLAN

Debbie Goodwin, former assessment coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock College of Education, said in federal court Wednesday that the academic gap between blacks and non-blacks in Pulaski County schools “was slowly rising,” according to state Benchmark test data from 2004-06.

Goodwin, who is white, and two other UALR researchers were commissioned in 2006 by PCSSD to determine what kind of progress the district was making toward Plan 2000 educational goals.

The plan calls on PCSSD to improve academic performance by all students but with special attention to students who are black or disadvantaged by socioeconomic class or disabilities, and to close gaps in academic achievement, extracurricular activities and discipline rates between blacks and nonblacks.

The researchers conducted interviews with all PCSSD school principals, reviewed every school’s educational plan and gathered student achievement and suspension data for the 2003-04, 2004-05, and 2005-06 school years.

Although their findings did have some bright spots, Goodwin’s team overall found that the district had a long way to go in meeting Plan 2000 educational goals.

Not one school in the district made mention in its educational plan about giving special attention to students disadvantaged by race, socioeconomic status or disability.

Principals at 31 of the district’s 36 schools said that a racial disparity in achievement existed at their school, but only seven schools had made reduction of the racial achievement gap a goal.

While the number of both black and nonblack students scoring proficient or above on state Benchmark exams rose over the three years studied, the gap between blacks and nonblacks widened.

Goodwin told the court that the “No. 1 correlate of whether or not students will be successful is the relationship of the teacher to the student,” but her research found “very little indication that staff development is addressing the key areas of how different learning styles of students should affect learning.”

“Research is very clear; good teachers make good schools,” the study concluded. “Students who get several effective teachers in a row will soar no matter what their family background, while students who have several ineffective teachers in a row rarely recover.”

The gap in suspension rates between blacks and nonblacks also increased – by 504 suspensions from 2003-04 to 2004-05, while district enrollment declined. At 25 out of 36 schools, the difference in suspension rates between blacks and nonblacks was 20 percentage points or more.

The report concluded, “The district had lost its focus on infusing multicultural teaching in content and strategies,” which research has shown to be effective in engaging minority students in learning and improving discipline.

Goodwin and her team found that the district failed to follow through on its commitment to conduct a survey of black students to uncover root causes for poor discipline and use the data to remediate high suspension rates for blacks. The district did collect data, but never produced a report or made recommendations based on the findings. Goodwin found that regrettable.

“When you go to kids, you find out a lot of things that you need,” Goodwin said.

There are schools around the country that are “dispelling the myth that cultural issues override a school’s ability to increase student achievement,” Goodwin said.

DESEG MONITORS WEIGH IN

Joy Springer, Walker’s own paralegal assistant, has worked for the Joshua Intervenors as a school monitor for 10 years. Walker called her to testify about her interactions with PCSSD officials and her impressions of the district’s commitment to helping close racial disparities in achievement and discipline.

Springer told of missed deadlines and meetings and committees that were never convened, on the district’s part, as well as a high turnover in central office administrators that did not serve desegregation well.

Since 2000, the district has had five superintendents, two on an interim basis. At one time, there were two assistant superintendents and two directors over duties related to desegregation. In the last decade, those areas have been consolidated into one position, under Brenda Bowles, assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services.

Springer said that James Sharpe and Don Henderson, former superintendents, both black, had told her “that they were of the opinion that there was no need for desegregation – that their administrations were not interested in focusing on desegregation.”

“They said that they were concerned about achievement for all students,” she said.

Margie Powell, an ODM monitor, said that the district continues to have “a shotgun approach” to discipline that lacks “a cohesive force, timelines or benchmarks.”

Powell did say that since 2007, she has seen a stepped-up effort on the part of the district to file reports required by Plan 2000 and generally stay in better communication about compliance efforts.

“We meet at least twice a month,” Powell said. “It has kind of kept us on track for what I would be looking for.”

The district filed its petition in 2006 to be declared unity and released from court oversight of its desegregation efforts.