Community Forum: A new approach to School Consolidation

The following is an opinion article submitted by Pine Bluff resident Tavante Calhoun regarding the topic of Consolidation in Jefferson county.

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A new approach to School Consolidation

By: Tavante Calhoun

Pine Bluff Arkansas once had a great expectation pertaining to educating our youth and its direct impact on their success in life and this community. Somewhere along the journey we lost the zeal for the great expectation of the educational system and for our youth. Arkansas educational board gained control of two local districts due to lack of innovative and proactive leadership and lack of fiscal responsibility. The reports generated by the Arkansas Board of Education as presented by the schools shows an average of a 16 composite score on the ACT for Pine Bluff and Dollarway School, while Watson Chapel is averaging a 17 composite on the ACT.

The lowest score to enter any college averages a 19 composite on the ACT in our state.  The state average on the ACT is a 19 composite.

Our graduation rates are below average with Dollarway’s rate at 76% for 2019, Pine Bluff’s schools at 68% for 2019, and Watson Chapel’s at 81% for 2019.

The state average is 88% for the same time frame. Our enrollment numbers are trending downward at a greater rate than the average enrollment trends for the state. Finally, we are losing teachers at an alarming rate. Our loss is a 22.4% decrease over the span of five years for all three districts.   We are now facing a time when our schools will be consolidated via state order, but they are still failing, and the zeal is still lacking. The question is how we move forward with a new, realistic, and unified approach towards consolidation?

Let’s agree that consolidation is a real and viable possibility if we are proactive in our influence with innovative ideas that we are willing to actively support while demanding a better result driven system with great leadership.  Next, let’s agree that our facilities need upgrades and replacement. Our oldest facilities were erected in the early 1900’s. These facilities are outdated and not conducive to the current technology driven era. We need new facilities to meet basic demand for a quality education in Pine Bluff. Lastly, we must unify for the good of our youth.

Our leadership must be proactive, innovative, and accountable to the students, parents, and pubic with the plan that will create measured realistic growth in testing and academic performance as stated by the national requirements. Leadership should also have that same ability to place a high level of accountability on the students, parents, and the public. How can we expect our educational leaders and students to be successful without proper support, facilities, and funding?

Listed are some focused ideas that can work. One school board developed by an appointment process via our city government which would include members of our business community, employees of the local university and college, and parents would give the board a balanced look while ensuring all needs and requirements are met culturally, educationally, and fiscally. Possibly transition to an elected system in 7-10 years.

In addition, we would partner with local industry in greater capacities to educate the students to be prepared for local employment or develop interest in a field of choice.  We can also be proactive in this process by finding members of the community to help teach the needed courses and electives to help develop our student’s readiness for higher education. We can be proactive in approach to facilities by building structures that are safe and sound yet versatile in use for education as well as possible emergency situations in which a large group may need shelter for a short time.

In addition, the facilities should be technology friendly and student friendly to make it a place student wants to enter and learn.  Creating an interactive technology friendly environment will draw students to want to participate in the learning process. A student focused facility with staff guided support would bolster school pride, self-esteem, and rediscover the great expectation.

We must be mindful to be all inclusive with our culture as well. Be mindful that we should make a student no matter what race, creed, or religion feel welcome. As our community works to grow we have to ensure that we make room for Hispanics, West Indians, and any culture that chooses to call Pine Bluff home.

We must unify our thoughts to create a plan of how we want our schools to look and perform, then find the people who can help make those plans come to life. We do not have to accept school consolidation in the way it has been handed to communities in the past. We can affect the implementation with unity, pride, and the return of the great expectation. Our sports teams will perform better, our fine arts will improve, and our youth will be ready to take on the world with a good education foundation. Become proactive, become innovative and become intentional about this process. Let’s make it be what we want and not what others want for us.