Editor's Note: Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro, Arkansas. This piece originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on June 26, 2015. Reposted with permission from the author.
Two years ago, I lamented about the need for leadership in Arkansas education specifically relating to our silly consolidation law that places an arbitrary enrollment number (350 students) ahead of every other learning metric.
Ahead of test scores, graduation rates, average ACT, AP course participation. Ahead of efficiency measures such as cost per pupil.
The most egregious example of school consolidation stupidity at the time was the Harrisburg School District’s proposal to close Weiner High School.
Weiner High School posted better numbers on every measure than Harrisburg, and yet the state education bureaucracy suspended the rules of reality long enough to pretend that WHS—despite delivering above-average education to its students—wasn’t worthy of existence as an institution of learning.
Previously, the state had nixed a proposed innovative and voluntary consolidation between Weiner and Delight to create a new district, called Arcadia, that would have harnessed for isolated schools the same digital distance-bridging technology used by interstate and international businesses.
Who knows how that trailblazing idea might have opened new frontiers in rural education? Certainly not the Arkansas leadership in place in 2010.
Today is a new day, however, and in the relatively short span since the November elections, our new leadership appears to have learned much from past mistakes.
First the new legislature created waivers for the Consolidation Act to correct the inane focus on enrollment to the exclusion of all else in evaluating school districts. Then the state also did an about-face on another knee-jerk negation.
A few years back, Weiner school patrons approached the state Board of Education with the idea of creating agricultural schools. Focusing curricula on agricultural technology, math and science made a bushel-barrel of sense in a state with a backbone ag economy, where 58 out of 75 counties are rural, and agribusinesses struggle to find qualified workers.
Despite ag statistics, support letters from large ag companies, Weiner’s history of academic excellence as a school and its location in the heart of Arkansas rice country, the state issued a totalitarian nyet.
The logic behind the idea didn’t change, but state leadership did, and voila!—in less than a month this spring the bill to establish Arkansas Schools of Agriculture went from filing to the governor’s signature.
Now the Weiner faithful are back in the news planning to petition under the new law to become the first such agricultural school by reorganizing and restoring its local district.
If anyone, anywhere in education or state government wants a textbook prototype of the premier model school community, the small rural town of Weiner is Exhibit A.
Want to talk about exemplary financial management in a time of escalating per-pupil costs without corresponding gains in student performance? In 126 years Weiner schools were never in fiscal distress. Community patrons voted for higher millages, while at the same time school officials tightened their belts and found ways to cut costs. When consolidated, Weiner was spending 20 percent less per pupil than the Little Rock School District.
Over the same century-and-a-quarter, Weiner also avoided ever falling into academic distress, and instead managed to consistently stay ahead of state averages and neighboring districts.
Weiner’s ACT scores? A full point higher than the Arkansas average. Literacy tests? In 2012 its 11th-grade scores tied for first in the state. Graduation rate? The last class was 100 percent with every single senior sent on to either college or military service. Gifted and Talented programs? In 2013 Weiner’s director won the state’s top GT service award (annexing district Harrisburg didn’t even offer a GT program).
Through thick and thin and ups and downs, confronting state-sponsored naysaying at every juncture, battling through frustration and disappointment, the Weiner patrons have personified education leadership by example—the kind of determination, perseverance and commitment to the youngsters in their community that every district in America would love to have.
They’ve earned their stripes to be a model school, and now they deserve to literally become the model for Arkansas’ new agriculture district pilot program. In addition to providing instruction that meshes college and career readiness expectations with the “skills gap” needs confronted by agricultural businesses, an agriculture school will give students hands-on experience, internships along with a technology-rich ag curriculum.
Weiner’s a prime candidate, with proximity to numerous agribusinesses, many of which have again submitted letters in support of the application. One large implement company described the need for more agri-educated workers as “tremendous.”
The first step in Weiner detaching from the Harrisburg district is a feasibility study, which representative parents say is underway (community volunteers donated funds for the cost). After that, a petition will be submitted and certified and then the parents and patrons of Weiner will be able to get back to doing what they’ve done so well for decades: show Arkansas and the world how a strong community school truly works.
It’ll be interesting now to see just what kind of inspiration for other small schools in rural areas—with smarter education laws now in place to bolster one of the state’s predominant economic sectors—Weiner can be.
I’m cheering them on.
Weiner is a member of Arkansas' Rural Community Alliance. This upcoming school year, Weiner will receive two place-based education grants from the Rural Schools Collaborative. Earlier, this spring we featured a story on RCA's work to repeal Act 60, the Arkansas law that triggered Weiner's forced consolidation.
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