Achievement Gap No Surprise to Little Rock Schools Superintendent

LITTLE ROCK - A federal judge's observation that more must be done to address an achievement gap between predominantly white and predominantly black schools in Pulaski County wasn't news to the new Little Rock School District superintendent.

Dexter Suggs knew about the problem - both within central Arkansas and around the country - when he arrived last year.

"The achievement gap is a national problem," Suggs said after a judge last week ordered an end to extra appropriations for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts to aid in integrating schools. "Student achievement is the ultimate goal - providing an opportunity to engage all students."

To settle a 1982 lawsuit over a racial imbalance in schools, the state of Arkansas has provided more than $1 billion to the three districts since 1989 to fund magnet programs and student transfers. In many regards, the money has worked. Suggs said the achievement gap in elementary schools has narrowed and his district enjoys greater diversity.

"People from all walks of life are in the same classroom," Suggs said in an interview. "That's a major plus: for students to be able to grow together."

But in four years, the money will be gone. U.S. District Judge Price Marshall last Monday approved a settlement among the state, the districts and lawyers for black schoolchildren. Speaking from the bench, Marshall cited that some concerns remain, in particular poor facilities in Pulaski County schools, a lack of desegregation monitoring by the state and continued problems with the achievement gap.

State data show that no county high school matched private schools in college preparation, and the schools with the highest percentage of black students had fewer than 6 percent of its graduates ready for their first year of college.

"We need to truly transform learning for kids," Suggs said, but cautioned that improving the schools is "a marathon and not a sprint."

Marshall said the end of the payments in 2018 isn't a finish line, but his decision "takes us very far down the road." He approved the settlement only after receiving assurances from the districts that they had plans for after the money runs out.

Those plans include North Little Rock reducing the number of campuses; Little Rock developing a feeder system for magnet schools; and Pulaski County concentrating on improving facilities.

Each district expects to spend less on transportation and administrative costs, and the Pulaski County district said it could recover nearly all of the $20 million of extra state aid it receives currently through growth and loss of financial obligations to other districts.

And Marshall noted that everyone had signed on the agreement that left the state paying more than it wanted and the districts receiving less than they wanted - but that only eight objections were filed despite it impacting nearly 50,000 students.

"That unanimity is hard-bought," Marshall said. "We have heard very, very few voices opposed to this step."

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