Charleston Seeks Schools Of Innovation Designation

By Mary L. Crider Times Record

Charleston school administrators want the state’s new Schools of Innovation designation for Charleston elementary and high schools.

Charleston Superintendent Jeff Stubblefield said the school board voted Tuesday to apply for the designation primarily to pursue two common themes — flexibility and to get as much student instruction time in before the state’s annual assessments. Arkansas’ standardized testing occurs every spring.

Schools of Innovation, enabled by Act 601 of 2013, a bill filed by state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, creates a way for schools to try new ways of instructing students and allocating resources by receiving waivers on specific state education standards or laws the school can demonstrate inhibit what it wants to do. The state commissioner of education must approve the exemptions. The education commissioner approves the four-year School of Innovation designation, and the commissioner may revoke the designation if the school fails to meet its goals. The commissioner’s decision cannot be appealed.

A school seeking the designation must appoint a council of innovation to generate innovative ideas and proposals. The council must also find a method to request proposals and ideas from staff, community members and others. At least 60 percent of the employees in each applying school building must vote in support of the Schools of Innovation designation before the school’s plan can be submitted to that district’s school board for approval.

Among the waivers requested by the Charleston administrators is starting the school year up to a week earlier than the state’s official Aug. 19 start date.

Another requested waiver, Stubblefield said, is asking to convert classroom minutes to days.

The conversion would allow lengthening school days rather than adding days at the end of the school year.

If the education commissioner grants the waiver, that measure could only be used in the event of an emergency or inclement weather, Stubblefield said. District staff would first seek school board approval, and the measure could be initiated only from January through April, he said.

Greenwood School District administrators are also seeking the flexibility in the school calendar and school days. That board approved the individual Greenwood schools’ plans last Monday. Applications to the state were due Thursday for the 2014-15 school year.

The Charleston district also requested what Stubblefield called "common-sense items."

Elementary students are required to take a 40-minute class each in art and music, but the physical education class period is 60 minutes long. Stubblefield said the elementary administrators are asking for a uniform 40-minute class period for all three subjects.

The high school marching band, administrators think, meets or exceeds the state’s PE requirement. The band practices every weekday and performs most weekends, Stubblefield said. A requested waiver would allow students in the marching band program to choose whether it meets their PE or their music requirement.

The waiver would increase student flexibility, the superintendent said. If approved, it would free-up a class period because the state now requires one-half credit in fine arts and one-half credit in PE. The students could choose to count their marching band class one semester to one and the second semester to the other. It frees up class time for an additional course, perhaps in computers, a foreign language or math, Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield said he anticipates learning the education commissioner’s decision by the end of June.