The 262 public school systems in Arkansas and 1,050 schools are accredited by the state, no probation and none even being accredited with quotes for the 2020-21 school year that just ended.
The State Board of Education approved the annual report on the state of school accreditation at a meeting during which it also approved another set of more than a dozen plans school district to offer virtual distance learning in the coming year.
The annual report on the accreditation status indicates that schools and districts have met the established by the state performance standards or obtained a state waiver to a norm for some time.
Law 1240 of 2015 as amended in subsequent years allows school districts and charter schools to obtain waivers from state laws and rules—including operating standards—so that the accreditation status of districts and schools is not cited for employing teachers who work outside their area of certification. Schools and districts that have waivers also aren’t put on probation for failing to meet requirements such as filing an annual report to the public, teaching a particular high school course, or limiting students per class to the maximums indicated.
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“It’s a very big achievement,” Education Secretary Johnny Key said of Thursday’s clear accreditation report. He attributed it to the state’s technologically-enhanced school data tracking system.
This leads to faster identification of violations that can be corrected during the school year, he said.
“He does not expect the end of the year to see what becomes red and everyone is scrambling to repair or make exceptions or rushing here to obtain waivers,” said Key.
The state board on Thursday approved waivers for the Pulaski County Special, Newport and Atkins school districts — resulting in recommended accreditation status for those districts just ahead of the board’s vote on the overall status report.
Key said those waivers were primarily the result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The districts of Pulaski County Special and Newport requested and received one-year waivers of the school board training requirement. Newport board member narrowly missed the minimum number of training hours required after the board member was dropped during a training session on the online dating platform Zoom.
The Atkins dispensation was for a teacher who was allowed to teach general science but was assigned to a high school science class for which the teacher was not allowed. The assignment was made by a superintendent who died at the beginning of the school year of Covid-19 and was replaced by an employee who was not an experienced superintendent and had a number of teaching duties and Directors until a new superintendent is in place in mid-April.
Ouida Newton, a member of the Board of Education of Leola, congratulated the leaders of the state and the school system operators for the accreditation report and hard work that led to it.
“It is fantastic whatever the year,” said Newton, “but do it this year in the circumstances we experienced last year – maintain the current school and ensure that students are getting what they need and are able to maintain that high bar setting and not lowering the standards over the past year – it’s amazing.
“You did it. Congratulations. That’s a big deal,” Newton said.
Also Thursday, the Council approved education almost two dozen shots by school districts and schools to conversion charter to offer online distance education in the next school year.
These included the plans submitted by school districts South Conway County, Riverside, Kirby, East End, White Hall, Sheridan, Stuttgart, Centerpoint, Bismarck, Arkadelphia, Alma, Bald Knob, Deer / Mount Judea, El Dorado, Brookland and Elkins.
The board also approved plans submitted by four conversion charter schools run by the district that had previously been approved by the state’s charter authorization committee. These are the Siloam Springs High Career Academies, Lincoln High, Harrison and High Mountain Home High School.
Digital learning plans vary by district in terms of which grades will be allowed to be online and whether teachers will be assigned to virtual instruction only or have students in person and online at the same time or at different times of the day.
In some cases, lessons created by local teachers will be used with students online and in other cases, districts will rely on outside organizations such as Virtual Arkansas and Pearson, a corporate training provider, to provide materials and/or instructions.
In some cases, state education service co-ops provide online education programs for their member school districts.
The board of education late last month approved virtual education plans for the first 20 of 152 school systems that submitted proposals and requested waivers of certain state laws and rules to carry them out.
The dozens of digital academy proposals that have been submitted to the state come after many Arkansas school systems scrambled in the just-ended 2020-21 school year to offer students an online education option as a way to combat the spread of the contagious and potentially deadly coronavirus.
States and school districts across the country are now debating whether to continue with online learning options for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
In January, the Arkansas Division of Primary and Secondary Education and the Board of Education invited school districts to present virtual teaching plans for the next school year.
This invitation came with an offer of waivers to state rules and laws that limit maximum class size to no more than 30 students, limit teacher workload to no more than 150 students, require 120 clock hours of instruction per lesson and six-hour instructional days, set attendance requirements for students and require a minimum number of recess minutes.