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Alma School District waits for approval

Alma School District awaits approval from the Arkansas Department of Education on a plan that would allow each of its four schools to waive certain legal requirements for students and faculty.

Schools of Innovation in Arkansas allows existing schools to receive waivers from certain laws, rules and policies that may be have become an obstacle to teaching and implement plans with creative alternatives to assist instruction.

Arkansas legislators passed the new law in 2013 allowing for Schools of Innovation, a form of the district-conversion charter school, and school districts received the requirements in February.

In theory, the changes are intended to improve academic performance for students and streamline teaching methods.

“The whole idea of this is give schools the flexibility to find ways that are more effective for students,” said Alma Superintendent David Woolly.

To become a School of Innovation, a school must establish a committee made up of faculty, staff, parents and students to create the Plan of Innovation and it is submitted to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE).

Administrators formed committees and began working on their plans as soon as possible, meeting 12 or more times in the last few months, said Alma Primary School Principal Shawn Bullard.

“Being able to see the overall process was a great learning experience for any of us,” Bullard said.

At least 60 percent of every person working in each school - from the principal to the janitor - had to agree to the final plan as required by the state.

“I don’t think any of ours passed at less than 90 percent,” Woolly said.

Plans cannot be submitted for an entire district, but must be customized and submitted for each school that wishes to be a School of Innovation.

Woolly called the Schools of Innovation program “charter schools lite.”

Schools of Innovation are similar to district-conversion charter schools in creating flexibility for new ideas within schools, but with much less paperwork - something that Woolly said has prevented such schools from previously taking off in Arkansas.

Approval to become a School of Innovation is determined by the Commissioner of Education and is granted for a four year period.

If the waivers are approved for Alma schools, one of the most notable changes for the 2014-15 school year will be the start date, Woolly said.

Arkansas schools are required to begin on or after the Monday of the week in which Aug. 19 falls, no earlier than Aug. 14 and no later than Aug. 26.

Alma schools have applied to waive the relegated start date of the school year - this year it would be Aug. 18 - and begin classes two days early, he said.

“Testing is a huge deal for all of America,” Woolly said. “The more instruction we can get in before testing is better for the students.”

He added that students need more time practicing test taking on computers, which is how all new testing will be done beginning next year.

This led to waivers for the amount of time required for certain classes and teachers plan time. By shaving off about five minutes from planning, and art and music instruction, this allows for additional time in the computer lab.

Some changes that affect students may include the ability to apply marching band or dance toward physical education credit, flexibility in student remediation plans and parent inclusion in determining those plans, and making up school days missed because of weather by slightly extending school hours.

A number of other changes more directly affect teachers and how they spend their time, their professional development and how many instructors are required for certain classes.

“Nothing our school district is proposing are sweeping changes,” Woolly said.

Woolly said the school district is only “nibbling at the edges” of state regulations and “taking small baby steps” toward change.

“The important thing to keep in mind, if it doesn’t work we’ll just quit doing it,” Woolly said.

Schools are not required to implement the plans they propose, or to continue with them once they are implemented. The waivers merely allow administrators the opportunity to try new ideas and see how they work for their school, Woolly said.

“I told my staff, we can’t just jump in and do everything year one,” Bullard said. “We’re going to get the vision and then take the steps to do that.”

Woolly hopes to have the plans approved by the end of the school year, particularly with next year’s possible early start, he said.

“The ADE understands that it’s very important that they process these very quickly,” Woolly said.

Commitees already are working on waiver proposals for next year, and the entire process has led to some new ideas that do not require ADE waivers, said Alma Middle School Principal Bob Wolfe.

“I think that’s a big part of this,” Wolfe said. “We’ve got this discussion started and we’re going to keep that going.”

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