Local schools received performance scores last week when the Arkansas Department of Education released letter grades for the state’s 1,034 public schools.

The 14 schools in the Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel and Dollarway school districts received nine F grades and five D grades for 2017-18. In 2016-17, they received eight F grades and six D grades. Statewide, 145 schools received D’s and 44 received F’s.

The five White Hall schools received three C’s and two B’s for 2017-2018. In 2016-2017 the schools received two C’s, two B’s and an A.

The letter grades are a response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015. Using a formula developed by state education officials and approved by the federal government in January, each school is given a numerical “ESSA School Index Score” that the letter grades are based on. For instance, one school could score a 53 and another a 57 on ESSA, yet both be given F’s.

The ESSA scores are based on several factors. One is the ACT Aspire tests that were given to students in grades three through 10 last spring, as well as improvement on the tests over time.

Also factoring into the score are progress by English-language learner students, high school graduation rates and indicators of school quality and student success, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Those indicators include science achievement and gains, student attendance, college entrance exam scores, number of students reading at their grade level and community service by students.

The release of the grades comes at a difficult time for local schools. Dollarway School District, whose three schools received F’s for the second year in a row, has been under state control in fiscal distress since 2016.

Pine Bluff School District has also been placed under state control in fiscal distress. Five of its schools received F grades, while Jack Robey Middle School received a D grade for the second year in a row.

Pine Bluff Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said the district would share its initial plans to address the low scores at the State of the District address on Wednesday, Oct. 23.

“It’s definitely not where we would like to be, but it gives us the opportunity to focus our efforts in all regards,” Owoh said. “As we move forward, we’ll do so in planning, making sure that we’re focusing on the areas that’s really going to impact our students and their learning. It will also help us focus the professional [growth plans] of our teachers, staff and administrators… We can really streamline those and better focus those on the needs of the students throughout the district.”

Each of the district’s six schools will be required to develop a support plan to improve its academic performance, Owoh said. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and other staff will develop the support plans. Those support plans will then be used to develop a district-wide support plan. Work on developing the plans will begin within the next week or so, he said.

Due to the low scores, Owoh said he has been notified that Pine Bluff schools have been identified as in need of comprehensive support and improvement. The Arkansas Department of Education will put a required monitoring program in place for each school.

In order to escape that designation, each school will be required to show continuous improvement in its ESSA score. While all but Jack Robey received F’s, each school can still show improvement even if they get the same letter grade next year as long as their numerical ESSA score – for instance, 57 – is higher than its numerical score from the year before.

Letter grades for Watson Chapel’s five schools included three D’s and two F’s. The only change was Coleman Elementary, which scored a D in 2016-17 and an F in 2017-18.

Watson Chapel Superintendent Jerry Guess confirmed that the academic picture painted by the poor letter grades was a serious one. He said Linda Davis, an elementary curriculum specialist for the district, is working with the three elementary school principals to focus on improving reading skills among young elementary school students. The district is also receiving help from specialists from an educational co-op to work on mathematics and reading.

“It would sound like I’m exaggerating, but she’s (Linda Davis) working as hard as I’ve ever seen anybody work to help these elementary principals and these elementary instructional staff to work more carefully and sharply on what kids need,” Guess said.

“If kids are not able to read on grade level by the time they get to the second grade, most research says they won’t catch up,” he added. “If they can’t catch up, they’re likely not to be as successful as they otherwise would be. It’s like the foundation on which you build the rest of the house.”

While the district staff is working to address the problems at its schools, Guess made a plea for parents to also help by engaging with their children and making sure they attend school for the full day.

“I’d also like to ask the parents to be involved,” he said. “We have a disturbingly high absentee rate. We have a tardy problem. Kids get to school late and leave early. We need them there every day.”

In addition to poor academic performance, the district is facing a budget deficit due to declining enrollment that will have to be addressed in the coming years, Guess said. In the 2017-18 budget, the district spent about two million dollars more than it brought in.

That deficit was not addressed in the 2018-19 budget. Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Mike Hernandez addressed the district’s board of education in September “as a head’s up for what we need to do” about the deficit, Guess said.

“Usually about 80 percent of the district’s budget involves [employee] salaries,” Guess said. “Here it’s around 90 percent. We’re probably overstaffed. As a district loses enrollment, you have to decrease staff. Hernandez showed the staff has grown as the enrollment has declined, so without a doubt, we’ve got too many folks.”

Asked whether Watson Chapel was at risk of being placed in fiscal distress and taken over by the state, Guess said it wasn’t.

“No,” he said. “Not if we do our job, which is to respond with what we know is a declining balance and a need to be more efficient. We’ve got a chance to prove that we can handle this problem.”

Efforts to reach the White Hall and Dollarway superintendents for this article were unsuccessful.