The State Board of Education moved through a packed agenda on Monday (July 9) pushing forward with an initiative to improve college remediation efforts, balance religious freedom in a program involving state funds, and select the future site of the Arkansas Governor's School.
The board voted to seek public comment on a program that would allow high school students to concurrently take college-level remediation courses in writing and algebra. The voluntary program would allow partnerships between local high schools and two-year or four-year colleges.
The Bearden School District and Southern Arkansas University Tech have spent 2 years (2010 and 2011) in a pilot program testing a remediation process aimed at improving college success. During that two-year period, Bearden high school students were allowed to take Writing II and Intermediate Algebra at SAU Tech. 57 of 69 students, or 83%, completed the college-level courses while still in high school with a grade of 'C' or better.
“As a superintendent, you know your students are college and career ready. You don't have to figure, 'Why are my students not ready for college?',” said Denny Rozenberg, Bearden Public Schools superintendent.
Statistics presented at the meeting by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education show graduation rates of students who successfully complete remediation courses improved “exponentially.”
“We want our kids to be on an equal footing with everyone else in the state and nation,” Rozenberg said. “I think this program allows small schools and even large schools to do that.”
The Board of Education also approved final rules that govern the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, a pre-school initiative that targets children under the age of 5 living i
n families with incomes below 200% percent of the federal poverty level. The funding supports educational programs, such as vocabulary development and math skills, ahead of kindergarten for children who live in school districts in which at least 75% of children perform poorly on state benchmark exams in math and literacy.
The ABC program is funded through the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE), but schools and groups receiving the funds are accredited and monitored by the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS).
In February, a controversy arose in a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which claimed a daycare operated by Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) was operating improperly by taking tax money while providing religious instruction at the school.
For months, the board has been developing new rules and seeking public input to apply to the program. The new language stipulates:
All applications submitted by sectarian or sectarian-affiliated programs must first be reviewed to assure that approval of funding will not result in a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Board member Sam Ledbetter asked if the final rules were deemed constitutional by the ADE.
“Yes, sir,” said Jeremy Lasiter, general counsel for the ADE. “We've tried to do the very best we can to draw that line in such a way that state funds are not used to promote religion, but at the same time, we don't try to regulate in an area that does not have anything to do with state funds.”
The board also approved a motion to keep the Arkansas Governor's School, a 6-week summertime statewide gifted and talented program, on the campus of Hendrix College in Conway until 2015.