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Western Hills Elementary to add autism services

Lindsay Johnson
/
NPR
LRSD Superintendent Jermall Wright hopes to expand Western Hills Elementary, adding services for autistic students.

Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright has announced a plan to keep Western Hills Elementary School open.

The school would stay the same, but add additional services for students with autism. The announcement came at the beginning of a meeting of the John Barrow Neighborhood Association, at a community center in Southwest Little Rock on Monday.

This comes during a time of financial hardship for the district. According to members of the Little Rock School Board, the district has to cut $16 million from the budget this year.

Wright who has been on the job for 18 months, says he wants to keep the district in a financially safe position.

“I want to make sure we are never in a situation where we are in financial distress again,” he said. Wright says the district is “not anywhere near financial distress,” but that he wants to avoid it at all costs.

Under Arkansas LEARNS, a law passed earlier this year by the Arkansas Legislature, schools in academic distress can be taken over by charter companies. The last timethe district was in financial distress, it was taken over by the State Board of Education.

The district has closed many elementary schools in recent years, relocating students to other schools in town.

City Directors BJ Wyrick of Ward 7 and Andrea Lewis of Ward 6 organized the conversation. The two directors represent the communities the elementary school pulls from.

Lewis was already very outspoken againstclosing Parkview Arts/Science Magnet High School in the same district and wanted to reassure the community the elementary school would stay open.

“A lot of the parents in this room have students that go to Western Hills,” Lewis said. “Let's use this time where we can really hone in on why Western Hills does not need to close and leave that community.”

Wyrick echoed her sentiments.

“I think our main thoughts are we don't want to close Western Hills right now,” she said.

Western Hills has over 200 students, including several who relocated from the now-closed Meadowcliff Elementary. However, a new school, called the Marian G. Lacey K-8 Academy, could pull students out of Western Hills.

Wright said if this causes the enrollment to dip below 200, the school could be in danger. This is why a proposal was put forward to relocate those students across Highway 70 to Bale Elementary and change Western Hills into a center for early childhood education.

“Just from a purely financial standpoint, it is very difficult to operate an elementary school when you have that few kids,” he said.

After consulting with his special education staff, Wright says he decided instead to expand Western Hills to accommodate students with autism. He said there was a “greater need” for a school that can accommodate high and low-functioning autistic children. He said the new plan would only “generate more students,” and that putting neurotypical and neuroatypical students together “benefits both populations of kids."

Dwayne Green is the father of an autistic Western Hills student.

“He is a highly functioning autistic student,” he said. “He could read, write and spell before he was five, but he had social issues, noises bothered him.”

Green said his family chose to keep his son in the school because they were accommodating and “close-knit.”

“Infusing kids with autism in that school is going to change the dynamic of that school," he said. "Just because you have autism doesn't mean you going to be dysfunctional.”

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.