Arkansans who have spent any amount of time in central Arkansas know at a minimum where Jacksonville is. The community in northern Pulaski County is home to the Little Rock Airforce Base, which houses the largest C-130 Hercules transport fleet anywhere in the world. Clearly, the area is rich in history and a great source of pride for our state.

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“The Last ‘Herk’ Out of Vietnam” is displayed at the entrance to the Little Rock Airforce Base. Photo by Master Sgt Jeff Walston (February 2016)

When Dr. Bryan Duffie invited me to come see “The Great Jacksonville Experiment,” I wasn’t sure what to think or expect. The rumors are true– those of us whose daily lives exist outside of the central Arkansas realm are generally incognizant of events in the Pulaski County Special School District, or PCSSD. My limited knowledge was this: Jacksonville split from the PCSSD to form a school district of its own.

Dr. Duffie, named superintendent in December of 2016 by the newly formed Jacksonville North Pulaski School District’s School Board, led me through the facilities on January 18, 2018, just over one year after his official appointment. During my term as Arkansas Teacher of the Year, I have grown aware of facility issues throughout the state, but this was my first time touring what many in larger, more affluent areas of the state would consider unacceptable conditions for learning. Dr. Duffie explained to me what the community’s perception had been: Jacksonville was somewhere along the lines of a neglected step-child of the PCSSD that deserved to take local control over its school system.

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Fortunately, the story does not end there. After Jacksonville split from PCSSD, the Arkansas State Board of Education and the Arkansas Department of Education began taking steps to help the community of Jacksonville repair their education system. Presently, the new district is building two completely new schools: a high school and an elementary school.

Walking the halls of JNPSD and speaking with the students, I couldn’t help but notice the happiness they exude. It is clear that their new-found sense of worth, along with the structure and stability offered by their new school district has impacted far more than the students’ learning– their social and emotional health has dramatically improved. We all know well the benefits of teaching and caring for the whole child, but the visible evidence is always so reassuring.

In fact, Dr. Duffie and his team are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to whole child education.

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Pictured here is Ms. Murrell, who teaches in an Alternative Learning Environment (ALE) for K-2 students. Ms. Murrell herself is an inspiration, using flexible seating and a variety of self-developed, trauma-sensitive techniques for her students. But the most exciting element of this ALE for me– it is housed within the elementary school. In other words, these students, the most vulnerable in our school systems, are not isolated from their peers, in Jacksonville North Pulaski. Here, these students feel they are still apart of society, not shut-off from it. And with teachers as caring as Ms. Murrell, I know they will stand a far better chance as adolescents and young adults than they would have in a more isolated, punitive environment.

I could go on and on about the amazing and inspirational growth I witnessed in Jacksonville. It embodies a foundational concept in our country: “the school is the hub of the community.” As a society, we have decided that we desire a population of educated voters who can make good decisions and constantly push our country forward in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for all. The community school strives toward this goal on the most basic level that reaches the individual citizen.

 

The community of Jacksonville has reclaimed their right to education the way it was intended– the way we in the United States of America envision public education to serve the needs of the community, and the community to serve the needs of the school, in a symbiotic process that benefits all members and all stakeholders. I am so grateful to Dr. Duffie and the entire Jacksonville North Pulaski School District for allowing me to come and learn from them. I left with my heart full of hope for what is possible in education in the state of Arkansas.

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