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Marvell-Elaine school district new leadership vows to turn things around during transitional contract

Marvell-Elaine new superintendent, Phong Tran spoke with KATV for the first time since becoming the district's leader. (Photo: KATV)
Marvell-Elaine new superintendent, Phong Tran spoke with KATV for the first time since becoming the district's leader. (Photo: KATV)
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Many school districts across the state are getting into the flow of the first few weeks of kids returning to class.

However, the Marvell-Elaine School District over the summer had to make an entire transition to its leadership after the Arkansas Board of Education approved a transitional contract with a Little Rock charter management organization. The board made such a decision after Marvell-Elaine went under a level 5 placement, which means the district is in desperate need of intensive support.

Marvell-Elaine new superintendent, Phong Tran, spoke with KATV for the first time since becoming the district's leader. He said winning the bid to take over the district was a lengthy and difficult process, but he promised they would turn things around.

Tran also works with Friendship Education Foundation, a Little Rock charter management organization that won the bid to take over Marvell-Elaine back in April.

Aymmiah Thurman is a senior at Marvell-Elaine High School. She expressed her excitement because they are back in class. Thurman said she thought there was a chance she would be going to another district because of the uncertainty surrounding MEHS staying open.

"Like I didn't know where I was gonna go because everywhere else is like too far to go," Thurman said.

Last December, community members pleaded with the State Board of Education to save their district. The district was facing consolidation after years of poor performance. Some parents in the district feared their children would have to travel to schools in neighboring district if Marvell-Elaine was dissolved.

Back in April, the board of education, acting under the terms of the newly passed LEARNS act, voted not to consolidate Marvell-Elaine. The board believed in order to get back on track, new leadership was necessary, hence Friendship Education Foundation being selected to take over day-to-day operations of Marvell-Elaine.

"At Friendship we wanted to ensure that the school stays here and the kids are allowed to come to the school, because this school has been here for a long time," Tran said. "We don't want to lose that history, we don't want to lose all the excitement and all the great things that they have done in the past."

In May, the board unanimously voted to approve a transitional contract between the Marvell-Elaine School District and a Little Rock-based charter organization.

Under current law, a school with less than 350 students for two consecutive years must consolidate. The current attendance at Marvell-Elaine sits at nearly 200 students and it remains at an F grade level.

Tran told KATV, that by the end of the transitional contract, he hopes to have moved the district out of level 5 status. He said in order to turn things around and become a high performing district changes have to be made. Tran said over the summer all teachers had to reapply for their jobs.

"We kept a lot of teachers, we had six new teachers coming in, and that was it," Tran said. "We tried to keep a lot of the old staff members, old teachers to ensure there's some continuation within the schools."

According to Tran, as the district moves forward, they'll be relying more heavily on evidence-based information.

"We've done turn around schools, we've done new school builds, so we have the experience to be able to go ahead and takeover this school," Tran said. " But, at the same time get it ready given the short amount of time that we had for the first day of school."

Tran said Friendship Education Foundation has a history of success when taking over a school. He said in the six years they've operated in Arkansas, their Pine Bluff campus has been recognized as the top-performing school in the state. He said in a publication called Public Review, their Pine Bluff campus was ranked 9th among all schools in Arkansas.

"For the last few years we've won the beating the odds awards for high proficiency in mathematics and high proficiency in both the Pine Bluff schools as well as Little Rock schools," he said.

Tran said he wants to bring the same level of success to Marvell-Elaine.

"This school used to be one of the highest performing schools in the region, so we want to come back and make this school one of the highest performing schools in the region again. That's what I intend to do at the end of the day," he said.

In July, the board held a special meeting that focused on the Marvell-Elaine School District's future.

"The easy thing for us to do and recommend is just close the district. The challenging thing for us to do as an agency is to fight for what is right in the community and eliminate failure," said Jacob Oliva, Secretary of the Department of Education, addressing the State Board of Education.

The special meeting comes after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright's recent ruling that said the Learn's Act was not properly passed and the district could not immediately enter into a contract with the Friendship Education Foundation, a Charter Management Organization.

"Getting ready for school to start, professional development, setting calendars, policy, staffing, all of that has stopped. So we are now in this place where we have to determine what is next for the district," said Stacy Smith, Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner.

The board made their decision on Friday, June 7th, to permanently remove the Marvell-Elaine School District's Board of Directors and Superintendent Dr. Katina Ray.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Friday that the action had to be taken due to the left's absurd lawsuit.

"The State Board of Education took emergency action today to save Marvell Elaine. Action that had to be taken due to the radical left’s absurd lawsuit" said Sanders said in a tweet. "Continuing to enact LEARNS brings a new era of opportunity for every kid in the district. We will not allow politically motivated lawsuits to jeopardize our kids’ futures."

Ray said she was disappointed with the board's decision.

"I wanted to see it through into the end and if it was to move forward with the transformation, I was fine with that but having another change right before school, I think that is unfortunate," said Ray.

Ray said it is devastating for the children she grew to know during her time serving as the Marvell-Elaine Superintendent.

"It is another issue of someone letting these students down. We are telling them one thing and we are doing something different and it is heartbreaking," said Ray.

MEHS senior Kayla Gatson told KATV students the energy in their classrooms has shifted. She said the amount of things they are learning has increased.

"It seems like the teachers are more determined to teach us and the students are more eager to learn in classes now," Gatson said. "We're getting to class on time than we were last year."

Tran said the accomplishments they have set will not happen overnight. He said they want to expand the arts and athletic programs. Tran also said they are going to provide ongoing, targeted professional development to enhance the quality of instruction within the school.

According to Tran, the type of success they hope to reach can be possible within three years, which is the timeframe of their contract.

Gatson believes if things change, she thinks people around the delta area will notice. She said possibly more students will want to come to MEHS.

"More students want to come to our school, that they realize that we're actually a pretty good school and they actually start to come here," she said. "Because we do learn here and it's actually a fun school."

Tran reassured Marvell-Elaine will not become a charter school like Friendship Aspire Academy despite any rumors. He said Marvell-Elaine will remain a public school.

"In time, everything that we've done will show, it will in the graduation, it will show in the student achievement, it will show in the grow of the community and the growth of the school," Tran said.

Tran told KATV they plan to improve student's literacy and arithmetic skills to match their grade level.

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