Decisions awaiting school’s planners

One of the decisions to be made is what to do with the pond.

The Little Rock School District’s second new high school building in a decade is in the planning stages for its academic programming and physical features.

The new West High School building is slated to open for the 2025-26 school year on land with a small lake immediately east of Pinnacle View Middle School at 5619 Ranch Drive, northwest of the district.

The new high school building is one of the projects being funded with revenue from the Nov. 2, 2021, voter-approved 12.4-mill property tax levy extension.

Other district projects also funded include construction of the new kindergarten-through-eighth grade Dr. Marian G. Lacey Academy on Geyer Springs Road — currently underway — and the replacement of decades-old portable classrooms with permanent classrooms in historic classrooms. Central High

Preliminary plans for West High call for a three-story building with an arena and performing arts space to serve about 1,200 students, said Kevin Yarberry, the district’s director of maintenance and operations. Lewis Architects, Engineers are the designers.

The borough-owned lot includes a pond roughly the size of a football field. Some in the neighborhood have looked at the pond and see it as an opportunity for a wetlands study program or “aqua lab/marine technology,” as it’s labeled in preliminary construction plans.

Others who responded to an initial survey about the school warned that the pond could be a hazard and subject the district to liability in the event of accidents.

Yarberry said with a laugh that he is not at the aqua-lab camp.

“I think it would be a valuable area for a field house or an additional practice field or soccer field? Yes, yes,” he said.

“That’s where I see the value right now without understanding what the curriculum looks like. I’m not sure how the pond would relate.”

Plans are not yet firm, but the new school building will be a traditional high school that may incorporate elements of the existing West High School of Innovation. West High School of Innovation opened in the 2019-20 school year under the direction of the Arkansas Board of Education. This was at a time when the Little Rock neighborhood operated under state control.

The School of Innovation offers flexible programming with on-site and online instruction that focuses on project-based learning. The school also has two “career academies”: one focused on animal and plant systems and advanced vocational studies, and the other an academy for digital marketing, design and logistics.

The new high school building will also house “career academies,” which are being established at Pulaski County high schools to provide students with opportunities to learn basic academics in the context of specific careers. Some schools are expected to have wall-to-wall academies, meaning all students will be enrolled in them. Pocket academies are another option where students don’t have to be part of a career academy, but choose to do so.

The selection of career academies and whether they will be wall-to-wall or pocket academies are among the decisions to be made for the new High School building.

Eighty-two percent of the 511 responses to an initial district survey about the new school building indicated a preference for academic subjects focused on business and finance, architecture and design and medicine and biotechnology, said Shay Loring, the district’s director of secondary education. Slightly less popular were the academies of urban agriculture, digital design, and systems and medical technology.

There are several career “tracks” within each academy. Students would choose an academy, then choose a more specific career path at the academy, and then take at least three courses within the pathway during their time in grades 10-12.

Each track offers students the opportunity to shadow in different career fields, take field trips and serve as interns, said Shameka Montgomery, the district’s director of career and technical education.

Ninth graders take a freshman seminar course that introduces academies and pathways.

The Western School of Innovation for grades nine through 12 is now housed in a multi-story office building that was once home to a company that published craft materials.

Along with the construction of the new school space, the original office building could be converted into ninth grade student housing, Yarberry said.

“It’s a logical choice to put the freshmen in the original building,” Yarberry said.

Spaces for primary school students and older students could be separated by some shared common areas, such as the school canteen.

Loring, the district’s superintendent of secondary schools, said in an initial survey of parents about the school’s plans, 74 percent of respondents indicated a preference for separating elementary from older students.

Melissa Gude, the Little Rock district’s chief academic officer, highlighted some of the priorities expressed by survey respondents:

• Plenty of options for Advanced Practice and Pre-Advanced Courses, as well as languages ​​such as Spanish, Chinese, French and Arabic.

• Art programs and art spaces comparable to sports spaces.

• Unique sports facilities.

• Personal finance training.

• Ample parking.

• Space to expand or grow the school.

• Numerous security features including cameras, security personnel, secure rooms, controlled entrances and a stocked pond.

• Use of natural light, native plants, walking trails, roof gardens.

“A lot of them are being considered,” Gude said of the priorities identified in the first October/November survey, particularly separate space for ninth graders.

A second survey is available for community members, asking about academies and school mascots. Those interested in that survey can access it by using the QR code provided on the district’s website under the “Latest District News” link “West High School Community Update.”

Yarberry said he expects decisions on the West building and the maximum price set to be secured by spring. The district has used $85 million as the estimated cost for the project.

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