MARVELL, Ark. – An Arkansas School District destined to consolidate found new life because of the Arkansas LEARNS Act.

The law signed last month includes a provision for schools to enter a transformation contract, and Marvell-Elaine will be the first to attempt one.

Preparing students like C.J. Neal for future success has always been the goal of the Marvell-Elaine School District, but for the past year, the school’s future has been in question.

“It’s been traumatizing just to know that school would have closed,” Danielle Wright said.

Wright is a parent and employee of the Marvell-Elaine Mustangs. Wright learned the school district would consolidate into another district or multiple districts in December.

The state education board voted for the move partly because the Marvell-Elain School District has the lowest performance grade possible for a school. The other reason being of a 2004 law requiring a school with less than 350 students for two consecutive years to consolidate.

“When your population is decreasing, I think the standard are just too high when people are just leaving, finding jobs and elsewhere to live for a better living,” Wright said.

But the Arkansas LEARNS Act provides another path for small or underperforming districts. In its 145 pages is a section that allows low-performing schools to become a transformation campus by contracting a third party to run the school.

It could be a charter school, education cooperative system, or other organization as long as they receive the state Education Board’s approval.

“If this can work in the Delta, this can work anywhere,” State Rep. Mark McElroy said.

McElroy, a Republican for District 62 which includes all of Lee & Phillips Counties, as well as parts of Monroe County. As a lifelong resident of the Delta, he has seen what consolidation can do to small-town Arkansas.

“There are horses walking in our classrooms where we graduated,” he explained of his alma mater.

McElroy unanimously passed legislation signed by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders Tuesday exempting schools with less than 350 students from consolidation if any child had to travel more than 40 miles by bus.

“That’s not just 60 minutes. The bus stops and goes so you’re looking at two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon. I just couldn’t see a six-year-old being punished like that,” McElroy said.

The Delta District will be the first in the state to attempt the transformative contract. Following an “all call” for proposals, the Education Board plans to transition from state control to the third party for 2023-2024 school year.

“I just pray whoever the third party is that they find their best interest in helping us to succeed in bringing our district back up to par,” Wright said.

The Marvell and Elaine districts consolidated together in 2006 when Wright was a student. She said she didn’t get everything she wanted in the state’s decision Tuesday. Her preference would have been a state takeover instead of a takeover from a third party.

“We got the big thing that we wanted and that was to keep our school open,” Wright concluded.

In McElroy’s words, “It wasn’t about saving the building it was about saving the students.”

The Arkansas Department of Education said there were already three potential partners interested in partnering with Marvell-Elain. The challenge may be higher than elsewhere in the state because the district has the second highest per-student spending for a public school behind Earle.