- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Southwest Times Record. Jan. 22, 2017.

Foster care numbers are growing around the state, and Sebastian County is leading the way. But with the right effort, perhaps that can change.

Recently, Restore Hope CEO Paul Chapman visited the area to discuss efforts to address problems with adult incarceration and children in foster care. Restore Hope Arkansas Inc. is a nonprofit group established by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2015 to focus on reducing the number of children entering the Arkansas foster care system, among other things.

The Restore Hope alliance is in the works in Sebastian County. Chapman hopes to include 20 to 25 leaders from around the area who will meet monthly to discuss strategies for tackling the foster care crisis the county is in.

One strategy is a so-called “wraparound” service for families that would deal with the family as a whole in an effort to keep it together. Problems like drug and alcohol abuse would be addressed with a parent before a child is removed from the home.

“A lot of the parents really love their children and want to keep them, but a lot of times mental health issues play a role,” said John Anderson last summer. Anderson is the community engagement specialist at Arkansas Creating Connections For Children, Area 2. “Domestic violence is also another reason, and sometimes a parent just may not be educated and know the laws.”

The foster care numbers we’ve been given are staggering. According to the report from the Department of Human Services released in 2016, 5,200 children are in foster care placements across the state - a 30 percent increase from a year earlier. Close to 1,000 of those are from the greater Fort Smith area, based on last year’s numbers. Sebastian County’s numbers far outpace those from Pulaski County, the largest in Arkansas. Chapman says Sebastian County’s high incarceration rate is to blame, as is drug and alcohol abuse.

The county’s high foster care numbers means many children cannot be taken care of locally. About 67 percent of Sebastian County children in foster care are house elsewhere, according to Chapman.

“(The children) are placed around the state,” Chapman says. “This poses all kinds of problems not only for the child, who is now taken away maybe from other relatives or support systems they may have at school or with friends (or) sports teams, but it provides a real problem for our system in that now we’ve turned our case workers who should be trying to come to the end of it into logistical managers, ‘How do we get this child that’s in Little Rock back to Sebastian County next week for a visit or for a court hearing?’”

The area has folks who have recognized that there’s a shortage of facilities for area foster care needs. There’s the Maggie House in Charleston, which provides 33 beds for children, as well as its sister facility, the Curt, Cliff & Opal Young Children’s Home, which will have four new cottages with eight beds in each at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith.

We believe the problem lies beyond a shortage of facilities to house these children. What the area needs is people willing to give of their time to make a real change. Leaders who can bring new ideas to the table and understand the problems the foster care system is facing. People dedicated to stopping a family crisis before it starts. And the Restore Hope alliance is a great place to start.

One person who’s committed is Abbie Taylor Cox, executive director of STEPS Family Resource Center.

“(I joined due to) the fact that there are so many people that are downtrodden, and down on their luck, and they think that that’s just the way it is,” Cox said recently. “… And (the fact that) we’d be bringing community leaders together and all kinds of organizations together to wrap around people, to make them realize that they can change their lives. … I want to be part of that.”

We should all want to be a part of changing lives for the better, especially when children are involved. Volunteers who care enough to participate are needed to make the group a success. Here’s hoping that happens.

___

El Dorado News-Times, Jan. 22, 2017.

Students throughout the El Dorado School District have been celebrating the 10th anniversary of the El Dorado Promise.

On Jan. 22, 2007, Murphy Oil Corporation announced the El Dorado Promise - a $50 million scholarship program that enables all El Dorado High School graduates, who have been enrolled since at least the ninth grade, to have their tuition and mandatory fees paid at any regionally accredited university, public or private, in the United States.

For the past decade, 2,025 students from El Dorado have taken part in the Promise scholarships, and the full impact of that amazing gift to the community has yet to be fulfilled.

On Jan. 20, students, teacher, parents and others gathered on the Union County Courthouse steps for a Purple Promise Day pep rally, the final event in a weeklong celebration of 10 years of the Dorado Promise.

Besides offering college scholarships to all the graduating students, the Promise brings back educated young professionals to El Dorado and Union County, who in turn, give their knowledge and skills to the next generation of El Dorado graduates.

Not all who graduate from college, thanks to the Promise, will return home to ply their trades, but many of them will.

In fact, at the pep rally, student Camden Sanford read his essay on the Promise to the crowd.

“When I first heard of the Promise, I was in kindergarten. I knew it was important, but it wasn’t until I went along in years that I knew how important it was.”

Camden said he looks forward to using his Promise scholarship to attend Louisiana Tech, where he plans on majoring in mathematics education.

“I want to come back to El Dorado to teach so I can help those younger than me,” Camden said. “Grade by grade, I came to realize how great it ,” he said of the Promise.

The ripple effect of the Promise is like the lighting of a single candle at a candle light service. As the flame passes from candle to candle, the light grows and the darkness disperses. For El Dorado, thanks to the incredible generosity of Murphy Oil Corporation, the light of education is passing freely to the city’s children, and they, in turn, are carrying that light out into the world.

And luckily for us, there are those students like Camden, and every other Promise scholar who decides to return home, the legacy of the Promise will continue to shine brighter and brighter in South Arkansas. Congratulations to the Promise and all those who work to make the most of the incredible gift the community has been given. And thanks once again to Murphy Oil Corporation for having the heart and vision to not only make the El Dorado Promise, but to keep that promise for a decade.

___

Texarkana Gazette. Jan. 24, 2017.

Many of our more seasoned readers can remember a time when public school teachers were held strictly accountable for their personal conduct - sometimes unreasonably so.

School districts in our area and various places around the country had standards that sometimes prohibited a pregnant woman from teaching, or restricted teachers of ether gender from being seen at bars or restaurants that served alcohol.

And heaven help any teacher caught in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.

Those days are gone for the most part. But teachers are still held to a higher standard of conduct than those in many other professions. And one area where there is little leeway is the use of illegal drugs.

The problem is that one drug - marijuana - is illegal in some states, but as legal as having a glass of wine in others. So what does a district do when a teacher ventures to a state where pot is legal and later pops positive on a drug test back at home?

That’s just what happened in El Paso, where a high school science teacher named Maryam Roland failed a drug test in early 2015 following a Christmas holiday in Colorado, where marijuana is legal. She admitted she occasionally used marijuana, though never at school, and had ingested an edible marijuana product while in Colorado.

The Texas Education Agency wanted to suspend her teaching license for two years. Instead she resigned - and sought legal counsel.

This month an administrative law judge ruled Roland should not have faced punishment for using a legal product in a state where such use is legal.

The judge said it would be like punishing a teacher for casino gambling - which remains a crime in Texas - in a state where it is legal.

Interesting idea. But one we can’t agree with.

Gambling is one thing. Using illegal drugs is quite another. We know some may disagree with that view, but that’s what makes horse races. And Texas teachers know when they take the job that illegal drug use is forbidden.

Still, this is a question that will come up again and again as marijuana - medicinal, recreational or both - becomes legal in more states. So it’s something that demands a more definitive answer.

The TEA says the judge’s ruling isn’t the last word. That’s good. We look forward to seeing how this plays out.

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