The first 90-plus days of the Arkansas Department of Education’s role as the operator and arbiter of the state’s largest school district – the Little Rock School District – has not engendered a sense of confidence among all.
But in the wake of a resignation and a pull-back of the state’s initial plans an old face has emerged that intends to rally those who feel alienated after the state’s decision to dissolve the locally-elected school board.
Baker Kurrus has yet to serve as superintendent for a week but the expectations for Kurrus, who was on the Little Rock School Board in previous years, are high. Especially after the former head of the district Dexter Suggs stepped down amidst plagiarism allegations.
Kurrus is now working to repair fraying relationships.
“We’ve made big mistakes recently and it’s fair to say that the district shouldn’t surprise its patrons. That just shouldn’t happen,” said Kurrus.
One of the so-called mistakes Kurrus alludes to was the state’s plan to transform Rockefeller Elementary and Early Childhood School in east Little Rock into a pre-K only school. At the time of the plan’s announcement in mid-April a PTA president, Bill Kopsky, expressed frustration that the state-run district didn’t include parents or teachers in the planning process.
Kopsky says he’s already had a different experience with Kurrus and a conversation about how the district can communicate better. Kospky says he and parents in the district have felt, “blindsided after blindsided, after blindsided by all the different things that have happened over the past three months, but now I am optimistic."
Kurrus has visited Rockefeller and a host of other district schools and has invited some of the state’s fiercest critics, such as members of the dissolved school board, to work with him. He says reforming the district starts with being aware that the way the now state-run school district talks to parents and teachers needs to change.
“We’re going to get out of our turtle shells. We’re going to go from being turtles to ostriches. We’re going to stick our heads up rather than pull our horns in…or, like a turtle. We’re going to get out there,” said Kurrus.
Jim Ross is one of the most vocal of the elected school board members, stripped of his authority by the state Board of Education in January. He has met with Kurrus and says he doesn't doubt the new superintendent's sincerity.
“We all recognize that we had to have more people at the table. Now, the question becomes are we just including people at the table to say, ‘hey, we’ve got everybody at the table?’ Or are we going to really give real leadership to the people that have stayed in this district the last 60 years, African-American families and Latino families,” said Ross.
In a district made up of mostly minority students questions remain as to how race and privilege factor into control of the district. Some opposed to the state takeover have criticized the selection of Kurris as superintendent - he had to have qualifications waived for the post - saying he only got the job because he is white and well-connected. Accusations Kurrus dismisses and says are destructive.
“I’m not a child of 'white privilege.' I don’t even know what that means but that’s not the way I live my life and not the way I raise my children. But it’s not about me. Even if that all were true – and it’s not and it doesn’t even matter – I’m not even thinking about that. I’m going to go anywhere I’m asked to speak. I want to get in the Hispanic and black community – if there is such a thing as that – and that’s what I want to do,” said Kurrus.
Reverend Charlie McAdoo, who stills calls himself a current school board member because he thinks the state’s decision to take over the district is illegal, says differences of class in the state’s leadership - and the lack of representation through an elected school board - do color its ability to understand the needs of some.
“It does effect in some kind of way. I believe in zero to 100 percent. It may not be a hundred percent but it’s certainly not zero. It is effecting how you relate to that 70 percent of folks who are on reduced lunch, or free lunch. It makes a difference,” said McAdoo.
But beyond Kurrus himself, and beyond the circumstances of how the state came to hold the reigns of power in Little Rock schools, is the need to act. The need for a plan to correct six academically-distressed schools, to better the others, and to get ready for the imminent loss of millions of dollars in desegregation funding. Succeeding at this would be one means of returning a locally-elected school board.
Bill Kopsky with the PTA at Rockefeller cautions if the state is unable to reach out to those who feel they have lost their stake in the district even the best of plans won’t go far.
“The more daunting task from my perspective is going to be building the consensus in the community on what a plan forward should be and engaging the community,” said Kopsky. “So that folks feel that it’s transparent, and inclusive, and that their voices matter.”
KUAR will have more in the days ahead on what those plans are and when parents and teachers will get a look.