In what was billed as the first policy speech from the new head of the Little Rock School District, Superintendent Michael Poore made the case for greater collaboration between schools and local industries.
He told a packed room at the Clinton School of Public Service Tuesday that career development centers, along with pre-K access, and quality teachers are key to his vision for returning the state-controlled district to local control.
Poore began serving as LRSD Superintendent on July 1. Education Commissioner Johnny Key chose the former Bentonville superintendent after opting to not continue Baker Kurrus’s contract. The Little Rock district was taken over by the state in January of 2015 because six of its 40-plus schools were designated as being in "academic distress" after failing to meet testing benchmarks over a three-year period. The district no longer uses the same assessments.
Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford set the tone, saying “clearly this is an interesting topic and these are interesting times,” as he introduced Poore.
“This ladies and gentleman is his first policy speech as superintendent of the Little Rock School District,” said Rutherford. “He’s doing town halls and extensive outreach programs but this is his first policy speech. We’re honored to have that speech.”
Poore presented an upbeat, positive-thinking disposition to those assembled, which included Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, a handful of state representatives, and education lobbyists and interest groups. He joked he was a “zip-a-Dee-doo-dah” kind of guy while his wife had an “Apocalypse Now” mentality.
Poore believes an excitement can be stirred within students through community engagement and career development projects.
“They get to feel like they’re valued, they’re getting to solve a problem, they’re connecting with others,” he said. “We need those types of things.”
He thinks it’ll rub off on the community too. "Our public schools are not looked at as the shiny penny anymore,” said Poore. “I want programming that makes parents say, ‘I want to be in that school.’”
Poore couldn’t offer many specifics on these community programs and workforce partnerships, he’s in the process of reaching out to business leaders. He challenged Little Rock business leaders to step up and offer projects to students.
“I’m talking about a real problem and let them dive into it,” he said to those at the Clinton School. “If you want to make a difference in a Little Rock school, that’s what needs to happen.”
He identified middle school as a particularly vulnerable area for the district.
“This is one of the sorest spots we have in Little Rock schools. This is where we lose our students. We’re losing more students to charter and private schools at this stage of development than any other place.,” Poore said.
The intentionally amorphous concept of career development centers allows for a wide array of workforce development and education missions in conjunction with business interests. Poore said fall 2017 is an “appropriate target date” for the first programs to roll out.
He elaborated on the concept in an interview after his remarks, “Career development centers, sometimes people think of them as big warehouses and I don’t think it necessarily needs to be that. As an example, for a technology solutions group it might be at an IT building and they’re taking up a conference room for students to work at. It could be on campus, in a business setting, or ultimately, eventually maybe we do create a career tech center that houses all sorts of things. But that’s probably years out.”
Poore does have three broad outlines of career development areas tailored to Little Rock.
“One is to develop teacher cadet programs, a second thing is technology solutions and that’s high-end technology where kids are doing real projects for companies, and the third thing is medical-professional,” said Poore. “I think there’s a need for that type of partnership in this community.”
Poore acknowledged there has been some hesitancy in Little Rock about what the career development plan will actually look like.
“A lot of people when they heard about career development centers they thought, ‘Mike Poore’s coming down here to make sure we have people building widgets.’ I don’t see our kids being wired like that. I see our kids being wired to do things that are creative and innovative,” he said.
He said the development of career centers was one of three main objectives from the state Department of Education and Governor Asa Hutchinson. The other said to be returning the district to local control and forming collaborative relationships with the community.
After the Clinton School event, Mayor Stodola said schools working with medical professionals, and tech folks is a promising concept but he’d like to know more.
“2017 is right around the corner. The specificity of how this is actually going to be executed is something I’m very interested in because I think it’s in an opportunity we’re missing,” said Stodola.
Little Rock’s mayor also looked forward to more details on Poore’s plan to put quality teachers in struggling classrooms. Poore identified well-trained teachers as essential to turning around distressed schools early on in his remarks.
“I would imagine there are some people who would have liked to have heard more about how we’re going to maintain effective teachers and get rid of teachers that not effective.,” said Stodola. “I’m sure that will all come out in ensuing days and weeks and months.”
After his presentation, Poore said one thing he can offer talented teachers is open ears, “teachers really value the chance to have input and a voice. Sometimes that even overcomes the economics of things.”
While he had not pay or benefits proposals for teacher recruitment and retention, he said “our starting pay salary is a challenge right now.”
Another major provision of Poore’s address was to highlight the importance of pre-K access. He ran a slide with the headline “Universal Pre-K.”
“This early jumpstart in terms of pre-school is really critical,” said Poore. “The aggregates of data clearly show that those who are part of our structured pre-school program, that’s a part of Little Rock schools, we end up doing extremely well.”
While Poore is pushing for expanded pre-K access his boss, Education Commissioner Johnny Key, and his boss Governor Asa Hutchinson haven’t embraced the concept in recent state budget battles in the legislature.
But Poore thinks they’re receptive to the idea.
“I’m not sure it’s not their goal, I just don’t think it’s become a priority,” said Poore. “Me as a superintendent rallying other superintendents or community members, I don’t think the governor or commissioner would back away from that. They want that type of input in my opinion.”
Poore says community engagement, including walking tours and town halls will be an ongoing staple of his efforts. He said he’d never done outreach efforts so extensive as in Little Rock, acknowledging “the reality that the community has had issues [with the state] and that’s created division. One of them is local control, a second was the decision on Mr. Kurrus and me coming in. A third is related to charter schools. But I’m not going to back way form challenging. I’m going to engage.”
City director, and executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance (which Poore says will be doing work with the LRSD soon), Kathy Webb is also planning to keep engaging with Poore and the state Department of Education despite very public differences.
“The important reality is he is our school superintendent,” said Webb after hearing Poore’s remarks. “He believes we need to work collaboratively with charter schools, while I am an advocate for stopping expansion. But I’m just going to keep working with him to make our schools better so people don’t feel the need for an expansion because they want their kids in the Little Rock School District.”
Issues of race and student segregation encouraged by the creation of what detractors call a parallel school system, in the form of charters, are typically at the forefront of community advisory meetings on the district. A recently disbanded Community Advisory Committee called for Education Commissioner Johnny Key to resign and for Baker Kurrus to be re-instated.
John Walker, an attorney whose named is affixed to a state Civil Rights trail marker, has characterized the state takeover of the district as a rouse by elite whites in the business community to control district resources in response to 2014 plans by a new majority-minority school board to re-direct resources and attention to poorer schools at the expense of affluent west Little Rock.
Poore did not speak to those matters in his remarks.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly read that the entire LRSD is designated as being in academic distress. Only six of its school were designated as such when the state voted to take over the entire district based on academic distress in those schools.