Poore Looks Forward To Challenge Of Leading Troubled Little Rock Schools

Jun 10, 2016

Incoming Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore recently in the KUAR studio.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

Michael Poore has packed up his office in Bentonville where he served as superintendent since 2011. He will soon transition into the role of superintendent for the academically challenged Little Rock public school system that continues to lose students.

Poore agreed to an annual salary of $225,000. His contract officially begins July 1, but he’s jumping into the role two weeks early working with outgoing superintendent Baker Kurrus on the transition. Kurrus ran the district with a $150,000 salary last year. Poore earned $209,204 as the superintendent of Bentonville School’s last year. The Arkansas Department of Education agreed to pay Poore $12,000 for time worked beginning June 13 up to  his official contract date of July 1. The state said the $12,000 will come from the Office of Intensive Support budget, The unit provides academic and technical advice to districts that are in state takeover.

Johnny Key, head of the Arkansas Department of Education, has said Poore’s record of improving academic standards speaks for itself. Key approached Poore about the job in early April and it came together quickly. Poore said he was interested from the start given the challenges the district faces. Poore said his first attempt at turning a school around came in the late 1990s as he took a principal’s role for Mitchell High School in urban Colorado Springs.

“Enrollment had been trending downward, there was some gang influence. There was an exodus, people were trying to get out there. The superintendent told me that I had a year to make a difference or he would turn the school into a charter school. He wanted to see positive steps begun and it wasn’t unrealistic. The important thing was to get a turnaround started,” Poore said.

And that’s somewhat the situation in Little Rock, though Poore said he will spend the first few weeks on the ground in Little Rock assessing the situation, talking with community leadership and stakeholders while listening to what the community wants. Poore said the district likely has everything it needs to raise academic performance and his job will be to help the community grow confidence and channel their own ideas into programs that will add positive value to the district.

At Mitchell High School, Poore said there were challenging behaviors to tackle but there also were positive actions that had been overshadowed by the negative. He said getting the mindset to celebrate the victories, no matter how small they may seem at first, was key in that district’s turnaround. Poore thinks the negative perception has also worked against Little Rock schools and that’s one of the first things he hopes to eradicate with the help from the community. At Mitchell, he said adding ROTC and other career and social development programs to the high school curriculum also made a difference.

In the five years Poore was principal at Mitchell High School the enrollment grew from 1,000 to more than 1,500 students.

RAISING EXPECTATIONS
Poore’s first stint as superintendent was in the Denver suburb of Sheridan. Just two months on that job the school was placed on academic watch. It’s much the same situation he faces in Little Rock, where six of the schools were classified as academically distressed by the Board of Education in January 2015. Those schools are the Little Rock Preparatory Academy, Cloverdale, Aerospace Tech Charter, Hall High School, Henderson Middle School, J.A. Fair High School, and McClellan Magnet High School.

Poore said Sheridan had a high minority student population, predominantly Hispanic with a high poverty rate. He said part of the problem uncovered there was the teachers had lowered their expectations for the students because of empathy for some of the home issues these children faced. He said when teachers empathize too much with students they can unconsciously teach down to lowered expectations. When this was realized by some of the teachers on staff and the district worked to raise student expectations across the board  and the scores came up.

“We were taken off academic distress after just one year.” Poore said. “The expectations have to be set high for all students and then teachers must address the gaps and support as needed whether that’s in after school programs and additional tutorials.”

Poore said it’s wrong to assume that he has all the answers or a magic bullet to fix the issues in Little Rock schools. He said everyone can make a difference and channeling the stakeholders to work together will be his biggest priority.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Poore said when he begins in Little Rock next week he will phone 10 stakeholders each day, from students, parents, community or business leaders so that he can begin building relationships. He plans to conduct town hall meetings, Twitter town halls and kitchen table conversations that allow community members to meet with him to discuss district improvements. The plans also include fostering relationships with the media to encourage ongoing communication.

One way Poore plans to involve the community in the schools turnaround is by creating a formal “Community Call to Action” plan. He said this plan will lay out a structure that allows patrons to participate in key initiatives. Ideas in the plan may include a community reading program, a “bright futures” program, a graduate retention program, and a “world class” career development program.

Poore said he will also focus on helping the district regain independent control. He plans to create an “Achieve Team” that will collaborate with school personnel, parents, curriculum and service staff and interventionists. He said the team will use data to monitor specific target and share suggested actions on how community resources can be leverage along with how professional development will be utilized.

CHARTER SCHOOL DEBATE, TARGETED GROWTH
Charter Schools have been a subject of debate in Little Rock and Poore said he will meet with the area charter schools and private schools in the next few weeks to establish a relationship with this alternative educational delivery form. The one issue Poore would like to see changed with charter schools is that they are held to the same standard and criteria as any public school in the state.

Poore said charter schools are not a problem in Little Rock, nor the only answer. The issue in this large urban district is that families have lost faith and confidence in the public school system.

“There is work to do for sure. We have to make sure families feel safe and confident enough to send their children to their local school. From the 30,000-foot level I know there is a passion for kids among the educators in the district and that’s a good place to start,” Poore said.

He said the goals for his turnaround plan may seem lofty at first glance but he’s patient and as long as there are baby steps forward and the district is able to grow by just one student next year, that will be a victory.

LEAVING NORTHWEST ARKANSAS
A misty-eyed Poore said his five years in Bentonville were some of the best in his career. He said there were plenty of positive changes in that time period in a district that on the surface – located in a regional economy that is one of the fastest growing in the country and with the world’s largest retailer based in the district – looks like it has everything.

Getting the second high school approved was one of the biggest highlights. Poore said the 71% vote for that facility was a testament to the entire community coming together for the sake of the students.

He said the “Ignite” STEM education program is in its infancy as are the student interns the district has been able to place at Wal-Mart corporate and soon Mercy Hospital and Northwest Health hospital. Poore said these real life job opportunities for high school students is a model for others to follow.

One thing Poore would have liked to have seen completed before his goodbye was the land purchase in North Bella Vista. He said the district is close to getting that done. Also he’d like to be around to see more fruits of the Ignite program.

“At this stage in my career I could stay here in Bentonville and work on trying to improve and enhance a strong district or turn my focus to helping a district regain its pride. I recently met a young lady who just graduated as a Gate’s Millennial from Little Rock’s Hall High School,” Poore said. “Erica Braswell will join me onstage at our first teacher conference because I want her to share her heart about what was right and what was wrong with her Little Rock education.”