Thursday evening’s Rockefeller Elementary PTA meeting with new Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus and Associate Superintendent Marvin Burton marked a striking shift in district public relations. Parents and teachers applauding the administrators’ announcement that a planned reorganization of the elementary school and its Early Childhood Center would not be proceeding after all.
That plan, which was created under the auspices of former superintendent Dexter Suggs, was met with alarm by parents and staff last month, who said they’d not been consulted before it was abruptly announced in the Democrat-Gazette. Suggs later backed off some elements of the proposal.
“Long story short, we will not be going forward with any plans to reconfigure Rockefeller,” Burton said, to cheers and applause.
“At all?” one teacher asked. “No ma’am,” Burton replied. “Why try to fix something that’s not broken?” He said the district should instead seek “enhancements” for the school’s successes, and emphasized that the LRSD needs input from parents.
Kurrus went a step further: “I want to apologize to you on behalf of the Little Rock School District.” He said that the district should never have “surprised” Rockefeller parents with a reorganization plan drafted with no evident consultation with parents, teachers and others in the community. “Not to cast aspersions, but … that was wrong,” he added.
The two administrators then took questions from the audience for the remainder of the hour. The shared stage time seemed intentional, with Burton and Kurrus taking turns in addressing the crowd.
It’ll be interesting to see if the partnership dynamic between the two administrators continues in the coming months. Burton, who was interim superintendent for two brief weeks between Suggs’ resignation and Kurrus’ hiring, was seen by many as a potential candidate for the top job himself. Kurrus, a Little Rock businessman and lawyer, lacks the background in teaching and educational administration normally required of a superintendent, which meant his appointment required a waiver of state rules regarding such qualifications. In hiring him on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Johnny Key made it clear that Kurrus is the person in charge of the district. But if he truly draws on the experience of existing administrators in something approaching a partnership role, that could go a long way towards salving concerns about Kurrus’ lack of experience in education.
If this was intended to be the first volley in Kurrus’ attempts to win public support for his fledgling leadership of the LRSD, it’s got to be considered a win. (Just look at this headline from THV 11.) But many parents and teachers last night expressed their optimism in more cautious and measured terms. Although it’s true that the change in tone from Kurrus’ predecessor is refreshing, to put it mildly, the new superintendent offered few concrete answers about the direction of the district writ large. Of course, his tenure only began two days ago.
Otis Hogan, the father of a kindergartener and a fourth grader at Rockefeller, asked about the rumored closure of other schools on the east or south side of Little Rock. He noted that what happens at neighboring elementaries inevitably affects Rockefeller as well, since displaced students increase the class sizes at the schools where they land. Burton said that the district’s goal was to increase student enrollment as a whole so that such closures wouldn’t be necessary. “We want to fill all of our schools,” he said.
After the meeting, Hogan said that he is “very excited they’re going to leave [Rockefeller] as it is … it’s a relief.” Of Kurrus, he said, “I like what he’s saying … he’s not an individual who’s just looking for the next job.” But Hogan said he also was less than enthusiastic about the state takeover of the LRSD and had little confidence in the state Education Department’s stewardship.
“I don’t think they have a good track record at all,” Hogan said.
Sabrenna Lee, a mother whose twin sons attend the Early Childhood Center, said she would have placed her 2-year-olds in a private daycare if Rockefeller had closed its doors to kids younger than 3, as Suggs had planned. Now, they’ll stay in Rockefeller.
Lee said she has several older children, one of which graduated from Hall several years ago. Another recently graduated from eSTEM, a charter school, and two others attend school there now. She said she and her family chose the charter over the LRSD mostly because of concerns over class size.
It’s an open question where their younger siblings will go to school, tough. Lee gestured to the twin boys in the stroller. “Will these guys maintain in LRSD? That depends.”