POORE: Making his pitch. Brandon Markin

Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore expanded on his defense of the district’s progress and vision for the future in a long interview yesterday ahead of an important State Board of Education meeting Thursday. He elaborated on the pitch he made last month to the State Board to return all the LRSD to a locally elected school board, preserve the successful collaborations between the district and the state Department of Education and continue recognizing the Little Rock Education Association as the exclusive bargaining agent for teachers.

Last month, during the momentous State Board of Education meeting when the board adopted a framework that would put some schools under as-of-yet unspecified “different leadership” and considered a surprise motion to end recognition of the Little Rock teachers union, Poore hinted at resignation. He said he’d have to take stock of the messages the board was sending as he considered his future. He declined to elaborate Tuesday, saying that he’d let his earlier words play out until after Thursday’s meeting.

But he did expand on his defense of the union contract. Aside from his time leading the Bentonville School District, his experience had always been in school districts with union contracts, he said.

“That’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve always looked at the negotiated agreement as something that benefits both sides,” Poore said. “It benefits us, it benefits them. It creates a standard of expectations of how we work together and the rules that we’re going to play by. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”

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He said he wasn’t surprised, in a fire-at-will state, that there’d been community support for the teachers union. “Teachers are the most treasured group amongst parents that you can have,” he said.

He also said he’d been heartened to hear from conservative business people who genuinely wanted to know why Poore supported the teachers union. That signified that people in the community were actually thinking through the issue rather than operating on perhaps knee-jerk antipathy toward unions, he said.

Poore said he appreciated Mayor Frank Scott Jr. weighing into the conversation on the future of the district.

“I liked that he inserted his voice,” he said. “I think that’s important. I like that the city directors were there to support that voice. I think that says something. What it did is create another piece that said that collaboration is positive. The mayor’s message is always unity. Just by him coming out like that, it just engineers another conversation.”

Amid the particulars of the debate on the future of the district, everyone has advocated for local control, Poore noted. “We don’t honor that enough,” he said.

But he again specifically objected to the idea of a category of schools that would operate under different leadership. He noted that State Board member Susan Chambers made an unsuccessful motion during last month’s meeting that, rather than challenging schools operating under different leadership, the education department should continue to work alongside the LRSD. Scott’s plan includes similar language. Poore said he hoped the State Board would revisit a collaborative approach.

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“[The state Department of Education] is doing good work with us, and our people are doing good work with them,” he said.

Under the state framework approved by the State Board last month, a new, nine-person school board would be elected in November 2020. Schools that are rated “F” under the state accountability system would operate under “different” as-yet-unspecified leadership. These are called Category 3 schools in the framework. Other schools, slated to be combined or somehow otherwise reconfigured, “may” operate under a locally elected board, under the state’s plan. These are described as Category 2 schools. Category 1 schools would include all other schools and would operate under the locally elected board, which under the framework, could have limited authority.

Eight LRSD schools ranked “F” under the state accountability system, which is based largely on the results of one test, which education researchers say highly correlates to poverty. Three are high schools: Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan. Students at the latter two schools are slated to move into the new Southwest High School next year along with the English language learners who now attend Hall. Those schools would all likely fall into Category 2.

The other “F” schools are Henderson Middle School and four elementary schools: Baseline, Meadowcliff, Washington and Watson.

The students who now attend Henderson are slated in 2020 to merge with those who attend Dodd and Romine in a new K-8 school in what’s now J.A. Fair. So Henderson, too, would likely fall into Category 2.

There are also plans to merge the students who now attend Baseline and Meadowcliff, along with Cloverdale Middle School, into a new K-8 school that will be built in place of a demolished McClellan, but Poore said the earliest that school would be ready would be 2022, and it will require new money, either from a millage increase or another second-lien bond issuance. So it’s unclear whether Baseline and Meadowcliff would be considered Category 2.

Poore said there are hopeful details to be found when you dig into the data from test scores and other factors that make up the ESSA School Index letter grades.

“I don’t know why we’d move away from what we’re doing, which seems to be working,” Poore said. “A lot of effort, all year long, went into supporting the schools that have ‘F.’ We had some pretty good results, like Hall High School — two years of growth. Some of the schools that became an ‘F’ — this is the first time they’ve ever been an ‘F.’ Why would we all of a sudden create a dramatic different delivery?”

He said the intensive efforts to pull up “F” schools in the district — creating professional learning communities, better utilizing data and new ways of delivering literacy programs — had benefited the entire district.

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“They’re working not just at the ‘F’ schools; they’re working at Roberts. They’re making Forest Park a better school. They’re being utilized across the entire system, which is what a system is all about,” Poore said.

Forest Park and Roberts are high-achieving schools in wealthier and whiter parts of the city. The “Growth Score” measures student improvement from year to year regardless of where a student starts. It’s generally thought to be a fairer way to judge school improvement.

Poore also noted that Baseline had improved its growth scores.

Forty-two percent of Baseline students are English language learners and 85 percent are low income.

“Baseline has two straight years at the growth mark,” Poore said. “What that tells you is that their ‘F’ rating has something more to do with some other things that need to be done to support that group of learners. They need additional help on the attendance issue. They need additional help on staff stability.”

Baseline has more money per pupil than any other school in the district, he said. That’s allowed the school to hire extra translators, social workers and, thanks to a grant, extend school days. There’s also been a high rate of turnover there, Poore said.

Can public schools “fix” poverty?

“We’re working like devils to do that,” Poore said. “That’s why we work so hard to partner and collaborate with people to try to figure that out.”

He ticked off a number of partnerships the district has with outside entities: A mentorship program between Calvary Baptist in the Heights and Mount Zion Baptist Church, just south of I-630, for black boys at Henderson Middle School. A similar mentorship program at Dunbar Middle School with Rotary club members. The Ford Next Generation Learning initiative, supported by the LRSD, the LREA and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Poore said the unlikely alliance between the union and the Chamber hadn’t gotten enough attention.

As to Mayor Scott’s proposal to turn challenging schools into “community schools,” Poore said it was important to define the model.

“It’s interesting that everyone wants to help out during the school day,” Poore said. “But in my mind, a community school approach would be a whole lot more about what ends up happening after the day. That’s where you end up, especially in areas with some real economic challenges, you need assistance and help to have kids engaged in positive ways.”

He noted that the district had seen the value of its volunteerism hours jump dramatically, from $19 million to $27 million. He pointed to the success of the Be Mighty campaign, in which the city, the LRSD, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Rock Region Metro and others worked together to ensure that kids living in poverty had access to free meals and activities during the summer.

The district, through its own initiatives and grant work, is moving to begin offering “supper” to children in 11 schools. There’s a dental clinic in Wakefield Elementary, a health clinic in Stephens Elementary, a new health clinic slated to open in January at Chicot Elementary and another one planned for the new Southwest High School.

Poore and members of the education department both praise the collaboration between the district and the department over the last year. But the state has been in control for almost five years. Why hasn’t there been more progress? Why has it taken so long for the partnership to effectively operate?

“We had so many systems we had to develop that weren’t tied to the state,” Poore said. “Everything from accounting, to student-info systems, to the way we do scheduling. All that got redone in the first year. The second year we had to live through that. We didn’t have a way to collect data about kids aside from testing, so we instituted the NWEA Map tests in secondary schools and, in year three, in all schools. Now there’s greater awareness and better tools help guide support.

“We went through probably a dozen audits of some form or fashion. I don’t think there’s a school district in the country that’s been through as many audits as we have. But one of the encouraging things is, when the state department has talked before the State Board, they’ve always said, ‘We never ran across a person that made an excuse.’ ”

Poore said that’s a reflection of the culture of the district: “Everyone wants to get better.”