Jay Barth, a longtime Hendrix professor and former State Board of Education member from Little Rock, has been named Little Rock’s first chief education officer. He’ll be tasked with developing and implementing a community schools model in some Little Rock School District schools as well as working on prenatal-to-5, literacy, out-of-school and workforce development initiatives.
Barth is perhaps singularly suited for this role. He’s a longtime student of education policy and a seasoned political operator who brings nonprofit and foundation connections to the role. Because of his tenure on the State Board, he’s got a working relationship with all of the state players. He voted against state takeover in 2015 and regularly advocated for the return of local control during his time on the State Board, so he’s widely admired among advocates. (He’s also a past regular contributor to the Arkansas Times).
The city has allocated $500,000 to go toward the creation of a community schools model for next year, but it will surely need more to provide the sort of wrap-around services that will be required to make the new program a success.
In October, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. suggested that the State Board move away from a controversial plan to divide the district under separate leadership and instead embrace a community schools model and establish a memorandum of understanding between the city, the district and the state that would outline how to proceed. The state Education Department took a stab at drafting a MOU, including sketching out how community schools might operate, but the MOU was widely criticized and now the State Board has said it’s ready to scrap it and leave the creation of community schools to the city and the LRSD. Of community schools, State Board Chairwoman Diane Zook said this week, “For the community that’s wanting local control, this is something for them to do.”
Rebekah Hall is attending the city’s press conference announcement and will have more shortly.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. began the Friday morning press conference by thanking the Little Rock Board of Directors for passing his 2020 budget, which includes a “target” of $500,000 for the creation of a community schools model in the Little Rock School District, saying that the board “truly put its money where its mouth is by investing in and with the Little Rock School District.”
Scott said the community schools model and its “wrap-around services” will focus on neighborhood revitalization that centers community needs. The mayor said a “robust needs assessment” and community engagement will be necessary, emphasizing that the city will be working with the community, “not doing anything to the community.”
Ward 1 director Erma Hendrix, Ward 6 director Doris Wright and Ward 3 director Kathy Webb were all present at the press conference. Webb, the board’s voting member on the city’s Children Youth and Families Commission, took the podium to tell attendees that the community schools model will allow the Commission to improve the work it’s been doing in the city for several years.
“It’s not that different,” Webb said. “We’ve been focusing on the children, the youth and families in Little Rock but with this targeted focus, we will be aiming to provide top quality programs to make sure every child in Little Rock has what he or she needs to thrive as we move forward into the next few years.”
Scott described the hiring of Barth as “probably the worst kept secret in all of Little Rock,” adding that he’s seen what Barth “has done for the least of these” in Little Rock and “the entire state.” He said that the “type of person” fit to fill the chief education officer position “does not come cheap,” but that Barth has “given us a good deal” that’s “definitely not what he is worth.” Scott later said that Barth will be paid $28.65 an hour by the city in a part-time capacity, in addition to payment from the Little Rock Public Education Foundation that has not been finalized yet.
After Scott announced Barth’s hiring, Barth told the crowd that he and Scott began working together six years ago when a “group of folks who cared about the future of Little Rock” began meeting to talk about how to improve the city.
“One of the first things that this diverse group agreed upon was that the wall that had been erected between city government and our schools was a major problem, for the health of both our schools and our city,” Barth said. “Such a wall does not exist in cities across the United States that work the best. … It is thrilling, six years later, to be at this moment when we begin to say [that] the future relationship between the city and education in Little Rock is going to be decidedly different, because it simply has to for our students of all ages.”
Barth listed kindergarten preparation, wrap-around services including healthcare, “innovative after school and summer programs,” nutrition programs, and teachers “with training to teach diverse students well in a culturally competent manner” as elements of the community schools model. He added that such a model goes beyond providing these services to students.
“It also makes parents and the broader community, including nonprofits, business, faith-based institutions and yes, city government, partners in bringing them to fruition and recognizing that the needs of every community will be different,” Barth said. “With this approach, schools become the true hubs of community. Centers where parents and guardians have opportunities to gain skills they need to be better advocates and learning partners for their children.”
Barth added that in addition to working on enacting the community schools model, he’ll also be working with students in the Pulaski County School District and other city schools as well as higher education schools.
In addition to the Central Arkansas Library System, Scott said Central Arkansas Water has expressed interest in partnering with the city on the initiative. He said Barth will be responsible for securing other partnerships, as well as negotiating with the state government to determine how much funding it may provide to the community schools model.
Barth said his retirement from Hendrix College will become official on Dec. 31, when he will move to professor emeritus status. His position with the city will begin in early January.
Barth said to reporters after the conference that neither the city nor the chief education officer will be “running the schools” in the LRSD, but instead will be focused on facilitating collaboration with community partners. Barth said the city has not yet identified any specific schools for the community schools model, saying that “we all know the schools that, according to the state’s letter grades, have performed the lowest,” but the process is a “work in progress” since the city doesn’t yet know which schools are going to be open in 2020.