Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. named Jay Barth, a longtime Hendrix professor and former State Board of Education member, as the city’s first chief education officer earlier this month. When he officially begins in the position Jan. 6, Barth will be tasked with developing and implementing a community school model in some Little Rock School District schools as well as working on prenatal-to-5 care, literacy, out-of-school issues and workforce development initiatives.
How would you describe, generally, how the city will address education in Little Rock?
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About six years ago, a diverse group came together to talk about what we needed to do to overcome division in Little Rock to create “one city” and to make city government a more active player in helping Little Rock live up to its potential. Mayor Scott and I were both part of that group that met across the next four years. One of the first major challenges facing Little Rock that we identified was that a wall had been erected between the schools of the community and city government. As we looked around the country at cities that worked well, that wall wasn’t present. Therefore, in general, this is bringing the wall down between the city and the schools.
Now that doesn’t mean the city is running LRSD. Instead, the city’s role is to support the work of the public schools both through targeting its own spending on programs that will enhance student learning and through fostering partnerships with nonprofits, higher education institutions and foundations that can fill the essential needs for students and schools that just can’t be met by the schools. Importantly, this is not just about the LRSD. This work will cover the early childhood learning that is so essential for preparing students for kindergarten; schools outside of LRSD, especially the large number of Little Rock residents attending the Pulaski County Schools; and higher education institutions in the community.
How do you see your various areas of oversight in terms of priority or focus?
Implementation of the “community schools model” in those schools serving some of the most economically fragile neighborhoods in our city will be the most immediate issue because of that issue’s role in the debate over the shape of the return to local control in the district. However, it’s crucial not just because of that debate but because research and common sense tell us it’s the right thing to do. As schools have diverse needs, different partnerships will need to come together to respond to those needs. In certain cases, the city’s youth services could be targeted toward serving a community school. In other cases, nonprofits or foundations can help fill the void. In other situations, state or federal programs will be essential to bringing the key elements of the CSM to life. Just as every school is different, the services and programs that come together in that school will be different. That said, we do have a good idea of the types of issues typically faced by schools in communities like those that will be the target of our work — health care, nutrition, after-school and summer programs, family engagement and high-quality early childhood options.
In addition to the community schools model, our team will also be focused on enhancing access to early childhood education — particularly in the earliest years — across the city, development of smart career education programming and working to improve the health of our diverse higher education community that is so important for a vibrant city.
When do you anticipate the selection of community schools?
Now that we know what schools will be open in LRSD in the 2020-21 school year, we can move forward with the conversation regarding the selection of the schools at which the community school model will be implemented. I anticipate that this will happen early in 2020.
Who’s going to select the schools?
Because of the importance of collaboration between the LRSD and the city in the implementation of the model, it will be crucial that there be collaboration in determining the number and identity of the schools that will be initially targeted for the community school model. Other districts that have invested in the CSM have tended to go with a smaller number initially and then grow over time. We are in a spot where we may need to go with a larger number of schools to bring about a more immediate impact on the district.
What criteria will be used?
Most obviously, we will look at achievement results in schools as a gauge of the schools where the community-schools model should be implemented. However, there may be other schools selected that have performed better but draw students from other neighborhoods based on a look at other socioeconomic factors that typically presage poor academic performance by young people. In terms of sheer numbers, most of the community schools will be elementary schools.
Will any or all be ready to go for the 2020/2021 school year?
Implementation will certainly begin in some schools in the 2020-21 school year, but rather than opening with a full complement of services and programming, I envision services to be added over time as partnerships needed for essential services or programs come alive. Over time, additional programs and services will be added to existing community schools and new community schools may well come on board.
What are examples of successful community schools elsewhere?
While all community schools do not look alike, because they serve such diverse communities, there are examples of successful implementations of the CSM in schools across the region and nation. Some are in more urban areas, others in mid-size cities and others in rural communities. The community schools that come to life in LRSD will inevitably have their own unique elements because of the cultural and demographic differences between our community and others. That said, teams from the district, city and state are looking most specifically at CSMs in cities that look most like Little Rock on key indicators.
Will you represent the city on issues before the State Board or with Education Secretary Johnny Key?
While we will be selective in our engagement with the key state actors, we will also support the LRSD in its advocacy regarding its future. My ongoing interaction with the state will be with Reginald Ballard, whom Secretary Key has tasked to be the agency’s representative in efforts to build support for the Little Rock schools performing most poorly at present. I worked with Reggie when I was on the State Board and like him enormously and appreciate his deep connections to the LRSD.
It may be a semantic argument, but you said in your intro press conference, “Local control is returning to the LRSD. The question is no longer whether, but how.” Advocates bristle anytime a public official says that the district is getting local control back, when the State Board has repeatedly made it known that it plans to significantly restrict the elected board’s powers. Do you anticipate lobbying Education Department and the State Board for a more autonomous board?
I think the mayor has been clear in his statements about the need for full local control. I fought for it nonstop while I was on the State Board. I understand fully that as long as LRSD is in Level 5 support that ultimately control will be with the secretary and State Board. It’s clear that the State Board has decided not to return full local control until the district escapes Level 5 and that is frustrating. Our focus should be on getting the district out of Level 5 support as soon as possible so that we can move forward without those constraints. The district and community are ready to run the schools and the sooner that is the case, the better off we will all be.