Business leaders plan to foot bill for school turnaround effort

Simmons First National Corp. CEO-elect George Makris announced Thursday that a group of community business leaders known as the Advisory Committee will be paying the $44,000 expense for the Pine Bluff School District’s participation in the first year of a three-year turnaround program.

Makris — who hosted a luncheon at Simmons First National Bank for school district superintendent Linda Watson and the district board of directors as well as members of the Advisory Committee — said the committee intends to be financially responsible for the estimated $288,000 total cost of the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education program but requested that the cost be broken up into yearly increments.

“Over the last several months of discussion it became clear to the members of the Advisory Committee that this turnaround program can be successful,” Makris said. “As you might guess, this is not an inexpensive process. We agreed to pick up the cost of the program except for travel expenses incurred by district staff and board members that will be required over the course of this process. We believe that this is an expense that should be covered by the school district.”

Makris said the results of a district readiness assessment conducted in early June were positive for the PBSD. Click here to see the assessment as a PDF.

“It is no secret that the Pine Bluff School District has had its problems over the past two years,” Makris said. “But we now have a wonderful superintendent in Dr. Watson and a brand-new set of faces on the school board. We all know that if we don’t do something to turn the district around, then it is very likely that the state will come in and do it for us. Now, I don’t think any of us want to see that happen.

“There are 4,000 students in the Pine Bluff School District who are totally dependent on the district preparing them for a successful career,” Makris said. “They need to be the focus of our efforts.”

Makris said the UVA program has been successful in turning around troubled school districts because of the pre-screening assessments that it conducts.

“If a school district does not have what it takes, then no partnership is formed,” Makris said. “It speaks highly of the Pine Bluff School District that it has been deemed ready for a turnaround.”

Dennis Woodruff participated in the district assessment as part of the UVA team and presented the key findings.

“Our Partnership for Leaders in Education is a marriage between the Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia,” Woodruff said. “The first key indicator is that in Dr. Watson you have a superintendent who is strong, supported and respected.”

Woodruff said another plus for the district is a communicated willingness to provide extra support to those schools in the district that are chronically underperforming.

“The district is looking to employ a new addition to the senior leadership staff whose first and last priority is to focus on those schools most in need of improvement,” Woodruff said. “There is also a sense of urgency throughout the district in getting the district turned around.”

Woodruff said a focus by district personnel on student achievement is present in the Pine Bluff School District and is gaining additional traction.

Implementation schedule

The implementation plan mutually agreed upon by the PBSD and the UVA team includes the hiring of a senior staff member to function as the point person in the school district for all things related to the turnaround plan.

The agreement calls for the completion of a job description for the position as well as the identification of a budget and approval by the school board by Nov. 1; a clear plan to recruit and select the staffer by Jan. 15, 2014; and attendance by Watson and the new staff member at the March UVA Boot Camp with a start date for the new staffer no later than June 1, 2014.

The agreement calls for an aggressive campaign to recruit four turnaround principals both externally and internally by May 15, 2014, with a goal of at least eight candidates.

During the 2013-2014 school year the agreement calls for the clear identification of the most struggling teachers in each turnaround school, and the placement of these teachers on individualized support and accountability plans.

During the 2013-2014 school year the district and the UVA team will review student performance data and create minimum performance targets for the 2014-2015 school year.


Several attendees had comments for the district personnel and board members in attendance.

“For the board members here I want to say, roll your sleeves up, bring your lunch pail and get ready to get down in the pit,” Clifford Roaf said. “To use a football analogy you all are the line and Dr. Watson is the quarterback. You all are going to have to block for her. You are up against a strong opposition who do not want you to succeed. Pine Bluff has to succeed in spite of that opposition. This is a fight for this community. The Pine Bluff School District is the one district in this community that determines what the future of this area will be.”

Kymara Seals serves on the staff of Sen. Mark Pryor and also has a child in the school district.

“This community has high expectations for results,” Seals said. “All of us in this room are here because we are passionate, believe in this district, the kids and this school board. Those of you in the school district and on the school board make sure that you put personal agendas aside and consider how any actions that you are considering will affect the children.”