District challenges can be overcome, PB superintendent says

Linda Watson, superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District, acknowledged Thursday that the district’s falling enrollment, academic scores, high dropout rate and slipping graduation numbers pose problems, but can be overcome.

“It will not be a pretty speech,” she said in opening comments to the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club.

“I still have some hot blood in me. … I enjoy being in the K-12 situation,” said Watson, former superintendent of the Little Rock School District.

The falling enrollment means the district must allocate its physical assets, divided between 10 schools – six elementary, two middle schools, a junior high and high school. The district also has alternative school and pre-kindergarten programs.

While the 4,474-student district has met overall state standards in literacy, the results for math, geometry and algebra are a mixed bag.

“We are a district in a state of urgency,” Watson noted, with five schools being classified as “priority schools” in need of improvements.

Thirty-Fourth Avenue Elementary is the only district school considered “achieving” in all areas.

Jack Robey Junior High School has met math and literacy standards for one year, but must repeat the progress for a second consecutive year to be removed from the state’s “priority school” list.

Improvements at Pine Bluff High School mean a higher percentage of students tested, an improved graduation rate and better literacy scores are required, Watson stated.

The district’s “course of action” requires effective leadership, qualified teachers teaching “from bell to bell,” efficient use of resources and more accountability, she emphasized.

A reading program has been implemented to improve literacy rates, the district’s chief administrator noted.

Professional development means a “change in the culture of our schools,” a commitment to core standards, analysis of all available data, and a “professional learning commitment down to the students.

Accountability is vital, Watson said, noting she is accountable to the state Board of Education, the local school board, parents and students. She expects administrators to spend less time in the central office and be visible at the schools.

The superintendent said her goals call for improving literacy and math scores by a minimum of 5 percent each, reducing the dropout rate, improving graduation rates, the district remaining fiscally sound and increasing parental, business and community involvement.

Recommendations include all-day summer school for students left behind in the classroom, district-wide math coordinators and working as a team to eliminate some problem areas.

“In order to have a great community, you must have great schools,” Watson concluded. “Failure is not an option.”