Dollarway School District taking steps toward redemption


Just over one year has elapsed since the State Board of Education took over the Dollarway School District. An assessment of the district’s progress in remedying the violations that led to that drastic action reveals that much has been accomplished but much also remains to be done.

Frank Anthony, who was appointed Dollarway superintendent by Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell one year ago, will be stepping down from the post June 30.

Anthony will be succeeded by former North Little Rock School District assistant superintendent Bobby Acklin, who will begin his new job July 1.

Phyllis Stewart, Kimbrell’s chief of staff, praised Anthony’s accomplishments.

“Over the past year Mr. Anthony addressed and resolved the standards violations at Dollarway High School that led to its loss of accreditation last year,” Stewart said. “He filled personnel vacancies and set a standard for principals to follow as instructional leaders in their schools. In order to address the ongoing decline in student enrollment in the district and the consequent loss of revenue, Mr. Anthony took a lead role in closing Altheimer-Martin Elementary School. That school was a fiscal challenge and he took care of the situation before the next superintendent came in.”

Stewart said Acklin will have a full plate of tasks waiting for him.

“Dollarway has several priority schools and that has to be the primary target for him,” Stewart said. “To get those schools achieving better and closing those achievement gaps. Mr. Acklin’s strength is in building strong coalitions in the community. The community has to own their schools and he is the right person for that job.”

The year that was

Anthony laid out his assessment of how far the district has traveled on the road to redemption.

“When we came in last June the state had been empowered to take control of the Dollarway School District after Dollarway High School was found to be on probationary status for two consecutive years,” Anthony said. “We have corrected the issues with seals on transcripts and certified staff. For the first year in a long while the Arkansas Department of Education fully accredited all five schools in the Dollarway School District for the 2012-2013 school year. This is a foundation for future success. It is confirmation that the district is taking the right first steps but there is still much to be done in the district.”

Anthony said ways to stem the tide of students leaving the district have been studied.

“When we came in last June the district had 1,450 kids and by the first day of school on August 19 we were down to about 1,300 kids,” Anthony said. “So we lost around 125 kids over the summer last year. This is a critical issue for the school district moving forward. These numbers need to be stabilized. The loss of students triggers financial issues for the district with each student representing $6,267 in funding.”

Anthony said the district is vying against private schools, charter schools and school choice in the fight to stop the enrollment slide.

“We can’t do anything about the private schools and charter schools but the district opted out of school choice for one year,” Anthony said. “This means that no student can transfer out of this district to another district and no students from another district can transfer in. This will hopefully help.”

Anthony said the closure of Altheimer-Martin Elementary was necessary to address the continued loss of funding to the district resulting from the loss of students.

“The savings in operational expenses of closing the school is $500,000,” Anthony said.

Anthony said he worked with officials in the ADE to implement the district’s reduction-in-force plan for the purpose of adjusting the teacher-to-student ratio to acknowledge the continuing drop in overall enrollment.

“With the triggering of the reduction-in-force plan we eliminated eight certified positions with a savings of between $400,000 and $500,000,” Anthony said. “The elimination of eight classified positions will save the district another $150,000.”

Caution ahead

Anthony laid out what he considers to be the primary challenges that await Acklin come July 1.

“He must continue to manage district finances in a prudent way and this is driven by keeping staff numbers in line with student enrollment numbers,” Anthony said.

“Personnel recruitment and employment is also critical to keeping district accreditation and producing academic results,” Anthony said. “Equally the existing staff must be managed successfully. Mr. Acklin will need to provide leadership for the district administrators. These include the central office staff and building principals. They must be given guidance and opportunities for growth.”

Anthony said critical current staff vacancies include a counselor, mathematics teacher, library media specialist, business education teacher, English teacher and art teacher.

“Most of those positions are in the state shortage category which means that the demand for these teachers exceeds the supply,” Anthony said. “A failure to secure a licensed person in those areas will jeopardize accreditation.”

New leadership

Acklin has been meeting with Anthony in the runup to their leadership handoff in an effort to get up to speed with where the district was, where it is now and where it needs to be.

“I have several firsts that I need to accomplish,” Acklin said. “At the top is student achievement and safety. Safety is number one. Community involvement is also a biggie. I will be developing activities to get the community engaged with the school district.”

Acklin said he intends to make sure that standard operating procedures are in place and known by employees on a districtwide level.

“We need to make sure that we have systems districtwide where everyone knows what to do, whether it is regarding staff attendance or student attendance or anything else,” Acklin said. “I am going to meet with staff and start developing those. I am going to get the administrators in there and make sure that everybody knows about them.”

Acklin said that this will help to ensure that the district does not backslide on the progress it has already made.

“I also want to tap into the various strengths of the individuals already employed by the district,” Acklin said. “I want to find out the different strengths that are out there and get the staff involved in developing those.”

Acklin said everything will begin with the acknowledgement that it is all student-focused.

“It’s about the children of Dollarway and we will preach that every day,” Acklin said. “We want to emphasize the staff that is caring for these kids. We want parents to know who it is that is educating their children and that they can depend upon them to do that. We want people to buy back into this school district. We want people to know that we are up for the challenge.”

Acklin said he will begin to assess student test data.

“We are going to look at the student achievement data and make sure that each student is assisted in improving their test scores,” Acklin said. “Maybe there is one kid who just needs to see his or her score moved up one percentage point. We will help them to do that. The only way to find out what the kids need is to go through all of the data. The excitement will come when the kids do better on their tests.”