Things are better than when she arrived one year ago, but much remains to be done, Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Linda Watson said Tuesday at Coffee with the Chiefs.
“I’ve been here one year,” Watson said to the audience assembled at First United Methodist Church for the monthly event sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration. “When I came, the picture wasn’t great, so we began to implement new programs to begin to turn things around. We implemented reading programs to ensure that children are able to read by the time they are in the third grade. If a child can read by then, the chances are that most of them will be alright and won’t be getting into trouble with the law.”
Watson said more is being expected of teachers because of the requirements of new Common Core standards, which she characterized as a uniform assessment of student skills in several key areas that are accepted as the standard by nearly all of the United States.
“The fifth-grade teachers historically have taught [multiple subjects] to their students, while junior high and high school teachers are specialized and teach only one subject area,” Watson said. “The new Common Core standards require math to be taught at the fifth-grade level in the same way it is taught to the older students, so we have to give those teachers time to get more math skills.”
Watson said she expects the district to be approved for participation in a turnaround program sponsored by the University of Virginia.
“We had our initial assessment in early June and I will be participating in a conference call with them tomorrow,” Watson said.
Watson said that the district is in the process of updating policies for the school board, personnel and students.
“We are moving our pre-K program from Forrest Park to the old Greenville Elementary School,” Watson said. “We will also move Head Start to Greenville. We are increasing the number of 4 year olds in the program and expect to have between 350 and 360 with some 3 year olds as well.”
Watson said that the district has received two 21st Century grants totalling about $1 million. The grants are for Oak Park Elementary School and Belair Middle School and will provide $500,000 each over five years.
“They will be administered through the Boys and Girls Club and will provide after-school tutoring and a summer program in 2014,” Watson said of the grants at the June 18 school board meeting.
Watson said that the district summer school program is doing well.
“We have collaborated with the city of Pine Bluff to hold all-day summer school throughout the district,” Watson said. “We had hoped for 1,000 and we have around 800, which is great. That is about double what attendance was last year.”
Watson said the district would like to provide teacher raises but must also reconcile that desire with shrinking budgets as students continue to leave the district.
“Our teachers have not had a raise in five or six years and we are looking for the money to be able to do it,” Watson said. “But we must also make sure the district remains fiscally sound.”
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth praised Watson’s efforts.
“I commend the school board for bringing Dr. Watson to us,” Hollingsworth said. “She has the expertise, heart and passion for the job. For her, it is all about the kids. Education is the single biggest factor in taking our community from a first class community to a healthy community.”
Jefferson County Judge Dutch King added his appreciation of the work Watson has done for the school district.
Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department Chief Shauwn Howell presented the Eyes and Ears Award to Assistant Fire Marshal Lt. Randy Compton.
“Lt. Compton epitomizes what Dr. Watson talked about,” Howell said. “He is an extremely hard worker and never complains about workload. He is frequently working through the night investigating arson cases and also finds time on the weekends to do whatever needs to be done. Your attitude is exemplary.”
Pine Bluff Police Department Interim Chief Jeff Hubanks presented an update on his department.
“We are losing about 600 people every year who are leaving Pine Bluff,” Hubanks said. “This tells us that we have a problem that needs to be fixed. We have a viable workforce here and it is being underutilized. I am proud of the work of the PBPD. Auto theft is down substantially and traffic collisions are also down substantially. Pine Bluff has one of the highest insurance rates in south Arkansas and, as fewer insurance claims are filed, we will, hopefully, see lower rates.”
Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Coffee with the Chiefs organizer the Rev. Jesse Turner reminded the audience that the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice 40th annual Conference and Training Institute will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, July 22, at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.
Turner said the event is being held in collaboration with the Take a Stand to Keep a Seat Youth Mentoring Summit.
“We are trying to send between 300 and 350 kids to the youth summit,” Turner said. “It will be free of charge for all youth participants. They will not have to pay anything.”