The administration of Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Linda Watson, in cooperation with the PBSD Board of Directors, is in the early stages of implementing an ambitious plan to increase the academic performance of the district’s five state-designated priority schools.
Watson hosted a community meeting Tuesday morning at First United Methodist Church to introduce city officials, business leaders, clergy and district educators to representatives of the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program.
“I appreciate the University of Virginia for bringing their school turnaround agenda to us,” Watson said. “Our district may be down but we’re going to get it done with help from the community. It’s not about us. It’s about the children.”
William Robinson, a deputy director of the university program and a 2000 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, emphasized that 95 schools in eight states have completed at least two years in the program with reading proficiency increasing an average of 36 percent and math proficiency up an average of 46 percent.
“Being named a priority school is actually an opportunity,” Robinson said. “The turnaround of low-performing schools is absolutely possible. But it is hard work. It requires bold vision and bold goals. I am very impressed with what I have seen so far from Dr. Watson and her staff. The closing of Greenville Elementary School is the type of bold action that is required for a successful turnaround. It did not have enough students attending to remain financially viable and by closing it the district will be better able to meet the needs of all of its students by using its funds in the smartest way possible.”
Bernice Martin-Russell, director of federal and state programs for the district, said that the five priority-designated schools in the PBSD are the second-highest number in the state, behind the Little Rock School District with six.
“Priority schools are among the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in Arkansas,” Martin-Russell said. “There are a total of 37 priority schools in the state. The transformation model must be followed by all priority schools. We are trying to make sure that none of our schools go into academic distress.”
Martin-Russell said that the Arkansas Department of Education has mandated that all priority schools align their turnaround strategy using the transformation model.
“Transformation requires teachers and principals to change to bring about the dramatic change in the learning environment that is needed to benefit the children enrolled in our schools,” Martin-Russell said. “Educators who are increasing student outcomes will be identified and rewarded and those who are not doing may be removed.”
Robinson said that the U of V program is tailored to bring districts like Pine Bluff out of low-performing status.
“You must have an absolute zealous focus on implementation for a successful turnaround,” Robinson said. “It is not about top down or bottom up but instead it is all working together for a successful turnaround. The school principal has got to be an instructional leader down to individual students and teachers.”
Robinson said the U of V turnaround program first completes a district readiness assessment to gauge where the strengths and weaknesses are.
“Our philosophy is summarized by three key principles,” Robinson said. “A systemic approach that enhances transformational change; the creation of high-impact school leaders through the development of key leadership capabilities; and ongoing support.”
Robinson said the initial assessment is scheduled for June 5-6 and that discussions will be held with the district afterward to review the results and plan next steps.
The board of directors held their regular monthly meeting Tuesday night in the Pine Bluff High School Little Theater beginning with additional information on plans for improving academic performance.
“We are holding the board meeting here because the turnaround model requires a community meeting,” Watson said.
Martin-Russell gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining ADE requirements for priority schools, touching on the points discussed earlier in the day.
Robinson explained the proposed role of the U of V program in the district.
“Turnaround works,” Robinson said. “We have worked with more than 80 schools across the country including Clarke County in Las Vegas, Nev., which saw double digit gains after the first year. We have schools that were performing lower than schools in the Pine Bluff School District that are seeing double-digit gains.”