A readiness assessment of the Pine Bluff School District conducted in early June by turnaround specialists with the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education found that while the district is ready to move forward it must be prepared to make hard choices in the coming months and years.
Representatives from the UVA program met with district administrators and personnel as well as members of the school board over a two-day period in early June to conduct the district readiness assessment. Click here to see the assessment.
“The results of this assessment indicate that under new Superintendent Linda Watson Pine Bluff is urgently investing in building the district’s capacity and overall infrastructure necessary to address the priority schools identified by the state of Arkansas,” the assessment report said in its executive summary. “We were impressed by the willingness expressed by everyone interviewed to take on the challenge of turning around identified schools and increasing the district’s overall performance.”
Three UVA representatives met with Watson as well as members of her leadership team, PBSD board of education directors, other district-level staff and a focus group with two principals; with most interviews lasting for one hour and the interviews with Watson and the focus group for ninety minutes.
What is working well
The report found a number of positive indicators that the district is ready for a transformation.
“During the interviews a number of comments were made about the superintendent’s focus and drive to turn the district around,” the assessment report said. “Several veteran district staff members firmly noted that they believe the direction and guidance from the superintendent will improve the district. Of particular note from the principal focus group it was stated that the superintendent has a vision but she will listen to what principals have to say.”
The report said that district personnel expressed a desire for rapid and significant change.
“The one constant response that we heard during our two days in Pine Bluff is the need for immediate change,” the report said. “There was clear understanding that improving education was critical to Pine Bluff’s future and the lives of children.”
The report highlighted Watson’s decision to close Greenville Elementary School as a clear demonstration of the sense of urgency in the school district.
“This move, bold for a new superintendent, symbolically demonstrated that change is needed and that it is needed immediately,” the report said.
The report also commended the district for keeping positions open when the right fit could not immediately be found.
“We applaud the PBSD for the decision to maintain its vacancy for the Math Coordinator position until an excellent candidate is available,” the report said. “This response and other key personnel decisions have provided a clear message to everyone in the organization that excellence is expected and competence will be valued over connections.”
The report found that the state’s designation of priority schools gave the district a clear understanding of which schools to focus on; and found that there is evidence of progress in capacity-building for district leaders through the establishment of a principal institute and in more open sharing of information across principals than during past administrations.
“While there may be some discomfort from the board, community members and veteran Pine Bluff staff the superintendent appreciates the need to address incumbent principals who are not seeing academic improvement in their school,” the report said. “The district’s decision to grow a centralized approach to recruiting and selecting teachers — instead of principals being largely on their own during this process — is appreciated. The Human Resource Department also is developing its ability to provide guidance to principals to identify teacher under-performance.”
Areas of concern
The report said some areas will need to be addressed by the PBSD to create the circumstances that will support a successful turnaround effort.
“A theme of limited support to the schools and limited knowledge in how to help schools achieve excellence came forth,” the report said. “The schools also acknowledged they received more support this year than in the past.”
The report noted that when the district is faced with emotionally charged personnel dismissal decisions, measures need to be taken to ensure that the board and the superintendent are able to work well together.
“The superintendent, to foster an effective working relationship with the board, has introduced clear protocols to manage the guardrails separating the responsibilities of the administration and the board,” the report said. “Our interviews with board members confirmed that these protocols have been beneficial and that the board’s intention is not overstepping their role.”
The report said a key area of concern is the apparent lack of any policy to hold teachers and principals accountable for student learning.
“During interviews we heard several times that teacher performance is not effectively monitored or addressed effectively when under-performance is identified,” the report said. “We were alarmed that there potentially have been zero teacher terminations over the past five to seven years due to performance. The same appears to be true of building principals; no one removed for lack of performance.
The report ended with a hand extended to the PBSD.
“If the Pine Bluff School District believes this program is a good fit for their needs and is interested in pursuing a partnership with the PLE to catalyze turnaround efforts we believe the potential for a strong partnership exists,” the report said.