Linda Watson plans to have a positive impact on the Pine Bluff School District during her tenure as the district’s interim superintendent. Watson has agreed to remain in the interim position through the end of the 2012-2013 school year.
Watson, who was most recently an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and before that the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, believes that her past experience will serve her well during her time in Pine Bluff.
“I know I’m an interim superintendent but I take it seriously,” Watson said. “I have to work. This is a year in the lives of these students. There was some progress in some schools last year but I want to push it further.”
Watson said that both the Pine Bluff and Little Rock school districts have a high percentage of black students in low socioeconomic status, and that her experience in Little Rock has therefore prepared her well for Pine Bluff.
“Some of the same problems that exist in larger school districts also exist in smaller school districts,” Watson said. “I am a data-driven person. I am looking at the data. I made a difference in a larger school district and I believe I can make a difference now in a smaller school district.”
Watson said she was happy to be able to once again make an impact on the lives of children.
“My passion is K-12, or should I say, pre-K-12,” Watson said. “While I was at UALR I told the dean that I intended to go back to K-12 for a while. It didn’t necessarily have to be as superintendent, but somewhere in the central office. When this opportunity arose, it was in K-12 and so I was interested.”
Watson has a vision of what she would like to accomplish during her time in Pine Bluff.
“Kids need to be able to read and have the necessary reading skills,” Watson said. “I want to increase access to pre-kindergarten if possible. Every student needs to be able to attend preschool because it teaches them the skills that they need to be successful. It will serve to help them to do better in the first and second grades and on through their education. The graduation rates need to improve. We need to work with older students who are struggling and place them in an accelerated program to get their diploma. The students need to be ready to go on to college or to enter a skilled trade.”
Watson said mentoring is critical to the educational progress of struggling students.
“Having a positive adult in their lives is very important,” Watson said. “These kids need to be around someone who is doing things.”
Watson would like to get all students connected to computers at home.
“I want to start a computers-for-kids program where we would refurbish old computers and then sell them to families for a reasonable fee to allow children to have access to the world through the internet,” Watson said. “I would like to get local businesses on board with this and other programs.”
Watson said she has high expectations for the teaching staff throughout the district.
“We must make sure that every child has a highly qualified teacher in every classroom teaching every student,” Watson said. “I know there are many great teachers in this school district just as there are in every school district. But we must make sure that all teachers are prepared to meet the challenges of all students in all classrooms. We need math teachers right now. It’s going to be difficult to find them all. Our teachers must be both highly qualified and eager to teach all children.”
Watson said she does not want to see students being sent to the First Ward Alternative School by principals and teachers just because the student may have a few problems.
“We need to see how to meet the needs of problem students,” Watson said. “Each campus has a discipline committee that is required by alternative education guidelines. We might need social workers to visit their homes and mental health providers. We need to try to get them on track and into a regular classroom setting. Older-age students who are behind may need to be sent to First Ward. We must try to accelerate the learning of those who are behind and help them to get their diploma.”
Watson is aware of the junior high school’s reputation for discipline problems and has some ideas on potential fixes.
“I want to put a Junior ROTC program at Jack Robey,” Watson said. “I have been in communication with the principal about that. I will be sitting down with a committee that includes the principal as well as central office administrators to look at all of the data on Robey, including test data, discipline information and the teachers that they have. We need to have more experienced teachers there because they are more advanced at keeping problem students involved.”
Watson said the committee will be brainstorming ideas, including whether a ninth-grade academy that separates that group from the eighth graders might be a good strategy.
“I truly believe all kids can learn,” Watson said. “They should be given opportunities to succeed as adults. We must help children and make sure that it happens. We must make sure that we teach literacy, reading, writing and math skills at an early age.”
Watson said schools must be made more inviting and open to parents and to the community.
“Most of the parents really care about their children,” Watson said. “I want to make sure that we invite them in and realize that they are sending us their best every day. For those parents who are not involved in their children’s schooling we need to stand for those children and treat them how we want our children to be treated. We have to stop making the excuse that parents don’t care and work with all of our students. The students want to know that you care. You can win a child over by showing that you care.
“Sometimes you are dealing with a frustrated parent so we have to be the bigger person so when they calm down we can work with them,” Watson said. “It’s all about customer service. If we don’t treat them right they will take their children elsewhere, whether it is to a charter school or out of the district.”
Watson is a longtime educator, serving in the K-12 system for 32 years.
“I originally wanted to be a pediatrician but found that I loved education and ended up working with children in that way,” Watson said. “I was born and raised in North Little Rock. I went to Philander Smith College and earned a degree in biology and chemistry. I taught a biology lab course then and found my niche. I received a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. I went on to earn a master’s degree in education from UALR and a doctorate in education with an emphasis in curriculum and instruction from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.”
LRSD contract buyout
Watson served as superintendent of the LRSD beginning in August 2007 when she served as interim superintendent after the board fired superintendent Roy Brooks.
The LRSD board of directors voted to hire Watson as superintendent for a three -ear term in March 2008.
In July 2010 the board voted not to extend her contract that was to run until June 2011. In December 2010 the board voted to buy out the remaining time on Watson’s contract.
“I did not have the support of some of the board members,” Watson said. “Some of the board members wanted me to fire people including the principal of Central High School as well as an associate superintendent and others. They then came together to buy out my contract and they had the votes to do it.
“Test scores were up and the district was fiscally sound,” Watson said. “I was able to work with the Classroom Teachers Association. I took the same people that some wanted fired and used them to increase test scores in the district. The main job of a superintendent is to increase test scores and make sure the district is fiscally sound. I did that and accomplished these goals.”
Michael Nellums, the newly hired principal of Pine Bluff High School, is an LRSD school board member and was one of the directors who voted to buy out the remainder of Watson’s employment contract in Decemer 2010.
Watson said that past history will have no bearing on how Nellums will be treated moving forward.
“I’m going to do the right thing no matter what,” Watson said. “I will treat Dr. Nellums just like I treat every other district employee, which is professionally and with respect. This is because we have a job to do, which is to educate children.”
Watson said her administration will be speaking with teachers and staff at PBHS to ensure any bad feelings that were created as a result of Nellums being hired are put aside as the new school year approaches.
“I will probably be there to deliver that message,” Watson said. “Either I or one of my deputies will. Some things we have to let go of for the benefit of the children.”