LITTLE ROCK — Morris Holmes, Little Rock’s newly appointed superintendent for the next two school years, said Tuesday that much of the district’s focus in that time will be on early childhood education, elementary-school reading, stronger middle schools and careful budgeting.
Arts education, a push for better school attendance and the promotion of the many opportunities in the district’s high schools also will be priorities, Holmes said in his first news conference since his surprise appointment by the School Board on Thursday.
All the priorities are part of the district’s existing Target 2015 strategic operating plan, Holmes said.
Since January, Holmes has been interim superintendent of the state’s largest district, a job that he took for the short term while the School Board conducted a national search for a leader to replace Linda Watson.
Holmes was not an applicant for the job, and while one finalist did interview with the board, Holmes did not. But when the dust settled last week, the board voted 7-0 to make him the district’s chief.
“I’m happy about it, excited about it,” Holmes said Tuesday about the longer job assignment.
While efforts to ensure that every third-grader is able to read proficiently, or at grade level, are critical for academic success in the upper grades, Holmes said, improving the middle schools probably presents the greatest challenge.
Academically, he said, the problem is finding time within a school day to include all the academic, social and art programs that middle-school students should experience.
“For example, at the middle-school level we have the issue of ‘double blocking’ - that is, we spend a lot of time teaching math and literacy. Oftentimes that takes considerable time. What’s left for advancements like gifted and talented education, algebra, geometry, the arts and language? Our goal next year is to crack that structural challenge as much as we can,” he said.
“We hope to visit - vicariously or otherwise - middle schools across the country to see how people are using time to work in all those experiences that students need.”
The middle-school atmosphere must be amicable, discipline must be in order, and parents must participate, Holmes said.
He added that the district will be calling on parents to get their children to school and make sure that student behavior comports to the requirements.
“We want to prepare our youngsters for high school and the rich experiences there,” Holmes said, adding that Little Rock high schools offer a plethora of courses. “Almost anything you can think of is offered in high school,” but “we have some places where the opportunities are not being taken advantage of in a serious way.”
Holmes said the plans are to cut the district’s current operating expenses in a way “so that very little fat is left.” That fat is defined in part as excessive staff and service offerings, he said. “We hope to provide to the board a budget that will allow them to provide for what we see as oncoming budget shortfalls.”
The district now receives about $38 million in desegregation aid from the state and $5 million more from the neighboring North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts for operating magnet schools.
State officials have said they would like to discontinue desegregation aid to all three Pulaski County districts once the federal courts release the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts from desegregation monitoring.
Holmes said he plans to determine relatively soon whether the district administration is overstaffed. He said he’ll talk to district principals about the services their schools need and match district services to those needs.
“I don’t plan to add staff,” Holmes said, but he also noted that the district has an open position for a deputy superintendent. He also said he would like to add parttime help to resolve employee discipline and grievance matters so that disagreements among the staff at a school don’t fester.