Braelond Simmons could have been the perfect statistic.
The J.A. Fair High School graduate’s father died 12 days after his sixth birthday. He and his two younger siblings were raised by a single working mother in Little Rock’s John Barrow neighborhood. His family lived in poverty. Their house was burglarized repeatedly.
“We saw things, and a lot of kids see things growing up in that neighborhood, things they are too young to be seeing,” Simmons says. “And then they get complacent. They go to school, but they didn’t believe they will go any farther than people say they will. They don’t see they could get out.”
Simmons was one of the only 59.91 percent of seniors who graduated from J.A. Fair High School in 2012.
But while education professionals acknowledge the statistic is abysmal, it’s not uncommon in the Little Rock School District, where the graduation rate hovers below 80 percent, about seven points below the state average.
Last year, six district schools, including three high schools — Hall, J. A. Fair and McClellan — were labeled under academic distress, meaning less than half of the students scored at proficient or advanced levels in math and literacy in each of the previous three years.
On Jan. 28, the state Board of Education voted to dissolve the locally elected School Board and take over the floundering district.
“The six academically distressed schools were the trigger, which caused the state board to step in,” says Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key. “But it’s not enough that we get the schools off ‘academic distressed.’ We need to improve all the schools.”
Although most of the schools in the Little Rock district are considered achieving, the 2014 Arkansas Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act report lists the district status as “Needs Improvement.”
Twenty-two of the 48 schools are listed as scoring a “D” or “F” on the Arkansas School Grading System for the last year, meaning most students did not score “proficient” on statewide tests, and the schools may not meet most performance goals, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.
For a student like Simmons, these numbers are more than simply data points on paper. They were his reality.
“Kids in these neighborhoods — they lack guidance,” he says. “They only get what they see, and if that is all they see, that’s all they’ll ever know.”
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
The first day of school for the Little Rock School District is Monday, and students will be walking the halls under the advisement of a new manager.
District Superintendent Baker Kurrus starts his work day before 8 a.m. and often won’t end it until well after the city has gone quiet. Even in the summer, when students are out of class, he visits local schools, meeting with administrators, principals and teachers to ensure the new school year will be off to its best start.
“I like working, and we’re making progress,” he says.
The Harvard-educated lawyer was appointed superintendent of the Little Rock School District in May, making him the fifth superintendent in as many years.
He replaces Interim Superintendent Marvin Burton, who took on the role when Dexter Suggs resigned. A blogger claimed Suggs plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation.
Suggs wasn’t the first ill-fated superintendent in the district.
In 2007, the seven-member Little Rock School Board chose to buy out the remaining two years of former Superintendent Roy Brooks’ contract because he created an atmosphere that hindered student education, Board President Katherine Mitchell said at the time. Brooks served as superintendent from 2004-2007.
Following Brooks was Linda Watson, who served until 2011, after the board also voted 5-2 in 2010 to not extend her contract.
Kurrus served on the Little Rock School Board from 1998-2010 and has seen firsthand the struggles facing students in this district.
His mother was involved with the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, a committee devoted to reopening and keeping open the city’s schools during the height of its desegregation in 1957 and 1958.
“She was an affirmative-action Democrat,” he says. “I vaguely remember my mother going to meetings and talking about the problems associated with the school district. She worked really hard so everyone could have desegregated public education in Little Rock.”
His father, on the other hand, was what Kurrus described as a “very conservative fellow,” who was in favor of “anything that would allow people fairness,” Kurrus says. “My dad believed people had free will and a right to go to college. I guess they have made me whatever I am now.”
It’s been 55 years since Kurrus began first grade in the district. Federal troops are no longer camped out in front of Central High School, but the promise of equality has yet to be fulfilled.
“We have a lot to do,” Kurrus says.
The Little Rock School District wasn’t always in trouble.
Arkansas’ first public school opened in Little Rock in 1853 and, according to district archives, was meant to be a school that would meet the needs of the “whole community.”
That concept is most known for being tested in 1957, when nine black students integrated Central High School.
“In the 1950s, we charged ourselves with creating an equal education for every child in the state,” says Jim Ross, former member of the Little Rock School Board. “And at first, we didn’t do it. We fought it.”
The Little Rock School District filed a lawsuit in 1982 arguing that the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts were fostering policies that attracted white students and effectively segregated the districts.
Seven years later, the state settled the case and began regular payments to three local school districts. The money, totaling $37 million per year in the Little Rock School District, is used in part to transport students to publicly funded magnet schools.
These payments, totaling nearly $1 billion over nearly 30 years, will cease after the 2017-18 school year, ending more than 60 years of official desegregation efforts.
In April, the Little Rock School District eliminated 63 jobs to ease a financial gap caused by the loss of the payments.
The money from the desegregation fund is not earmarked for specific use, Kurrus says, but is used across the district for “positive programming, personnel and transportation.” Its purpose has continued to be improving the educational environment for each student in the district, he says.
“The last year of payments is dedicated to facilities, so we’re looking at 2016-17 as the make-or-break year,” Key says. “There have been a lot of extra things that have been funded through the desegregation programs, and some of those programs are just going to have to be reduced.
“Changes need to be made. That’s part of the process Mr. Kurrus is going through right now.”
In January, most Little Rock residents might have realized that the district needed a lot of work. But perhaps not many could agree on what needed to be done, not even members of the district School Board, says former district board member Jody Carreiro.
Former board member Leslie Fisken criticized her colleagues, describing them in a letter to the state Board of Education as “rude, inconsiderate, patronizing, and insulting” and saying there was “arrogance, power and control by board member(s) in private executive session meetings.”
Ross, in rebuttal, says the only struggles were “over what we feel to be the most effective policies or programs,” and a product of passion.
Carreiro, who served on the board from 2008 to 2014, cited these heated disagreements as a contributing factor in the state’s takeover.
“Let’s just say it took a long time to get seven people on the same page,” he says. “But when there’s so much to do and so many kids that need help, sometimes that long time is too long.”
The state Board of Education’s decision to take over the school district was met with applause. And uproar.
In May, newly ousted board members Ross and Joy Springer gathered in front of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, accusing local Realtors and business owners of influencing the takeover.
“The white power structure in this city got really scared when black people took over the budget,” Ross says of the events leading to the takeover. “They were going to lose control of those wonderful little perks that come from knowing the people downtown in the administrative office.”
Carreiro disagreed with the state’s decision to takeover the district, citing concerns over the shame associated with the move.
“This is something that is going to take quite a while for that stigma to go away,” he says. “People in the community will hold that, too.
“That said, there are a lot of positive things that will happen and can happen, especially with Baker at the helm. But a path needs to be drawn that gets us back to local control in a reasonable time.”
Simmons expects to graduate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in May 2016, but he says he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
“I think I was just blessed,” he says. “I grew up in the same bad neighborhood as these kids in these schools, but I was successful. I guess I knew at a young age I wanted something better for my mother and my grandmother who raised us. I knew what I needed to do.”
Simmons’ drive for a better life led him to volunteer with Let Our Violence End (L.O.V.E.), a local nonprofit aimed at eliminating violence through statewide outreach. He now works as an assistant site coordinator for the S.U.C.C.E.E.D. (Students Utilizing Community and Character through Educational Excellence with Determination) after-school program.
“You have kids that are growing up in bad neighborhoods, growing up with a single mother and no father figure,” he says. “He gets to a certain age when he realizes his mother doesn’t have as much control, or she’s working and isn’t home, so he gets tied up in things that aren’t necessarily good. It’s easy.”
About 29,000 arrests for crimes against persons were made by the four major enforcement agencies servicing the Little Rock School District in 2014, according to the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
“We have concentrated poverty, and that has always been a dynamic in our schools,” Kurrus says. “To deal with some of the major issues that come along when you have that kind of demographic as a school system and as a community.”
For two hours each afternoon, a teenage Simmons volunteered at Henderson Middle School, working with high-risk students in after-school programs, urging kids not go the “easy” route they see all around them.
“My standpoint of community is that everybody is a product of their environment, so we need to introduce new environments to our schools,” says Shelia Hayes, director of school programs at L.O.V.E. “Everything provided from the school is wonderful, and it’s going to take the efforts of the community and school together to have this productive outcome.”
Last year, the Arkansas Department of Education reported that just under 75 percent of students in the district qualified for free or reduced lunch, and more than 500 students were reported as homeless.
These numbers are staggering for Kurrus.
“We have to try to figure out how to raise the standard of the community as a whole,” he says. “We need to create more job opportunities, affordable housing in areas of concentrated poverty — that’s a real issue for schools. There is a serious need that comes from this kind of poverty. We need to embrace every child. But we can’t do it alone.”
Kurrus says he is putting his legal training to work to better the schools.
“In law school, you learn a lot of facts and cocktail trivia, but what’s really learned in law school is to think like a lawyer,” he says. “Lawyers are problem solvers, issue spotters. They’re people who understand the complex dynamics of the facts and rules. That’s what I’m looking at right now.”
Kurrus says this is an ongoing process involving academic challenges that must be addressed “immediately” and long-term issues affecting the 22 low-scoring schools in the district.
Key and Kurrus say their first goal for the district is getting the academically distressed schools off that list as soon as possible.
The Little Rock School District’s annual report for 2013-14 outlines a 13-point plan to improve student performance at the academically distressed schools.
This plan, which includes principal evaluations of teachers’ eight-point lesson plans, pre- and post-testing, updated technology and increased feedback and monitoring, continues to play a role going forward, Kurrus says. Each element of the plan has either been completed or modified, and the goal continues to focus on “teaching, monitoring, testing and reteaching in a systematic manner,” he says.
In May, the Little Rock School District published a comprehensive, 18-page outline describing a proposed Baseline Academy school design, paying close attention to the unique needs of its population.
Almost every student qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and approximately half of Baseline Elementary students are classified as Limited English Proficient at the school, per the proposal.
Jonathan Crossley, principal of Baseline Elementary, says students will see, and feel, some major changes.
“We want our students to feel like family, to feel empowered, to feel the progress and feel that adults are here for their benefit,” the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year says. “They’ll know it’s about their learning. They’ll feel it.”
Baseline students will begin an extended school day with a morning meeting, Crossley says, aimed at framing the day and building relationships between students, their teachers and each other.
A youth specialist, who is a certified counselor, will focus on community relationships and behavioral intervention, he says, and transition teachers, home and school advisers, and a translator will work with the students, parents and community to improve English proficiency in English-language learners.
Other schools in the district will also see many of these changes, but do not have similar proposed plans as created for Baseline.
“The closest thing to this plan would be the Arkansas Comprehensive School Improvement Plan for each school,” Kurrus says.
For Ross, that is not enough.
“They are going to tell you they have a plan,” he says. “They have a plan for Baseline, but that’s all they have been working on.”
The former board member is concerned that despite the comprehensive programming detailed for the elementary school, programming elsewhere will be ineffective.
“With this model, it’s one school every year,” Ross says. “So in 48 years, they will be ready for the board to take back over.”
Kurrus does not quantify what he hopes the future will look like for Little Rock students. He says he hopes — and expects — to see incremental academic improvements each year, with one goal in mind.
“We need programs that will allow children to implement their own dreams,” he says. “That’s our role. We need to make major improvements in the performance of each kid, every kid, every day.”
This includes schools not listed on the academically distressed list, he says.
Low-scoring schools will see “heightened attention” from the district administration, Kurrus says. Literacy interventionists and school-improvement specialists from both the district and the Arkansas Department of Education will provide intensive support as needed, he says.
“We can reform these schools by transforming them into places where our teachers are seeing problems and they are the solutions,” Ross says.
The state’s control of the district means the state will employ greater monitoring of student achievement, Key adds.
“We’re making plans and programs every day, but what we’re really planning is a system of education that works, that’s integrated, connected, process oriented, specifically,” Kurrus says.
It’s what community members, teachers, parents and students hope to achieve in these schools, as well.
“Everyday we wake up, we want to make sure that every student receives the best of our ability,” Crossley says. “We are excited about the progress we are going to make this year.”
Decisions made by not only the state, but by community leaders, parents and children, will determine the ultimate outcome of coming school years. The schools could rise to the occasion — or fail.
About 24,000 students will walk the halls of the Little Rock School District this school year.
There is a lot on the line — but not only for current students. There is a 3-year-old who deserves the same luck his father had.
“I will be sending my son to the Little Rock schools, of course,” Simmons says. “I believe in Little Rock.”