Michael Poore faced a really tough challenge when he moved from Bentonville to Little Rock in summer 2016 to take over the Little Rock School District's top job.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key tapped Poore, who had been superintendent of the Bentonville School District since 2011, to replace Baker Kurrus to head the Little Rock district. The state had taken over the district in January 2015 because six of the district's 48 schools were labeled as being academically distressed for chronically low test scores.
"Little Rock and the district were in a unique position when I arrived," Poore recalls. "There was a lot of turmoil and there was a lot of drama that was erupting or unfolding as I entered into that scene. A popular superintendent was leaving, and I'm coming in, and I'm from Northwest Arkansas, and it was awkward at best."
Luckily, he's an optimistic guy who likes a challenge. And nearly three years later, he says, "some really neat things have occurred, in terms of collaboration and people investing into the district again, and ultimately having an impact on young people."
"There [are] challenges each and every day; we still aren't where we want to be in terms of having students be readers on grade level, and that's probably our most glaring stat that shows we still have work to do."
Poore says one of his successes has been in creating collaborations with area businesses and organizations.
"It's not easy when you talk about a district of more than 20,000 kids, that's also going through budget reductions, to get to a place where you can do those things," he says. "How do you help people work together?
"What's been really effective is for us to go 'walk' this community -- we go out and knock on doors; we try to do that once a month with principals and staff. There hasn't been a time that we've had [fewer] than 10 people walking with us."
A month or so after Poore started in the job, he accepted an offer from Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, to speak at a lunchtime session. Among Poore's topics: youngsters who might be having problems beyond the school door.
"I told them when you think about a kid that's disengaged or not learning, we have to take stock of that person beyond just the academic thing and say, 'Are there things that are going on in that person's environment that are challenging, that are preventing him from doing well?'" Poore recalls. He used the example of a child distracted by a yearlong toothache.
That spurred Aaron Lubin, who has been volunteering in the district for more than two decades, to put Poore together with Delta Dental. "From that meeting," Poore says, "boom, boom, boom, two months later, we're rolling out a program for all of our pre-K-5 students where they get examined by a dentist, get a referral [to a family dentist], they're given information on oral health, and then they're given a varnish that basically prevents tooth decay. Now that program is blossoming out not just in the state but all over the country."
"Bright Futures," a community-led group of faith-based people and business leaders, quickly helps fill specific needs via social media.
For example, Poore says, "A kid doesn't have steel-toed boots for that construction program -- and that actually happened; half of the kids, 16 out of 32, couldn't get boots, cost too much, $65 a pop. Put it out on social media, we had two donors give us the money in less than 24 hours. Families who had a fire at their house, we found ways to get the kids clothes, but we couldn't find a way to get a bed or a dresser -- 24 hours, had it solved. That's a really neat partnership."
In addition to his volunteer work at Gibbs International Magnet School, Lubin, a semiretired executive coach who turned 75 on March 15, has also been a mentor at Pulaski Heights Middle School and Central High. He says he has been helping Poore make connections with the business community. Poore, in turn, tapped him to head the "Bright Futures" program.
"Mike knows how important test scores are, but more importantly, he knows how important children are," Lubin says. "I've walked with him in the streets where we knocked on doors, homes, businesses; I saw the guy listen to people interested in what we can do to help our students, how do we make this the best school district.
"I've been in public schools with him. This is not a job for him, it's a calling and a passion: How do we lift these kids up? Every kid is important, no matter their background, where they are in school, if they have dreams and hopes, we have to help them with those dreams.
"He has the little boy in him; that makes for a great school superintendent. You can see. I've been at sporting events with him, seen him walking the halls, talking to students. He's on their level, listening to them, engaged with them.
"He's the best school superintendent that I've seen in 45 years."
Starting when he was a teacher and a coach, Poore says, "I just like getting in to work really early, so I'm usually in the office by 5:30 every morning. From 5:30 to more or less 7 o'clock, it's 'my time' to do the things I need to do, whether it's paperwork, correspondence, emails. From 7 a.m. to 7 in the evening, I'm at the will of the community.
"I actually color-code my calendar so I can see the time I spend in schools, with central office people, with community people, on extracurricular activities, because every one of those things is important."
He was born in Hayes, Kan. His father's and mother's families were dry-land farmers -- "that's farming with no irrigation," he explains. They subsequently lived in various places in Colorado; when he was in the fifth grade, they moved to Summit County, where the county seat is Breckenridge.
"It was a pretty amazing place to grow up," he says, "and the size of the school, I got to do everything. Student-body president, I'm in multiple choirs, I'm in the plays. I played three sports -- four when you count the summer." (His favorite: basketball. He played point guard.) "And I think it has helped me, even as a superintendent -- the appreciation of knowing that each one of those things is important.
"Some people say I spend too much time on some of the extracurricular things, but in my mind everything a kid is involved with in our school is critical and important. Yes, academics is always going to be our No. 1 mission and focus, but the extracurricular things are critical as well.
"Athletics and performing arts are a hook for kids; the kids that are involved in those activities, it's proven that they have better GPAs and fewer attendance issues. And we have to find ways for kids to get engaged, and if they're not engaged in something positive, they're going to get engaged in something negative."
Poore, a 1984 graduate of Colorado State University who earned a master's degree from the University of Colorado in 1995, started out as a social studies teacher and coach. "I taught two AP [Advanced Placement] classes and I taught three classes more for the challenged learners," he says. "I was literally up 'til midnight trying to get ahead of those kids my first year.
"I coached basketball, track and football. As my family started to develop, I would let go of a sport" -- track first, football later -- but "basketball stayed with me. And we had some really successful teams, especially the last 4-5 years of my career."
He eventually became the assistant superintendent in Colorado Springs and the superintendent of a school district in Denver. He moved to Bentonville in 2011 with no previous Arkansas experience.
"I knew it on a map; I'm a social studies guy, so I had that part [down]," he quips. "I had applied for a job in Alabama; I never moved forward in that particular search, but the company that was doing the search thought highly of me and then they promoted me for the Bentonville job.
"I wasn't even looking to come to Arkansas and they called me and said, 'You need to really apply for this, it'll be ideal, you'll love it.' And boy, did I. It didn't take long after the first interview to know that I wanted in the worst kind of way to become the superintendent of Bentonville, and those were five great years.
"I could see how pretty the state was and how friendly people were, and the staff in Bentonville seemed to be very receptive. Those things became very attractive to me and I got hooked. That also made it very tough to leave Bentonville."
The love of a challenge is what led him to accept the offer to take charge in Little Rock: "I looked at this as an opportunity to do something with a whole group of people in our community to turn this thing around. And I believe we are turning it around.
"The most immediate, pressing thing is to get local control back. That was the priority that the commissioner gave me when he offered me this job. We don't have it. So until then, I haven't accomplished one of the key goals."
Poore married the former Marianne Woodyear of North Little Rock more than four years ago. Together they have what Poore calls a "blended family" -- his three children, her two children, all from previous marriages, "and one 'extra' son, Amani, adopted. Well, I never really formally adopted him; he came one Thanksgiving when he was 20 and never left. He calls me Dad and his children call me Grandpa."
Poore says the thing that's unique in their relationship is, "We genuinely like each other. We enjoy reading the paper to each other, we enjoy listening to the news-talk shows on Sunday, we like going to sporting events, we like travel.
"I've been extremely blessed in that I had two amazing parents who were always there for me, growing up -- they still are. They're still like my best friends. I call them all the time, I call my kids to this day as often as four-five times a week. And they know; if they don't want to pick up, they don't have to."
He tries to stay physically active -- "Somehow I'm going to get to 30 minutes of exercise activity every day, I'm going to get my steps in and burn so many calories, so I do keep track of all that. I do enjoy golf and tennis" in his minimal spare time. "I like to cook. Or bake. That's one of my big passions. I find that relaxing. I enjoy cooking for others."
In his July 2016 speech at the Clinton School he described himself as a "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" optimist.
"Humans in general, we all seek things that give us what I'll call 'juice' -- we need things that bring positivity into our lives," he says. "That is a critical thing -- looking at what's right with the world, and building on it. You get far more progress and get more accomplished than trying to look at, 'Here's what's wrong,' and trying to understand that. It's better to build on your positives and enhance those. That has always worked for me.
"That connection to family is important to me. But I'm still connected with people I worked with in Colorado; I'm connected to people in Bentonville in some pretty rich ways; I'm going to be connected with Little Rock. If I were to leave five years from now, I'm still going to be connected to this city. I've really benefited from the people that I'm around. I'm very fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful people."
CITY YEAR HONORS
Nonprofit organization City Year is giving Poore a Lifetime of Service Award at its Red Jacket Ball, 6 p.m. April 11 at Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center. The event also honors 54 young people who have given a year to serve as AmeriCorps members in Little Rock schools.
City Year Little Rock's office is right next-door to the school district headquarters in the 800 block of Little Rock's West Markham Street. City Year Director Sarah Roberson says that was on purpose.
"The school district is City Year's biggest partner, and it's really important to us to have a real partnership," she explains. "And so when we were looking for a new home about a year ago, we saw that building next to the school district and we thought, 'Well, we might as well be close to the people we partner closely with.'"
What impresses Roberson most about Poore is what he does for students.
"He is 100 percent focused on student success, but he sees the whole student," she explains. "Test scores are vitally important, but Mr. Poore is engaging students through sports and music and bringing in partners from throughout the community."
Poore was the keynote speaker last year at City Year's national convention in Washington. "Talking about the work we're doing with a national audience, I was able to see why we're such good partners, and it's because he is all in for kids," Roberson says. "He's just all action all the time. He is creating spaces for students to be able to grow in all parts of their lives."
Poore will get his very own City Year red jacket at the event. "There's two ways to get it," she says. "You either do 10 months of service or you give your life to education."
The Red Jacket Ball, 6 p.m. (cocktail hour), dinner program 7 p.m., April 11, Governor's Hall IV, Statehouse Convention Center, Markham and Main streets. Dress code is red jacket, not black tie.
• BIRTH DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 17, 1961; Hayes, Kansas
• FAVORITE COLORS: Blue is a color I like a lot. Also yellow.
• FAVORITE FOODS: I love fried chicken; I love Mexican food, and I could live off those two on a day-to-day basis. Pastry for dessert.
• I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT: Lima beans
• THE MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL: Fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, cornbread, pecan pie
• I'M MOST COMFORTABLE WITH PEOPLE WHO: Have a passion about [affecting] the lives of young people.
• GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: I'd like to have two dinners if I could. One dinner, I'd like to have my entire family, with my deceased grandparents, all together, and have it be a meal that would go all day I guess. My second one, I'd love to have a time where all of the students and staff and community members that have really been engaged with me, to have them all in one setting. That would be just too cool.
• THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I LEARNED IN SCHOOL AS A STUDENT: That you can do it. I had people that made me feel like that -- from my parents and so many teachers that instilled in me the belief that I can do anything.
• THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I LEARNED IN SCHOOL AS AN EDUCATOR: The power of collaboration.
• I WANT MY CHILDREN TO REMEMBER: The most important goal is to be happy and that they have the ability to be anything they want to be.
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: You can't please everybody. It's just impossible. I do strive for that. ... There's going to be fence-sitters and how you implement determines how you move those fence-sitters, to be on your side or not, and that's going to determine how you're going to be successful. And there's always going to be detractors; 10 percent are going to be negative no matter what you do.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Passionate.
“Athletics and performing arts are a hook for kids; the kids that are involved in those activities, it’s proven that they have better GPAs and fewer attendance issues. And we have to find ways for kids to get engaged, and if they’re not engaged in something positive, they’re going to get engaged in something negative.” -Michael Poore
High Profile on 03/31/2019
CORRECTION: Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, is married to the former Marianne Woodyear. Her name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore to be honored for dedication to kids, education