HELENA-WEST HELENA -- The School Board for the Helena-West Helena School District -- a system classified in July as needing the highest level of state support -- is continuing to exist but under the close scrutiny of state education leaders.
State Education Secretary Johnny Key and Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith reported last week to the Arkansas Board of Education about the start-of-school-year operations in some of the state's struggling districts, particularly in Helena-West Helena but also in the Marvell-Elaine and Lee County systems.
In Marvell-Elaine, Superintendent Henry Anderson died within the past year and the high school principal recently resigned, Smith said. The system is struggling -- almost in crisis -- in regard to finances, student discipline and course scheduling. She said she anticipates a more extensive report to the state Education Board in October on the district, which has an enrollment of fewer than 300 students.
The Pine Bluff School District is the largest of the districts operating under state control without an elected School Board. Key and Smith proposed that the State Education Board meet Sept. 15 to "map forward" a process for a possible gradual return to some degree of local governance in that system.
"There's no cut-and-dried method for doing this," Key said. "We need to establish a process for gradually bringing back an element of local governance and keeping the positive things going."
Keith McGee, appointed this summer by Key to be the Helena-West Helena superintendent, "is the leader we needed him to be ... to really assert priorities of what school needs to be for kids and how the adults need to focus on students to make it happen."
McGee is a former deputy superintendent and principal in the Little Rock School District.
"It's not people there don't care," Key said in introducing a 12-page analysis on the shortfalls and recommendations for improvement in the Phillips County district. "They do care. They needed help knowing exactly how to channel their energy and know what systems and processes need to be in place."
Staff from the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education are providing a lot of support to the district as well, Key said, noting that the district did not have bus routes last year.
"We did not have good systems for picking up kids and bringing them to school. Simple things like that -- our team has gone down there and helped develop those processes."
"Something that is just nuts and bolts; blocking and tackling, Coach," he said about the need for basic systems.
Typically, districts that have been taken over by the state and/or categorized as districts needing Level 5 intensive support lose their locally elected school boards and are placed under the direction of a state-appointed superintendent.
Helena-West Helena has been taken over by the state twice before and its boards, at those times, were dismissed. This time, the Helena-West Helena board remained in place.
Smith, who is also director of the Office of Coordinated Support and Service, told the state Education Board that Helena-West Helena community members have told McGee and state education leaders that the existing school board is divisive, not to be trusted and should be dissolved.
"Our response is, we are hopeful," Smith said about the board. "We are rolling up our sleeves and we are trying to keep the focus on the right work and we are trying to walk alongside the current board with training and keeping everyone focused on why we are there."
At this point, people are working together, she said of the board operations under the guidance of McGee and state officials.
McGee has been able to make phone calls to board members who veer into something they shouldn't be doing and re-direct them, and people are responding, Smith said.
"Our goal is to ... restore some structure pieces there."
The written analysis on the district delves into the need for clear job descriptions for the central office staff and strategic work rather than being reactive.
McGee is working with state and school system officials to correct deficiencies in job assignments. The analysis of the district found that the master schedule for those teaching assignments was in disarray, that teachers who had left the district were still in the schedule and new teachers have not been added.
Other problems included the district's plan to rely on as many as nine international teachers to help fill vacancies in core-content subjects, but the arrival time of those teachers and their exact numbers were not known.
Teachers assigned the largest number of students were not state-licensed teachers. There were eight licensed high school teachers included in the master schedule and 10 to 12 who were not state licensed.
McGee and state agency leaders have worked to adjust the teaching assignments and course schedules, "which has been stressful for all involved," with the start of the school year. State-licensed employees who were in non-teaching positions have been placed in vacant classroom teacher jobs.
The elementary and secondary education division is recommending that "lead teachers" be assigned and paid to mentor non-licensed teachers at the elementary and high schools. All staff are expected to have a full course schedule at the high school, the district analysis stated.
If someone doesn't have a full schedule, they will be assigned to co-teach or assist in another class.
Problems have been identified in other areas of the district's operation. In transportation, records showed there were 12 buses in good repair but only two were being used, resulting in repeated trips and causing one- and two-hour late arrivals of students to schools.
Additionally, the district failed to ensure that drivers met Arkansas school bus driver qualifications.
An improved transportation plan for the district was ready by the first day of school, the report stated.