This is the 15th and final entry in the Class of 2023 series.
Not quite four decades ago, the opening of what was then Pine Bluff Junior High School was one of many highlights in a city well positioned for growth.
Pine Bluff boasted upward of 56,000 people in 1986, a stark increase from 44,000 in 1960. At one time, the city limit signs read “Pop. 63,114.” In 1986, as Arkansas celebrated 150 years of statehood, The Pines mall made its grand opening. That summer, an independent television station now known as CW Arkansas signed on from a Pine Bluff studio for the first time. Downtown Pine Bluff was alive with department and jewelry stores, and Wilson World hotel, known for its indoor pool, was two years away from opening next to the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
Over on Olive Street, the present-day Jack Robey Junior High began serving eighth- and ninth-graders in the Pine Bluff School District. It was a shining, indoor fortress built more modern than its neighboring secondary schools and became a gateway to the growth of business on the south side of the city.
Maybe for that reason, the approaching end of Jack Robey’s existence is a surprise to many.
PBSD Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree acknowledged this when she publicly announced March 1 that Jack Robey would close its doors at the end of this school year. June 5 is the last day of classes in the district.
Barbaree said the decision was made because the district, which has a limited-authority local board, could not financially support all nine campuses going forward if it is to exit state control. Junior high students will attend the Robert F. More-head Middle School campus in the Dollarway attendance zone, while Dollarway High School – which is phasing out and merging its student body with Pine Bluff High School – could be used to house freshmen.
The Morehead and Dollarway High campuses, renovated from the old Townsend Park Elementary and Dollarway Junior High in 1999 and 2009, respectively, are newer and don’t cost as much to maintain as Jack Robey, Barbaree said in March.
Jack Robey needs a new roof, which would have cost the district at least $12 million, Barbaree estimated, and was needed to support an HVAC system that would be paid for with federal funding. The PBSD had a building fund of at least $4 million in March, and the board agreed to use a combined $12.6 million in federal funding to upgrade HVAC systems at its four elementary schools.
Just a year earlier, Barbaree’s predecessor, Barbara Warren, considered turning Jack Robey into a temporary Pine Bluff High School to address security issues with the West 11th Avenue campus.
Jack Robey, the school’s namesake, was a Little Rock native who became PBSD superintendent in 1982 and oversaw the consolidation of Dial and Belair junior high schools into Pine Bluff Junior High in 1986.
Robey died of injuries from a car accident during a vacation to Honolulu on April 4, 1987. According to a Commercial article at the time, he was scheduled to meet with PBSD board members at a national convention in San Francisco the following day.
Pine Bluff Junior High was renamed in Robey’s honor for the start of the 1987-88 school year.
The sentiments felt over the impending Dollarway-PBHS merger were the same when Dial, located near Jefferson Regional Medical Center, and Belair, on Commerce Road, were consolidated, Cheryl Hatley said. She began her education career as a teacher and basketball coach at Belair in 1983 and moved to Jack Robey when it opened.
“Everyone feels the same way,” said Hatley, now the PBSD’s director of student services. “Everyone has so many memories, friendships, colleagues that poured into you. You can’t erase those memories. You keep reflecting on how things used to be and you keep going back to the days when we were the school and the district of choice. We used to call Pine Bluff High the university and Jack Robey the high school.” A big reason for that was the ultramodern setup of the school at the time. Hatley recalled the parental involvement and the subcommittees pouring into the conversation on the design and curriculum of the school, among other features.
“It was a big thing going on in the community,” Hatley said. “Even when I sit here, I think it was so many kids that we had two principals and two assistant principals, so the design of the building was so that you had an eighth-grade principal and assistant and ninth-grade principal and his assistant.” Jack Robey also garnered much acclaim for its Band of Pride, which consistently won awards at parades and festivals. At one point, Hatley said, 200 kids participated in the band.
The school also sponsored an orchestra with two teachers, partnering with the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra, an organization that was also birthed in the city in the late 1980s.
All of Jack Robey’s sports teams were known as the Colts, but the school was so big that it fielded a North and South team for each sport. Which team a student-athlete would compete on depended on his or her address.
“If you came out of Dial, you knew which team you were going to be on,” Hatley said. “We had gymnastics, which was big in the day in south Arkansas.”
HIGH SCHOOL FEEL
As the city and school population dwindled over time, so did the number of sports teams at Jack Robey. The teams were unified, and later the grade bands, or grade ranges for each school, changed in the PBSD.
Jack Robey later served grades 6-8, although it retained “Junior High” in its title, with ninth-graders moving up to Pine Bluff High School. But ninth-graders were moved back to middle school campuses at the start of this school year as sixth graders were realigned to elementary schools to help them maintain academic performance, Warren said last year.
Rhashaun Trammell, an instructor of multimedia communication at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, attended Jack Robey in the mid-1990s. The student experience for him was, as he explained, like dipping his toes into high school.
At times, he said, the ninth-grade basketball teams would practice with Pine Bluff High School’s squads. Also, some Jack Robey students would even drive their vehicles to school.
“I think the only Spanish I took was at Jack Robey Junior High,” Trammell said. “It just felt like you had responsibility. I guess, especially coming from Southeast [a now-demolished seventh-grade school], I was an attendance monitor. That was nice for me in the ninth grade. You got to walk around and collect attendance sheets. You got to dip into people’s classes and people knew who you were. I felt like I was starting to get to some type of maturity.” Trammell added he had never been in a school with a sense of pride like at Jack Robey. He reflected on the late-model design of the campus with few windows at the time and how there were separate wings for eighth and ninth grades.
Students with special needs attended their classes inside a small house on campus that was nicknamed Little Robey. In the larger campus, Trammell recalled, was a row of vending machines that drew longer wait lines than the cafeteria.
“I really couldn’t have imagined because I was a kid, but there are so many experiments and activities I got to have, I thought, I’m privileged for this, like science incubator activities,” he said. “I was in the Spanish Club, and we went to a Spanish restaurant so that we could practice on our Spanish.” That was in the heyday of a school that was considered a jewel in the largest school district in Jefferson County.
“I didn’t think it’d be gone,” Trammell said.