Last Friday, Mike Poore
, the superintendent-to-be of the Little Rock School District
, stopped by the Arkansas Times
office for a detailed conversation with Max, Leslie, Lindsey and myself. Max offered his impressions
last weekend; belatedly, here are some notes of my own from our hour-long talk.
Poore, who currently runs the Bentonville School District
, will replace Baker Kurrus
as the LRSD's chief executive on June 30. Here's the backstory
about Education Commissioner Johnny Key's
decision to fire Kurrus, a move that's been met with substantial opposition
from an unusually broad cross-section of school advocates in Little Rock. It's widely assumed that Kurrus ran afoul of Key because the two men disagreed on the issue of whether charter school expansions stand to hurt the LRSD: Less than three weeks after Kurrus mounted a vocal campaign
against the aggressive expansion plans of charter operators eStem
and LISA Academy,
news broke that his contract would not be renewed. Key says the charter issue played no role in the leadership switch, and that he chose Poore because the district needed a superintendent with greater academic expertise (Kurrus is a businessman and lawyer, not an educator by trade).
In a school district whose politics are often defined by mistrust, Poore enters the job with saddled with even more baggage than usual. It's not fair to make the Kurrus debacle the measure of Mike Poore. Even so, his leadership (initially at least) will inevitably be framed by the circumstances of his predecessor's termination. This is what he had to say about charters and other flash points in Little Rock education.
On charter schools
Poore said Johnny Key approached him about taking the Little Rock position on April 6. (Kurrus made his public stand against the charter expansions before the state Board of Education on March 31 and asked Key on April 1 whether his contract would be renewed; Key told him a few days later that it would not be.) Poore said Key — with whom he was previously acquainted from when Key served in the state Senate — was impressed with his record leading two districts in Colorado before coming to Bentonville. Poore said, he did not discuss the charter issue with the commissioner.
"It’s never come up with him. ... He never asked me about charters in terms of ‘would you do this or would you do that,'" Poore told the Times
Asked whether he's examined data from Kurrus
which says charters draw higher performing students from the LRSD and leave more disadvantaged kids behind, Poore said, "I simply have not had time to dive into that kind of detail on a lot of things." He said his focus is on competing with charters, given that the eStem and LISA expansions have already been approved. "We could say 'well, this is it, this is over.' I refuse to have that mentality. My belief is … because the numbers are the numbers, we have to compete. We have to have it so there’s a buzz, so people are saying, 'Look what’s going on in Little Rock schools.’" To his credit, he made it clear he doesn't think of the LRSD as an unmitigated failure, which is how many of the district's critics falsely paint it. "I don’t think ... people are sharing how many wonderful things are happening here — things that should be pushed out each and every day about kids achieving and staff doing wonderful things," Poore said.
Although no superintendent has direct power over charter schools, Poore eventually will need to articulate a clearer opinion on the issue, given how outspoken Kurrus has been — and given that more charters and charter expansions are inevitable in Little Rock's future. Could he envision opposing a charter's proposal to expand?
"Sure, I could envision that," he replied. "You go look at the applications for the charter schools, and it’s a cookie cutter and many times poorly done. That should be held to a much higher standard. And accountability of poor performing charters also needs to be there."
On career centers
Poore said Key, "has given me three specific things as targets. One is to get the Little Rock School District back to local control. The second is to create a foundation of collaboration as I go do my work, and the third thing is to create world-class career centers."
Since all state takeovers are temporary by definition, the first two points are pro forma. The third is worth more scrutiny.
I asked Poore whether a focus on "career centers" in high school could be construed as tracking
— the practice, common in some European countries but generally avoided in the U.S., of steering students into vocational or higher education tracks based on academic achievement. I also couldn't help but think of the pre-integration history of the all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School
(now the LRSD's Dunbar Middle School), which in the 1920s and 1930s was the subject of dispute
between those who wanted the school's curriculum to focus on trades and industrial skills and African-American community leaders who wanted to focus on preparing students for college.
It's an age-old debate that is highly emotionally charged even if race is removed from the picture: How does a school best serve those students unlikely to be college-bound? From firsthand experience working in a high school, I can tell you the status quo approach today is to fervently insist that all students must go to college
, no matter how incongruent that dogmatically utopian vision might be with the simple reality of a 20-year-old senior's math and literacy abilities, transcript, personal goals and desires, financial situation, etc. High schools today often don't present students good options if they're not on a college track or entering the military. And yet, it's also clear why the college-for-all drumbeat dominates: Nudging high school students away from higher education can seem perilously close to giving up on them. (Especially when society writ large doesn't offer the large majority of working class people much in the way of hope for upward mobility or a bright future, but that's another story.)
Poore acknowledged the racial dimensions to the question. "I felt a little bit of pushback at the [legislative] black caucus meeting," he said, which he'd attended earlier in the week. "They asked, ‘How has that [career center] target been established?’ Well, I assume the governor and the commissioner [established it.]
"When you think of career center development, this really should be a deliverable we’re thinking about in any school setting in this entire nation. And a lot of time we box that into an old school vocational tech model. That’s where the concern comes in, because you might think we’re trying to create a person who’s going to have a skill set that just gets them out into the workforce but they’re still stuck in a $10 - $15 wage thing. And I envision something much different." Poore pointed out Gov. Hutchinson's coding initiative as one way to meld career education into K-12. Poore also urges reform of state agencies that deal with education beyond high school: the Department of Higher Education, the Department of Career Education
Right now, he said, high schools run up against multiple layers of bureaucracy if trying to establish a course that grants concurrent credit to students.
"Technology is kind of low hanging fruit," he admitted. "[But the] same thing can happen with construction/trade, or culinary. … You can take things to the higher level. It’s not just about being a low-level line worker. It’s about preparing these kids to be leaders in their fields — thinkers, collaborators, doers."
On academics and school turnaround
The stated reason for Commissioner Key's replacement of Kurrus is that Poore brings academic turnaround skills to the table. (To which many, including myself, asked: Wasn't that always what the state takeover of the LRSD was supposed to have been about?) In a statement
following news of the change, Key said "it is my position that Michael Poore can best move the district forward and maximize the academic progress that is needed to return the Little Rock School District to local control."
What's the plan, I asked Poore, for overcoming the vast literacy gaps that lower-income LRSD students face? What's the plan for addressing the academic deficiencies that correlate with poverty — not just in Little Rock, but everywhere in the country?
He emphasized a need for more preschool — a good answer, though an easy one — and a need for better student performance data for monitoring growth throughout the academic year, especially in the early years. "If you wait till the end of the second grade or third grade year and they’ve taken the state assessment and you say ‘Whoa, we didn’t perform very well’ — shame on you. ... The criminal thing would be if we haven’t got kids on reading level at third grade — that’s where you start running into the trajectory you’re talking about, with not having very successful graduates. So, you’ve got to solve that thing early. It doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on kids in the 7th grade this year that are behind, but you’ve got to get at it early."
Commendably, Poore stressed that teachers should be treated as professionals, and given common planning time. "Last night I met with Cathy [Koehler] from the teachers’ association. It seems like Little Rock does have a structure in place to allow for the appropriate time for teachers to talk and review data and start to see trends." In urban districts everywhere, he said, "if you don’t trust educators, empower them and support them, it doesn’t matter what setting you have — you won’t move forward."
Regarding the turnaround of distressed schools, he had this to say. "One approach is that people come into a school for nine months and say ‘You must, you will, do this.’ And everything that’s coming out of that person’s mouth is almost always research-based and proven, but it never works, in my opinion — because when you mandate like that into a school environment, the teachers have no ownership. They are going to follow the marching orders for those 9 months, and then they’re going to drop it right afterwards because they never were involved in it in terms of creating it." Poore outlined his own model implemented in Colorado, which he calls an "achieve team," in which building principals and faculty create their own plan in collaboration with a group of 10-15 of his own team. In the past, he said, if a school's teachers came up with a solid plan for professional development — working with a math coach for two days, say — he'd have central office staff sub for those teachers while they underwent training.
Poore knows his subject material well and is a good communicator, but as is so often the case with education-talk, it's hard to draw any hard conclusions about his vision. Still, it's encouraging that he's emphasizing a need to work with teachers rather than purging them, as is the instinct of many education "reform" advocates.
One other bright point: Poore mentioned discipline disparities along racial lines, a welcome topic for a Little Rock superintendent to broach. "I was a part of helping to foster and bring restorative justice in Colorado Springs — a minor player, but I’ll take a little credit," he said. "There’s such a high rate of African Americans being disciplined in terms of suspensions and expulsions. Restorative justice takes the student and instead of saying ‘you're gone for five days, ten days,’ you take the student who committed the infraction and have them take a different level of ownership. … You create a different way to kind of reintegrate them back into the school setting. That’s being done successfully in multiple urban districts."
Poore said he is fully committed to the plans — set in motion by Kurrus, and originally forwarded by the now-dissolved elected school board — to build a new high school for Southwest Little Rock. "That would be really stupid not to go forward on that. That’s a commitment," he said firmly.
However, he wouldn't give a hard commitment to stick to the construction time frame currently in place. "That scares me a little bit, because I know what it took to build Bentonville West. But I don’t know all the work that’s gone on with that yet. I know we need to get it done; that high school needs to be built. Also, kids need to be a part of designing that school. We should ask kids what they don’t like about the current high school, and what they’d like to see in a new building."
What about the specter of school closures? Superintendent Kurrus has approached the issue delicately, promising not to close any under-capacity school buildings in the 2016-17 school year even as he laid the groundwork for an eventual argument that some closures will be necessary for financial reasons. Kurrus made the case that buildings in the older parts of town have become redundant as population has shifted westward and standards for school facilities have improved. I asked Poore whether he'd stick to the commitment of no closures in the upcoming school year.
"That’s a commitment that Baker Kurrus made, and I’m right behind that," he said, but admitted that beyond the current year, "there probably is the possibility that at some point we’re going to have to do that. I don’t know how far out that is."
He'll have to look at building capacity and age, student need and geography, he said. "You've got to have data behind it, and whatever you engineer has to create an improved academic environment. You close a school only if it’s going to improve the academic environment, and if you can repurpose the building. Repurposing the building is huge, because if you don’t do it right you’ve probably just got another charter school. You’ve got to be smart about that: Why can’t we have an expansion of preschool in those buildings?
I’m sure even saying these initial comments will make people nervous, but those are things you’ve got to look at."
On Little Rock
"Even as this has played out, I’ve had colleagues who are close to me say ‘Mike, there’s no way you can fix this. … There’s no way you can do it,'" Poore said. "And I don’t believe that to be true.
"It’s obvious there’s a great deal of passion ... and even if that passion is sometimes almost in the form of a rage, it’s passion geared towards one thing, and that’s saying that ‘These kids are important.’ ... There are a lot of people paying attention to the LRSD that really, really care about kids. So that is an opportunity right now to harness that."
Poore acknowledged the uphill climb he faces, and the unavoidable fact that he's a white man placed in charge (by another, unelected white man) of a district that's majority African-American. He said he embraces that challenge, along with all the others.
"When you look at who I’ve contacted, it’s been a diverse group of people," he said, including civil rights attorney Rep. John Walker,
a key player in the LRSD.
"I’m not trying to hide or back away. When I met with the Ministerial Alliance, the first question that was asked today was ‘OK, let’s look at this. We’ve got a white governor, we’ve got a white commissioner, we’ve got a white superintendent, and let me just tell you how that feels.’ It’s there. But the reality is that there’s been 24 superintendents over the last 30 years. There’s been white and black, male and female. For a district to really take off and do the things you want to see happen, you need some continuity, and you need someone who’s going to come in and fight and battle for the kids of that district. I hope I’m that guy."