In a world without nuance, new Little Rock School District Superintendent Dexter Suggs, on the job since last summer, is either a forward-thinking administrator who is making radical, needed changes in the district ... or an inexperienced (if well-intended) leader importing practices from his former job in Indianapolis.
He is bringing to Little Rock innovative ideas in teaching reading ... or he is wrecking Little Rock's results-proven program, Reading Recovery.
He's helping students failed by "priority" schools by changing the schools ... or helping the schools by changing the students.
The members of the Little Rock School Board are pulling together and finding common ground ... or are still divided along racial lines, lines that have paradoxically aligned black superintendents with the white minority on the school board.
The teachers' union, which supported Dr. Suggs when he was a candidate for the job, has begun to question its wisdom; its membership cast a "no confidence" vote in the superintendent last year after rejecting the district's pay offer. Thorny John Walker, the sometimes-confrontational lawyer in the just-concluded 32-year school desegregation case, calls Suggs the "most incompetent of the black superintendents we've had."
Moving from cold to warm, school board member C.E. McAdoo, who represents Zone 2 in Central Little Rock, says Suggs is doing a "reasonable job." Dianne Curry, who represents Little Rock's southernmost neighborhoods, describes him a "first-time superintendent" climbing a learning curve. Board president Greg Adams, who represents West Little Rock's Zone 4, says he's feeling "encouraged and optimistic" about the district and that Suggs "is a significant part of that." Leslie Fisken, the Zone 3 representative from the Heights, calls Suggs a "team leader" who is innovative and "laser-focused on students."
Suggs, 45, characterizes himself as a former teen-age thug who ran with an inner city gang in St. Louis and has knife and bullet scars to prove it. He credits his transfer to a high school away from bad influences and where he took up sports as turning his life around. He attended Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship and did a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army Reserve. As principal of Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis, he won the prestigious Milken Family Foundation Award for academic and discipline changes he wrought at what had been a struggling school. When he was hired to come to Little Rock, he had risen to deputy superintendent and chief of staff for the Indianapolis School District.
He is soft-spoken, well-spoken and has a sense of humor. He knew what he was in for when he came to Little Rock, which he described as having a "rich history" in education — one that includes the crisis at Central High, the battles over busing and school assignments that started in the 1970s, white flight, the desegregation lawsuit that put Pulaski County's three districts under court order for 30 years and, now, attacks by the billionaire Walton family's charter school proponents. (Even the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce — a body you would think would want to attract newcomers to Arkansas's capital city — created an organization, Speak Up for Schools, to publish criticism of Little Rock's schools. It's defunct, replaced by the Walton-funded Arkansas Learns, which lately seems to exist solely to attack the way the district is run.)
Suggs believes the district lacks respect because "we haven't been telling our story. ... For so long we have been humble." He believes Little Rock needs to tout its excellent teachers, its National Merit scholar numbers, and its schools that are high achieving.
Suggs raised eyebrows right off the bat when, in August, he issued "cultural imperatives" (copied from Indianapolis) to employees and came up with the less-than-awesome slogan "The NEW Little Rock School District — Where WE Put Children First." That was followed by his instituting a dress code — the teacher handbook had already addressed this, saying teachers should dress appropriately — that noted that "foundation garments" should be worn, a caveat that some thought was unneeded. Since, Suggs has instituted more substantive changes:
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I didn't do it and it'll never happen again.