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A new day in the Little Rock School District 

Enter Suggs, STEM, exit Reading Recovery.

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:

Faced with having to take $3 million from the district's reserves to make budget this year, Suggs is laying off administrators. That may or may not be a good idea — the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page, which supports Suggs as it did his Walton-blessed predecessor Roy Brooks, thinks it is — but there's little question that Suggs blundered in including the names of positions he wants to end, and the employees, all women, who fill them, in a list of personnel changes presented at the School Board meeting in January. Questioned about the appearance of the names, the district's lawyer, Chris Heller, explained that the employees had a right to due process and that it would be improper for the board to review them prior to that process.

By laying off six employees and ending a stipend for a seventh, the district would save more than $500,000 a year. The employees Suggs intends to fire include Karen DeJarnette, director of the Planning, Research and Evaluation office; Wanda Huddle, director of curriculum/social studies; Linda Newbern, English Department secretary; Irma Routen, grant project director and music director; Blondell Taylor, curriculum and social studies secretary; Marion Woods, director of physical education and health, and Suzanne Davis, middle school and secondary education supervisor.

These layoffs are just a start, Suggs said. He expects to eliminate 25 positions, which will save the district almost $2 million. The cuts are necessary, he said, to have a "sustainable system." By sustainable, he means the district has to figure out a way to operate when state desegregation dollars — $37.3 million a year for the 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17 and (for construction) 2017-18 — dry up.

The district has $40 million in reserves.

The $3 million deficit stems from lower than expected enrollment and a decrease in tax revenues due to declining property values.

Suggs believes, however, he can grow the district by 2,000 students in the next few years, partly by transforming Geyer Springs Elementary to the Geyer Springs High Ability Academy, approved last week by the school board, and Forest Heights Middle School to Forest Heights STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Academy.

Geyer Springs Elementary School is one of seven Little Rock schools designated by the state Department of Education as "priority" schools; its literacy and math scores on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam over the past several years put it among the lowest 5 percent in the state. Such schools threaten the Little Rock district with a state takeover.

In the 2014-15 school year, however, the Southwest elementary school will be transformed into the Geyer Springs High Ability Academy for students identified as gifted and talented. All of its 13 teachers will be certified as gifted and talented. It will open with grades 1 through 5, but will drop the first and second grades and add sixth, seventh and eighth over the next three years. It will not have a kindergarten; because registration has already started, the district will have to find space for those already registered in other schools.

Suggs' first proposal would have required all Geyer Springs students to reapply to the school. By moving low-achieving students out of Geyer Springs and into other schools, Geyer Springs' test scores would no doubt go up and its status as a priority school be cured. The idea was a no go, however, after board member Tara Shephard, whose Zone 6 includes Geyer Springs, protested that the plan would only change the population, rather than address the problems of the 175 students she said would be displaced. Suggs reworked the plan to allow all current students to stay at the school.

At last week's board meeting, where the board approved the reworked plan, board member Jody Carreiro (Zone 5, west central Little Rock) called Geyer Springs a "great experiment" to see whether low-achieving pupils would benefit by the different instruction that gifted and talented teachers offer. Shephard made an emotional speech, declaring that no longer would zip codes "determine the quality of education you receive" and forcefully reminding school patrons that it would take three years to know how well the school was working and to keep their criticism at bay until then.

The "high ability" moniker did not go down well with McAdoo or Curry. McAdoo asked Suggs what seems to be an obvious question: If Geyer Springs is high ability, "are you saying that other schools are 'low ability'?" The vote to transform the school was unanimous, but McAdoo and Curry asked the superintendent to consider renaming it.

Not surprisingly, lawyer John Walker is disgusted with the notion of a "high ability" school, which he said meant "having some kids labeled as dumb and others as smart. What that does is create a blueprint for continued disaster" in closing the gap between low-achieving students — most poor and African American — and middle-class whites.

Suggs' proposal to change the under-attended Forest Heights Middle School to a K-8 STEM should address under-enrollment at the school. Suggs told the board last week that more than 700 students have applied for admission to Forest Heights, which is a couple dozen more than currently attend, and that he expects that number to double. If that happens, half will be rejected; there are only 715 available seats. At the minimum, only students who score at the basic level or above on the Benchmark test and who have a grade point average of C or above will be eligible. Additionally, a survey will be used to measure each applicant's interest in STEM education. (There will be no requirements for kindergartners.)

The idea of creating the STEM school has in general been well-received, though there have been questions from the public — and board member Norma Johnson — about why STEM education isn't the focus of every school. Other concerns include budgeting for equipment — each student is to be provided a laptop, for example — and the potential for resegregation.

Asked about the possibility of the latter, Suggs asked a reporter why she would assume that only students of one race would be interested in STEM education. He said he will ensure that both Geyer Springs and Forest Heights are diverse.

Lawyer Walker believes, however, that "more middle-class kids will take advantage" of it and "those left behind" will not receive an equal education.

Does that sound like grounds for a new lawsuit against the district? Not one filed by him, Walker said. "My hands are full ... I don't have another 20 years to devote to this." Nor did he think the court would hold that the unequal distribution of resources would necessarily cause disparities in student achievement.

Walker — and others — have been particularly galled by the technology-focused superintendent's program to provide some 800 laptops to fourth- and fifth-graders at four high-achieving elementary schools (Forest Park, Gibbs Magnet, Otter Creek and Roberts).

"Most [of the students] come from homes where they already have computers," Walker said. "You may presume that most poor children do not have them at home. That means that if computers are a methodology for promoting educational achievement, to be on an equal footing you would address delivery of computers to [poor kids] first instead of letting those who have [computers] get further ahead."

Suggs has defended starting the computer program at schools with more affluent students rather than priority schools, saying difficulties in implementing the program would be a burden on priority school teachers because of their already heavy workload.

Walker suggested Suggs was trying to curry favor with the white community. However, all students will eventually be provided laptops under Suggs' plan to digitize the district.

This is truly the hot-button topic of Suggs' administration.

Reading Recovery, first implemented as a pilot program in 1995 in the Little Rock School District, provides specially trained teachers for one-on-one instruction with first-graders whose reading skills have been identified as extremely low. The goal is to address their deficits early and quickly; the overall goal is that all third-graders should read at grade level by 2015. The program has earned high praise from parents, teachers, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (which has granted $100,000 to the Arkansas program) and the U.S. Department of Education for its successes.

A parent — who asked not to be named — could not praise the program enough. She said her son, Cooper, was "significantly behind" in his reading skills, something she knew, thanks to her experience with her other children, but could not help, though she read to him nightly. "I was doing everything I could possible do," she said. "I was at my wits' end."

Fortunately, Cooper's teacher at Roberts Elementary noticed his deficit in reading the first week of school and scheduled him with the Reading Recovery teacher, Renee Heard. "She's a godsend," Cooper's mother said. He worked every day with Heard for 20 weeks, then met with her once a week for a while; she continues to check on his progress. He's reading so well he does not need the program anymore.

In fact, one day recently, Cooper's mother couldn't find him after school and figured he'd gone down the street to play. He wasn't. He was in his room, reading.

"I can't imagine if they take this out of the school system," Cooper's mother said. "It's a program I will be very sad to see go, for other kids in the same position as Cooper."

Suggs is ending Reading Recovery, he said, because it doesn't reach enough students and the cost-benefit ratio is skewed. He will replace it with a program of his own design, LEAP (Learning and Accelerated Progress), which employs what Suggs calls 14 "best practices." One of those is to encourage parents to read to their children, something he exhorts parents to do at the close of every school board meeting. The program will not include one-on-one instruction — the critical element of Reading Recovery — but will instead put a reading teacher at every elementary school who will work with children K-3 in groups of nine. He said he hopes teachers now certified by Reading Recovery will apply for those jobs.

Suggs and Reading Recovery advocates, including the Little Rock Education Association, do not agree on how many students the literacy program reaches. Suggs says only 175 students were served in the 2012-13 school year, at a cost of nearly $1.5 million. He figures the per pupil cost at $8,371.94.

It is correct that there were 175 students served one-on-one in 2012-13, but, teachers and the LREA note, as a companion piece the Reading Recovery teachers also work with small groups of three to five students K-5 once their two-hour one-to-one sessions have ended. In 2012-13 Reading Recovery certified teachers worked with 724 students, an average of 34 students for each of the 21 teachers.

No teachers would talk on the record about the program for fear of antagonizing the superintendent. But Linda Dorn, the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where Reading Recovery teachers are trained, admits to being frustrated with Suggs' change. She said the number of pupils in third, fourth and fifth grade who are reading at proficient levels have increased by 21 percent to 25 since 2009 thanks to the early intervention. ACTAAP scores since 2008 have shown the literacy gap between white and African-American third-graders decreasing from a 40 percentage point spread to 20 percent.

"Here comes Suggs and he says let's forget this whole history and let's go with an experimental program he's dreamed up." The issue, she said, "is almost explosive."

Suggs, however, is not looking at ACTAAP scores. He offers research by the district's Department of Testing and Evaluation that shows that students in Reading Recovery — for the most part poor and African American — do not score as highly on the Iowa test as the general population of their race and economic peers. Asked if it was appropriate to compare children with known reading deficiencies to a general population of kids, Suggs said yes.

While Suggs has prepared documents showing the program does not work, it wasn't until Feb. 11 that he asked the director of the program, Dr. Karen James, to provide him with information on Reading Recovery — what job expectations are, a program overview, how students are selected and so forth — emails provided under the state Freedom of Information Act show. Suggs also asked James to provide him a list of children served.

"I don't question his intentions," Cathy Koehler, president of the teachers union, said of the superintendent. "I believe he wants what is best [for the students]." But, she said, she believes Suggs has not asked the right questions or listened to teachers — something that's surprised her. "We believed we were going to be partners," she said, after teachers' first encounter with him as a candidate for the superintendent's job.

When Suggs was hired last summer, in fact, Koehler called it a "great day" for the district, and said he was by far the best candidate. Interviewed a couple of weeks ago, Koehler said he was the best candidate — but that she would like to see the district use a different search firm and come up with better candidates next time the board is seeking a new superintendent, something that happens, on average, every two to four years or so.

School Board president Greg Adams praises Suggs for bringing in "new determination and energy."

The board has had its own share of criticism, especially over its apparent unfamiliarity with Roberts Rules of Order, its meetings marked with sometimes lengthy debates over the appropriateness of motions and so forth.

But Adams said the fact that Suggs was hired with a 6 to 1 vote (former board member Michael Nellums cast the no vote) was a sign that the board, not historically known for felicity, was willing to work together for the common good. He said he could recall only four votes along racial lines by the current board, but those four were significant. Two were on the election of officers: He was elected president by the three white members plus Diane Curry, and Leslie Fisken lost the secretary position after black board members Curry, McAdoo and Johnson voted no, with Shepard abstaining. The third was the rezoning of districts and the fourth was on whether to go into executive session to discuss a "demotion." That session was called for by McAdoo after Suggs presented the personnel changes to the board that included the six positions he proposed to eliminate. No vote was taken when the board returned from the session.

But Adams says he is "more optimistic about things," noting that "progress can be messy." He said the public should not despair when things do get messy.

"Name another large, multicultural, multiracial institution with a multicultural, multiracial board that functions smoothly all the time. Can you give me one? What we're trying to do is really hard. And plus, it's in the context of a school system with a difficult history where people have been mistreated and neglected ... in our lifetime."

Adams said the public cynicism "is deadly for us. The next step is apathy. Apathy does not help us."

The board does not always agree, and those disagreements are "honest," Adams said. "I think this is better for kids in the long run."

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