Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
It came up in conversation with a new acquaintance a couple of weeks ago that I was a graduate of Hall High School.
“And you can spell?” he asked.
He was joking, but in the same way the Northeastern kids at the out-of-state college I went to joked about how quickly I took to the indoor plumbing in the dorms. He believed there was some truth to the stories he heard.
And maybe there is, although probably not as much as most people think. The last 15 years haven’t been particularly kind to Hall. It’s not the place it used to be, and its remaining successes don’t tend to get the same amount of attention as those that come out of Little Rock’s “flagship” — a descriptor it picked up at some point after I graduated in 1989 — and largest high school, Central.
But the successes are there, as are some of the best teachers in the school district — some from my time there. And now they’re banking on the charisma of a new, young, energetic leader, plus the introduction of the nationally recognized, academically demanding International Baccalaureate program, to bring those days back.
Hall’s history is almost 50 years long now — it first opened the year Central was ordered to desegregate, although the first class didn’t graduate until 1960 — and for much of that time it was the city’s best high school. Attendance zones were especially favorable in the early days, when the city was basically split down the middle, east and west, between Central and Hall. Little Rock’s civic who’s who is full of Hall alumni: city board member Dean Kumpuris, developers Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker, designer Kaki Hockersmith, Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. Other notable alumni include Gen. Wesley Clark, former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and author E. Lynn Harris. My own yearbooks have pictures of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn, documentary film-maker Brent Renaud (“Off to War”) and Chris Skinner, the only Arkansan ever to win the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Search, known as the Nobel Prize for high school students.
I knew things had changed, just from talking to teachers I’d kept in touch with, but it didn’t sink in how much until I read a newspaper article in the spring of 2003 — a few months after I’d moved back to Little Rock — listing the state’s latest crop of National Merit Semifinalists. Not a single one was from Hall.
The year I graduated, there were 14. People I went to school with went on to Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Washington University, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania. They earned doctorates from Yale and Princeton. They’ve done well.
And then the ’90s came.
The slide actually started years before it was felt. Cross-town busing that started in the early 1970s ended Hall’s status as a white-flight school, and started a slow exodus of affluent families into private schools.
Then in 1987, Superintendent Ed Kelley contrived a plan he called “controlled choice” that completely did away with school attendance zones and assigned children to schools with no regard for where they lived. It was a disaster, and the district chucked it a year later. But the ensuing chaos and instability — some kids were assigned to different schools two or three years in a row — undermined public confidence in the school system, and parents of younger children started taking a more serious look at private education.
In 1988, the school board approved a new set of attendance zones that transferred the wealthier neighborhoods north of Cantrell and west of University — Cammack Village, Kingwood, Foxcroft and Robinwood — from Hall to Central, while Pleasant Valley went from Central to Hall. Central also got parts of what would become booming and affluent western Little Rock — everything south of Hinson Road. Two years later, Central was named an international studies magnet school, which meant any student in the district could go there.
Several veteran Hall teachers said they began to see what they believed was a concerted effort at the district level to build up Central at Hall’s expense. Math teacher Pat Bona said she actually wrote down names of parents new to the district who told her they initially wanted their children to attend Hall, but were told by people in the district office that they’d get a better education at Central.
(Julie Wiedower, director of the school district’s student assignment office, a Hall graduate, Central parent and a former “parent recruiter” in the early 1990s, said she’s not seen evidence that that happened. “I know that was a perception, but I don’t know that there was any validity to it,” she said. As for parents new to the district these days choosing Central for their kids, “When you look at the brag sheets of the schools, Central is just overwhelming, I suspect,” she said.)
By 1992, Hall had lost half its 1989 enrollment of more than 1,400.
The school got consistently bad press during the 1990s. Civil rights lawyer John Walker all but declared war on the school in the mid-1990s over what he said were discriminatory discipline practices (Hall, like many high schools, handed down a disproportionate number of suspensions to black students). One former teacher who asked not to be named said racial tensions divided the faculty during that time as well — something that hadn’t happened before.
A front-page story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named Hall as the school with the most suspensions per pupil in the district — but withheld a key mitigating factor until after the jump: The year analyzed in the story, Central had implemented in-school suspension, which wasn’t counted in the suspension numbers, while Hall had not.
During the same time period, several private schools in Hall’s attendance zone opened, and others expanded. When it got to the point where people could choose, Hall Principal John Bacon said, they really started choosing.
Meanwhile, Hall had internal problems as well, several teachers said. They weren’t getting strong leadership from their own principals, and they weren’t getting support from the central administration. That peaked — or bottomed out — at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year, when then-new Superintendent Roy Brooks fired Principal Vernon Smith. Hall had several interim principals that year, and a permanent replacement — Bacon, formerly principal at Dunbar Middle School — wasn’t named until last summer.
“Last year for this school was probably pure hell,” Bacon said.
Enrollment has bounced back to around 1,300, but with very different demographics. In the late 1980s, Hall was about evenly split between white and black students. This year, it’s about 75 percent black, and a significant portion of the remaining 25 percent are Hispanic. Hall is the designated “newcomer center” for all high school students who arrive in the district unable to speak English proficiently, and 150 students speak a language other than English at home.
Almost 300 students who live in Hall’s attendance zone go to Central. Two-thirds of them are white or Asian, including the daughter of Little Rock School Board member Baker Kurrus. Another 270 or so, about a third of whom are white, attend Parkview Arts and Science Magnet.
Those numbers reflect a problem that’s incredibly difficult to solve: Teen-agers have a natural desire to do what everyone else is doing.
“I never had the impression that people didn’t go to Hall because of the quality of the faculty or anything like that,” Wiedower said. “I think it’s something as fickle as kids wanting to be with their friends.”
Teachers also say that Hall gets a disproportionate number of special needs students who are assigned to the school even if they live in other attendance zones. In the 2004-05 school year, Hall had more special-needs students than any other Little Rock high school. They get students who’ve flunked out of private schools, or had problems in other public ones.
“We seem to be the placement for a lot of misfits,” Bona said.
Through all of that, though, Hall held on to an incredibly talented faculty. Four are national board certified, two are Stephens Award winners (English teacher Gail McKinnon has receive the award twice, and is the only Little Rock teacher asked to grade AP literature exams), and math teacher Michelle Jackson recently won a Presidential Award for Excellence.
The school has continued to turn out high-achieving students, if on a much smaller scale. Lascelles Lyn-Cook, class of 2004, received more than $1 million in scholarship offers. A student who graduated several years ago made such a successful discovery in science — having to do with how many chemicals are transferred to food from plastic wrap when it’s heated — that she was paid a six-figure salary to work for a manufacturing company for a year during college, McKinnon said. Another of McKinnon’s former students, Andrew Winston, published his first novel, “Looped,” in February 2005.
This year’s achievers include Pamela Palmer, accepted to Vanderbilt and Northwestern, headed to Rhodes, who was the overall first-place winner at the Arkansas Science and Engineering Fair this year. A traveling trophy follows the winning student each year, and chemistry teacher Jane Meadows happily adds that Hall’s had the trophy more than any other school in the state: “We’ve had it five times, Central’s had it four, the Math and Science school had it three, so we’re winning, we’re winning!”
Hall’s own “Science Wall of Fame” is painted in the hallway outside Meadows’ classroom. It starts with Amy Chou, one of my classmates and now a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University, and includes only students who’ve won awards at major science fairs. (She placed third overall at the International Science and Engineering Fair in 1987.) There’s a name on the wall for almost every year during the 1990s and the 2000s. Palmer’s name will be the newest.
“The talent pool is smaller, but we still do a good job of channeling that talent,” Meadows said. “We probably look after them a little more closely.”
If Palmer had gotten her way four years ago, she would have been one of the students in Hall’s attendance zone who attended Parkview Arts and Science Magnet. But that school’s enrollment is rigidly controlled, and she wasn’t chosen in the lottery. Her luck changed the next year, but by then, she said, she’d decided to stay.
“I love everything about Hall,” she said. “I love the teachers, the people. The clubs are so active. … There are so many positive things you can do at Hall.”
Then there’s Naomi Bland, this year’s valedictorian, who’s on her way to Yale. She was assigned to Central, but didn’t want to go there because it was too far from where she lived. Most of her friends went to Parkview, but she didn’t get in. In ninth grade she was cast in the school play and won the Miss Hall pageant, and she passed up a chance to transfer to Parkview for 10th grade as well.
Now at the end of her senior year, it’s Hall’s teachers she talks about when she describes what’s good about the school.
“It’s a very intimate environment with our teachers,” she said. “They work together.
“I talk to my friends [at other schools] — they say, ‘You know your teachers’ phone numbers?’ I say, ‘Of course, I’ve been to their house. We’re friends.’ ”
Palmer and Bland both have had to deal with outsiders’ negative perceptions of their school — perceptions that persist in spite of their own achievements.
“They look and me and say, ‘Well, you’re different,’ ” Naomi said of her friends at other schools. “No, I’m not different. Hall’s not this negative place with this violence. Instead of focusing on the negative, which they do about Hall a lot, we should focus on the positive, which we have plenty of.”
Senior Issac Morales, wait-listed at Harvard, landed at Hall because he didn’t speak English when he moved to Little Rock several years ago. He, too, stayed when he had the opportunity to transfer.
“This school is better,” he said. “… The teachers are awesome. You get to know everybody.”
And all three agree with classmate Michelle Drilling, whose parents made her go to Hall, she said, because her mother and sister went there. She’s academically advanced as well, but said she doesn’t like what she hears about how competitive Central’s elite students are.
“It’s not that way here,” she said.
And that gets at what several teachers said is one of Hall’s key strengths:
“We’re much better at connecting with the above-average but not brilliant kids and getting them moving,” said Kitty Sanders, head of Hall’s social studies department (and, full disclosure, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had).
Hall offers a full slate of Advanced Placement classes, and the faculty prides itself on the percentage of minority students enrolled in them. (Central has been criticized over the years for the lack of minority participation in its AP classes.)
And they’ve made significant strides with the average and below as well. Scores on the end-of-course exams in algebra I and literature are still fairly dismal, but they’ve improved dramatically over the last few years. This year, said media specialist Trina Bright, 30 students classified as “basic” on the literature test were within a few points of “proficient.” Had they done just a little better, more than half of those who took the test would have scored proficient.
“We don’t have all the National Merit kids, and we’re not going to beat you on all the tests,” said Meadows, who has a doctorate in chemistry. “But it’s not like where those students went to high school made them that. There’s so much emphasis on kids who would be outstanding anywhere. Look at the basic and below-basic kids, what we do with them.”
Another strength is the school’s art program; students consistently win top awards in state and regional competitions, and one student, Tiffany Surber, was recently offered a $20,000 scholarship to an art school on the strength of work she exhibited.
The school has tried a laundry list of programs to reverse its fortunes and its academic reputation. A few years ago it started the University Studies program, which allows students to take college classes on Hall’s campus, co-taught by Hall teachers and UALR professors, at half UALR’s regular tuition rate. It’s been a success for the students who take advantage of it: Sanders said a student who graduated last year was named a Donaghey Scholar at UALR, and others have been able to enter college as sophomores, ahead of their peers both in credits and in college-level study skills.
“It helps the borderline kid get his foot in the door,” Sanders said.
But it hasn’t been the draw it was hoped to be.
This time, though, the plans combine the rigorous International Baccalaureate program with the arrival of Principal John Bacon, who happens to have an MBA and a background in marketing as well as a successful record as principal of Dunbar Middle School, an international studies magnet that has traditionally been a feeder for Central’s magnet program.
“The reality is not what people think,” Bacon said. “There are some phenomenal teachers here. There are good kids too — with early admission to Yale and Vanderbilt this year. That’s my job — to get the word out and clean up some of the mess.”
Unfortunately, he said, “This is definitely one of those situations where it takes eight to 10 positives to counteract one negative.”
Bacon has started a PR committee at Hall, a group of teachers working on strategies to recruit bright students. And he’s focusing on harnessing the power of the school’s alumni (firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’re interested).
“There are so many influential Hall alumni in town,” he said. “The glory days of Hall — those people are now in charge of this city.”
Hall’s teachers seem to have a lot of confidence in Bacon — “He’s willing to shake things up, and that’s good,” government teacher Sonja McKaskle said — and some say Brooks and the group of top-level administrators he brought with him are finally providing the support Hall needs at the district level.
“Everywhere he goes he tells people Hall is a priority,” Bacon said.
The district agreed to fund implementing the International Baccalaureate program at Hall, which was no small expense. The program’s difficulty is comparable to Advanced Placement classes, but instead of students picking and choosing individual courses, IB requires a specific set of classes. Teachers must have special training, and students begin taking pre-IB classes in the ninth grade. They officially begin the program in the 11th grade, and must pass a set of final exams and a senior-year project to receive the International Baccalaureate diploma.
Bacon said he hopes the IB program will not only draw bright students back to Hall from Central and other schools, but, by implementing the pre-IB classes school-wide, will raise the bar for the students who are already there.
Privately, though, a few teachers said they’re concerned that Hall doesn’t currently have enough students who can handle the workload and academic level of the IB program. And Bacon acknowledges that. But the students are out there.
“The kids exist,” he said. “We have a few kids now who could handle it. There are definitely kids in our zone who could.”
The problem, though, is convincing those students that Hall and the IB program are worth passing up attending Central with their friends. It’s not enough to lure two or three bright students, Bacon said. He needs to lure a group large enough that the students won’t feel isolated.
Bacon’s background at Dunbar, where he had the support of a strong group of parents whose children would probably go on to Central otherwise, might help that, Wiedower said.
Meanwhile, the recruitment team is exploring every option it can think of to publicize Hall’s positives. Algebra teacher Corniell Bursac said the team’s plans include reaching out to Hall’s feeder middle and elementary schools and to the surrounding neighborhood.
“I hate that the negative perception is out there,” she said. “But we’re definitely trying to change it.”