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Baker's dozen

Baker Kurrus assesses 12 years in the "belly of the beast" -- on board of the Little Rock School District.



Twelve years on a school board takes a toll. Maybe the most difficult part was walking away, knowing that much hard work remains to be done. The greatest challenge was trying to remain positive and optimistic when so many people were not. The greatest thrill was handing my three children their high school diplomas. The greatest disappointments were the lack of outrage at a school system in disarray, and the acceptance by school employees of things that were appalling. The greatest challenge, which is still completely unmet, was and is to find a school district administration committed to deep and meaningful reform, even if that means that some good people lose their jobs. Most inspiring was the dedication and effort of thousands of teachers, administrators, parents, students and volunteers who worked tirelessly to make life better for kids. Most baffling is the lack of any consequence for failure. It was good, bad, ugly and beautiful, and now it is over.

One of the most heart-breaking moments occurred at an elementary school in south central Little Rock. As I was leaving about 9 a.m. after having read to a kindergarten class, a woman was coming in with a baby on her hip and two other kids in tow. All four of them looked like they had been crying, and the kids had runny noses. All were disheveled and looked tired. I grabbed the door to try to help her into the building. She glanced my way and smiled that sort of polite, forced facial expression of perfunctory acknowledgment that we use in strained situations. I asked if I could help her. She quickly passed me and went in the building. The principal told me privately that this woman was the children's grandmother, and that she was working two jobs to try to support everyone.

After everything the Little Rock School District has been through — all of the blood, sweat, tears, time, money, energy, litigation — we have too many kids that don't learn. We have many who soar to unbelievable achievement, but I am haunted by the failure of too many of our city's kids. Don't misunderstand what I will say in the paragraphs that follow. For many kids, including my own, LRSD was an unbelievably satisfying and successful experience. Many, many parents and students succeed, and we all celebrate the wonderful teachers and administrators who make this possible. But should we be satisfied by the successes and accomplishments of some, when many are failing?

Does it have to be this way? Why don't we have integrated neighborhoods, with good public schools and committed parents? Why do we have so much distrust, and so much political infighting? Why is everything a power play? Is it good for our children, or our community? How does Little Rock grow and prosper, and provide opportunity for its residents, if the public schools are not universally good?

After 12 years, I don't know all of the answers, but I think now at least I understand the questions. There are some things that are important and relevant.

The desegregation lawsuit

On Nov. 30, 1982, the Little Rock School District ("LRSD") brought a desegregation lawsuit against the Pulaski County School District ("PCSSD"), North Little Rock School District ("NLRSD") and the State of Arkansas Board of Education. At that time, LRSD was 70 percent black. Some whites had moved, while others transferred to private schools. In an effort to desegregate itself, LRSD initiated the long-running case which continues today. The case was settled by the parties in 1989, and the balance of the litigation over the last 21 years or so has been about the parties' performance of the settlement agreement. From the standpoint of both desegregation and test scores, the LRSD case and the countless similar cases in other cities like Little Rock have been failures. After millions in attorney fees, and literally billions in desegregation payments, in 2010 LRSD is right back where it started — about 70 percent black. This is not a failure of the judicial system. All the courts ever required was that the parties live up to the contractual obligations that they undertook through a voluntary settlement. The litigants, and the monitors, and the school board failed our children by constantly fighting and wasting resources, instead of working to improve the basic classroom learning environments of the students of greatest need. That failure continues today.

The judicial process was necessary, I think, and LRSD certainly made some strides from the standpoint of civil rights, but was the lawsuit successful? Who won, and who lost, and what have we gained? Tough questions, but the answers are plain. Nobody really won, and almost everybody lost, and success remains elusive. Did we learn anything really? Apparently LRSD did not. Soon after LRSD was finally declared unitary, against the testimony of three or four school board members, the school district's lawyers filed a motion to commence another round of litigation to squelch charter schools. Even if the case makes sense in some academic way, it won't do a thing for the kids who are failing under the current system. We now know that litigation is not the answer to the most persistent problems of LRSD.

In the course of this struggle, the Little Rock School District blamed others for its failures and never addressed its own systemic shortcomings. While LRSD implemented countless remedial programs as a part of the judicial settlement, LRSD did not attend to the fundamental work of the district. We stopped focusing on basic instruction, and became an experimental facility for the latest and most appetizing remedial programs popular at the moment. It became acceptable for children to fail in the classroom, and the answer was not to change the classroom experience. The answer always was to find another remedial program, spend millions to train and equip administrators and teachers, try the program, evaluate the program, and move to the next one. LRSD continues to employ hundreds of people who move from one program to the next, with virtually nothing to show for it. If programs were the answer, LRSD would be at the top of its class. Some help a little, and some help a few, but so far nothing has really worked across the board. The programs that show the most promise are essentially expensive tutorial programs.

The poor left behind

While all of this litigation and remediation was going on, many supporters tired of the fight. The community at large was no longer outraged by the results obtained by many students, or the cost of it all. Many Little Rock residents still feel a certain resignation about a negative outcome, and a willingness to generally accept it as inevitable. While 10,000 or so children attend private schools in Little Rock, the poor and special-needs kids in Little Rock are left in struggling public schools, with intractable problems. In 1957 Little Rock had a dual system of education, one for whites and one for blacks. In 2010, Little Rock has a more insidious "system" where many poor kids default into the public system, and children with parental support find their ways into schools which are full of high achievers. Some of these preferred schools are public, some are private, and some are charter, but all of them have low numbers of poor kids.

In St. Louis, Detroit, Memphis, Kansas City, Atlanta, Charlotte, and countless other cities the chain of events is eerily similar. First a desegregation case was brought. Governmental entities were found to have been guilty of discrimination. Complex remedies for desegregation were devised, complete with special administrators, court-appointed masters, magnet schools, huge transportation departments, special remediation programs, and all the rest. The magnet schools did not draw people into the districts or endure. Instead, magnet schools here and elsewhere became sanctuaries for public education advocates.

Desegregation of large numbers of schools became impossible as whites either left or concentrated in the magnet sanctuaries. The regular schools became one-race backwaters where the less talented teachers and administrators drifted, without parental oversight. Huge numbers of remediation programs were started and ended, with clever names and large training and travel budgets. "Grant writing" became a cottage industry. Grant-funded programs sprang up like mushrooms, and went away just as quickly. Many teachers and administrators just hung on, receiving automatic pay raises despite poor student results. There was little or no accountability and little in the way of results. The systems and their host communities deteriorated, so the demographics kept getting worse and worse. Instead of educating students with a systemic approach, the focus became remediation of huge numbers of failing students and failing teachers with special programs and professional development. Property values plummeted, slum landlords moved in and acquired properties at depressed prices. The children who ended up there faced tremendous challenges. Schools that once had middle-class kids and lots of volunteers now had poverty kids and little parental support. Test scores dropped. Upper income enrollment fell precipitously, with the few remaining upper income whites being concentrated in a few special schools. The average test scores from this small core group remained very high, exacerbating the "achievement gap" and fueling resentment by those whose children were not succeeding. Outrage in the black community grew. Demographic shifts occurred, and the school boards in these communities became majority black. This fact alone did little to solve the education problems. Unqualified superintendents were hired for political reasons. The downward spiral accelerated, with cities failing, economies collapsing, and city governments in fiscal distress.

Little Rock has hung on longer and better than most other Southern cities. Nevertheless, the white-flight communities that prosper in Central Arkansas are here to stay. They now have major hospitals, large universities, art centers, parks, and unified school systems which are the focus and pride of the community. In Little Rock itself, private schools have been institutionalized and are now ingrained, enrolling thousands of upper-income students who otherwise would attend LRSD. The desegregation goals of the lawsuits were not achieved. The more discouraging fact is that overall black student achievement has not improved in any meaningful way. Some poor kids have made their ways through the system and have succeeded, but too many of the kids who needed the most ended up with the least. Middle- and upper-income black kids excel in LRSD, and that is no surprise. Still, too many others continue to fail.

Roy Brooks

There is no need to rehash the events surrounding the buy-out of Roy Brooks, but some of the lessons of that experience could help Little Rock in the future. Little Rock started down the path of change and reform with the hiring of Dr. Brooks. He was admired by some, and vilified by others. The issues he raised, such as merit pay, administrative competence and cost, and teacher professionalism and competence, have not gone away. At some point, teacher pay in LRSD will be linked to performance if we expect to receive federal support, and if we want teachers to have higher compensation. Brooks got very few style points, but he was bold and innovative. He did not move well through all segments of the community, but he did not create these factions that continue to fight after his departure. By all accounts he was attentive to at least some parents, and he could galvanize some sections of the community. In the end, in a board room filled with parents and business leaders on one side, and union leaders and community activists on the other, Brooks was bought out and sent away because he would not move slowly and delicately. He would not cover for failing administrators, and he would not rationalize systemic failure. The teachers union disliked him, even though the union received a three-year contract under his leadership. I knew that his dismissal, whether warranted or not, was going to be a blow to LRSD. I offered a compromise that would have taken a year off his contract, allowed time for healing, and started the process of finding a successor. This compromise was dismissed by a majority of the board. In retrospect, LRSD was the biggest loser. These actions vaulted charter schools to the forefront, drove parents and students out, and eroded community support. The hiring of a replacement was perfunctory and preordained. This has not worked so far, and it won't work in the future. We must work together.

Hope remains the strongest human emotion for many of us. The Strategic Plan drafted under the excellent leadership of Jim Argue and Terence Bolden is a roadmap for meaningful change. It will take new leadership to implement this plan. The plan will work, but it will not be easy or painless. LRSD insiders know that change will be tough, and most insiders are stonewalling the Strategic Plan, hoping it will be shelved and forgotten. The Strategic Plan is as important in its origins as it is in its substance. It is the product of a broad-based, cooperative effort by a diverse group of dynamic, opinionated citizens. For example, both civil rights lawyer John Walker and Jay Chesshir, the director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, cooperated with many others to draft the plan. This was a very bold and constructive step.

Both Walker and [former School Board President] Charles Armstrong were supportive of the plan and its implementation. These actions took tremendous courage, especially in the face of strong political pressure to ditch the plan and continue the present plan of inaction.

Little Rock and LRSD will not succeed if we as a community do not take a different path. LRSD is awash in money, thanks to a high millage rate and extra money from the desegregation case and the federal stimulus funding. Money is not the problem. We have the resources, if we have the will.

We need a sea change

Can things change, and can the system be salvaged? Of course, but only if there is commitment by the school board and a new superintendent for deep and meaningful systemic change. Imagine a district with all of its administrative personnel in one location, with all of the efficiencies that come with such a move. Imagine a district with a superintendent who is a change agent — someone who seeks and builds excellence everywhere. Imagine a nimble, efficient system with very little middle management — a system that leads the state in starting teacher salaries, and recruits the top teachers. Imagine a district where morale is high, and where people in other districts wish to work in order to learn how to succeed. It is possible, but not without a sea change in the attitudes of almost everyone in district administration. LRSD has some great people who are yearning for fair, enthusiastic leadership. Many are simply beaten down and tired of the infighting. LRSD unquestionably has some of the very best teachers anywhere, but union leadership needs to shift its focus. (I never understood why the union would not endorse my candidacy, even when I was unopposed, because I always worked for lower administrative costs and higher teacher salaries.)

The construction of the new Don Roberts Elementary School is a vital link, to use Don Roberts' own term, in a change process that could turn this district around. Imagine 350 to 400 new families with children in LRSD attending the school. That much is already happening. Imagine that these parents and their children decide to keep their children in the district in middle school, and they attend Forest Heights, Henderson, Dunbar and Mann. And then they go to Hall or another of our high schools. And imagine that the schools deliver the quality education that these parents demand. This could spur growth and change throughout LRSD.

new discrimination

Most people think Brown v. Board of Education was the bellwether desegregation case in our history. Today the more relevant and topical case is Sweatt v. Painter. In that case, the Supreme Court said that equal protection of the laws is not achieved through the indiscriminate imposition of inequalities. That, in a nutshell, is what we have today in Little Rock. We can pass the test of Brown, but we cannot pass the test of Painter. It is not racial discrimination any more. No matter your skin color, if you can wheedle your child into a good school, whether public, private or charter, you will get what you need. If a child is born to a situation without a strong advocate, that child will indiscriminately be educated in an environment that is designed to employ adults and meet their needs, rather than meet the needs of the child. It is morally wrong and awful, as Dr. King said from the Birmingham jail.

I am not mad, bitter or cynical, and I am not quitting the fight. I don't know what role I will play, but we all must do something constructive. I think the stakes are too high, and the potential rewards too great, to ever stop trying to make LRSD a better school district. For now, I will push this district to implement the Strategic Plan it adopted. This will require bold leadership and deep, systemic reform. It is possible if we have the courage to trust each other, to work together, and to change.

I have not been to the mountaintop. I have been in the belly of a beast. The view from there has, at times, been mean and ugly. Several months ago I stood on stage at my son's graduation. I handed him his diploma, just as I had done for his sisters when they graduated. As I watched the graduates file out, at a time of great celebration, my eyes welled with tears. I wondered then, as I have many times over the last few weeks, if I could have done more, or done better. When I think of the woman at the elementary school with her grandchildren, I know that there is certainly much more to be done.

About the author

Baker Kurrus, who completed 12 years on the Little Rock School Board in September, is a lawyer and is president of The Winrock Group, which is engaged in farming, ranching, timber and mineral production. He also manages several other companies in commercial and residential real estate development. A native of Pine Bluff, he's a graduate of the University of Arkansas and Harvard Law School. He and his wife Virginia have three children who attended and graduated from Little Rock public schools.

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