Columns » Bob McCord

Excellence at Mills

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There are more than 27,000 public high schools in the United States, and one in Arkansas is getting attention because it ranks 59th in the nation for having nearly half of its students taking difficult courses that could lead them to a better education and career. That school is Pulaski County School District’s Mills University Studies High School, and the rating is done by Newsweek magazine. Three times the magazine has made the survey of the 1,000 schools with the most students taking Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes and tests. This is the third year that Mills students have finished high in the list — 102nd in 2000 and 20th in 2003. Another surprise is that 60 percent of Mills’ 950 students are black, 50 percent of them from families so poor that they qualify for free lunch paid by the federal government. Four other Arkansas schools make the Newsweek 2004 list — Little Rock Central was ranked 205th, Fayetteville High School 779th, Little Rock Parkview 862nd and Bentonville High School 893rd. I wanted to go to Mills to find out how it could lead so many bigger, richer and better-known high schools around the country. After being at the school a short time, it was easy to decide that it was Bill Barnes, the school’s principal, who was responsible. However, Barnes says it is his teachers. Before hiring a teacher, he carefully examines them, looking for teachers who know the subjects, have experience in the classroom and are willing to stay after school and even come to the school on Saturday to help kids learn the subjects. “I have a staff that would give their hearts and souls for these kids,” he said. Barnes, age 56, is a black man no one would want to argue with or ignore. He stands 6 feet 7inches and weighs about 250 pounds. He began playing basketball in high school in El Dorado, his hometown, and was so good at it that in 1967 he was offered a scholarship (the only possible way he could get to college) to Grambling State University, a predominantly black college in Louisiana. But the coach at what is now Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia saw Barnes play and gave him a four-year scholarship to become the first black athlete in the college’s history. After graduating, he had tryouts with professional teams, but he knew he needed a master’s degree for a career in education. So he signed up to play with a semi-pro basketball team in Florida that paid him enough for him to go to the University of South Florida and get his degree. He taught in El Dorado and Hope, but then 18 years ago he was hired to become the principal at Mills. He was greeted with poor grades, gangs, fights, drugs and little respect for what schools should be about. Parents were withdrawing their children. It didn’t take him long to get rid of the violence and to start enforcing the rules. But there was the school’s poor academic record that he also had to improve. Luckily, in three years, he got help from federal judges who declared that classes in every school in the Pulaski County School District had to be improved. Barnes and other higher-ups in the district decided that Mills should become the district’s university studies school where students could take 20 or more AP classes like European history, calculus, history of art, statistics, environmental science, physics, etc. As expected, some students from the other county high schools began wanting to transfer to Mills. Students and their parents had to be interviewed by Barnes and his faculty. If the students’ records and attitudes are not satisfactory, they can’t come to Mills. But, if they are admitted and pass the courses, the students will be in a position to receive scholarships. And, those with outstanding grades often can begin their college work as a sophomore rather than a freshman. Of the 950 students at Mills, 450 are taking the full AP program of eight courses. Other students not greatly interested in college are taking one or two of the more difficult courses. Barnes expects more Mills scholars next year now that the AP tests that used to cost $50 are now free. Thanks to the Arkansas legislature (especially Rep. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, who, by the way, is Barnes’ ex-wife), the state now pays for the tests. In a way, the AP at Mills is improving all the other six Pulaski County high schools. Their principals don’t like to see their better students transferring to Mills. Therefore, they are starting to offer a few AP courses. Because the Pulaski County District’s School Board is broke and has just bought out the contract of the second superintendent in a row, maybe the board members ought to drive down to Mills University Studies High School and see how many wins that big, tall guy down there has had in 18 years.

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