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Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, June 24, 2016

" Eternal vigilance is not just the price of liberty.  It is also the price of freedom and equality. "

I have been a poor correspondent lately, primarily due to the daily pressures of this job.  I am under contract until June 30, 2016.  I intend to press on until the finish.

Picture of Joan Baker Kurrus, the mother of Baker KurrusOn Mother's Day, I spent some time thinking about my mother, Joan Baker Kurrus.  She died before I got out of law school.  She was always loving and supportive, even when perhaps a more unbiased person would have seen my flaws.  She convinced me that I could do just about anything if I did my best.  I can still remember her taking my brother, sister and me to the shallow end of the swimming pool when we were small children.  She didn’t want us to have any fear of the water.  She enrolled us in Red Cross swimming lessons when we were old enough to go.  I found out a bit later, maybe when I was six or seven, that she couldn’t swim, and that she was deathly afraid of the water.  She didn’t want us to live with her fears.

My mother was not college-educated, but she took a correspondence course on children’s literature so that she could help us with our reading.  She had wonderful friends, Betty, Rusty and Betty.  They played bridge, and tried to learn to speak French because they loved the sound of the language.  Mom was born too soon to be everything she might have been in different times.  She was engaged politically and socially, and she always tried to help those in greatest need.  She grew up in Pine Bluff during segregation.  She and my dad knew it was reprehensible, and they never countenanced any kind of discrimination.  They threw kinfolks out of our house who used the wrong words.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, May 10, 2016

Straight to Banner graphic with a picture of Baker Kurrus

"Listen to your heart.  Let it guide you."

Hello Straight Talkers.

Yesterday I briefly posted a column which had some very personal reflections, including some about my mother.  After consulting with my editorial board (my wife and kids), I decided to pull it down, for now.  My son said he loved the stories, but that the tone was not in keeping with previous things found in this space.  He said, “I think you should thank everyone for the support and encourage them to continue putting energy and excitement into the schools after you’re gone.  You said recently in a press conference that you liked competition, and that was refreshing to me.  If everyone continues to work hard and continues to prove that LR schools perform just as well or better than the other schools, the people that want the best for their kids will want their kids to go to the LRSD.”

Thanks to all who are ignoring the distractions and focusing on the classroom.  Thanks to all who have worked so hard to get our students ready for their standardized tests.  Thanks to all who have administered all of these tests, and given so much in the last year.

My son is right.  We have the best schools, and I love competition.  We are winning.  We have room to get better, and we are moving in the right directions.  The superintendency is not the key to the success of the district.  The people in schools provide the stability, trust and competence that parents seek with respect to the educations of their children.

Picture of students honored at City Hall Erica Braswell of Hall, Isha (pronounced “Eye-sha”) Horton of Parkview, and Natalie Amos of McClellan, baker Kurrus, Marvin Burton, Dr. Booth

I just got back from Little Rock City Hall.  The city board honored three brilliant young women from LRSD, Erica Braswell of Hall, Isha (pronounced “Eye-sha”) Horton of Parkview, and Natalie Amos of McClellan.  Erica is both a Gates Millennium Scholar and a Dell Scholar.  Isha is a Gates Millennium Scholar.  Natalie is a Dell Scholar.  These young women are incredible people, in addition to being gifted students.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, April 1, 2016

As the week winds down, I want to stop and thank everyone who works so hard to serve the students in the Little Rock School District.   We have had an interesting couple of weeks. As a buddy of mine sometimes says, after all of the talking is over, somebody still has to get the work done.   

Latest Edition of Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, February 15, 2016

Valentine’s Day is a lovely day.   We extend our love and affection to spouses, significant others, children, parents, good friends and many others.  We send flowers, candy and cards to those we love.  

 While incarcerated with Ralph Abernathy,   Dr. King wrote a beautiful sermon about redemptive and reconciling love directed to those who would try to hurt us.  Dr. King quotes Jesus and Lincoln, who both told us that the best way to defeat our “enemies” is to make them our friends.   From Dr. King’s sermon come the often-quoted words, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  We could really use a holiday where reconciliation and cooperation are encouraged.  Loving those we love is not nearly as difficult as loving our detractors.  A “reconciliation” holiday would be a surprising, productive and fruitful celebration of the love that Dr. King somehow managed to summon and personify at the times when such emotion would be impossible for most. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, December 21, 2015

The administrative staff of LRSD and I have determined that we should proceed with the planning, design and construction of a new middle school in west Little Rock and a new high school in southwest Little Rock.  These projects were envisioned by the former board of LRSD in the broader context of a millage increase and bond issue.  I believe these projects can be planned, designed, constructed and equipped using existing revenues.  These projects can be the beginning of a new and more fulfilling era for our district if we can work together.  We will put each project on a fast track.

We are planning to open an area middle school (6th grade initially, grades 7-8 will be added in subsequent years) at the Leisure Arts location in the fall of 2016.  We will prepare temporary space for the 6th grade in the office building.  We will also begin the process of converting the large warehouse into the permanent middle school facility so that we can accommodate the students as they move up.  Land and improvements are now under contract for $11,500,000.  A substantial amount of construction will be required to convert the existing facilities to school use.  Current estimates are for total costs in the range of $15,000,000 to $19,000,000 for the conversion, a new gymnasium, furniture and equipment. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, December 11, 2015

Change.  Education is the business of change. 

I have gotten a lot of email recently about block schedules.  I have been implored to not change the schedule at two of our high schools.  I have not proposed a change in the class schedules.  I have said as early as last May that we must change a number of things about our school district, and that we must ultimately align our operations, and the costs of our operations, with the model that is used by the state to fund school districts generally.  I have made this statement in a variety of contexts, and with respect to many of the things that LRSD does.  With respect to scheduling, the state has a number of statutes that impact a school schedule.   One statute says that school districts must provide teachers a minimum of 200 minutes of time each week to schedule time for conferences, instructional planning and preparation.  This seems to me to be the bare minimum, but that is what the law requires.  LRSD affords its high school teachers 450 minutes a week in some schools, and 510 minutes a week in others.  This is expensive and probably not sustainable.  This has been and will continue to be a topic of conversation with our teachers and their representatives.   I have discussed this with school principals and district administrators.  There are many ways to deal with this, and we are exploring all of them. LREA took a poll recently which dealt with the subject.  This was helpful. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, October 20, 2015

"It is the human touch that makes the difference."

I was at King Elementary recently for a ribbon cutting at the new fitness center.  The National Governors’ Council on Fitness awarded King a package of fitness equipment worth approximately $100,000.  Jake Steinfeld, who is one of the people who really started the fitness industry, was there to make the presentation.  Governor Hutchinson, Commissioner Key and others were also there.  The fifth grade jazz band played, the cheerleaders danced, and the place was rocking.  Jake was inspirational.  He emphasized that we have better self-esteem, and more energy, when we are fit.  He was genuine, gracious and enthusiastic.  The King crew, led by Ms. Carter, really showed our governor, our commissioner, Jake and our other guests a wonderful time.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, October 2, 2015

Does it get boring every time I say, “This has been a very interesting week.”?

We came to terms on a conditional contract to acquire 23 acres and some buildings that might work as a middle school.  If we can use the facilities, and make the numbers work, we will proceed.  If the property is not suitable, or if the economics are unworkable, we will keep working.  I was out walking the property early one morning.  A couple drove up and asked me if this was where the new school was going to be.  I told them that we have a lot of work to do before I can answer that question. 

Little Rock School District also needs to proceed with planning, design and construction of a new facility in southwest Little Rock.   Previous  plans were based on a tax  increase,  but I think we can probably make the numbers work without a millage.  Our competitors are on the march, and we must move out boldly.  The Civic Advisory Committee will work to get the community engaged with respect to our plans.   I am assembling  a district planning and execution team.  I will also have a budget projection for the two projects very soon.  The budget will tell the story.

Last Wednesday I went to Wakefield Elementary, home of the Wakefield Wildcats.  The school was holding a rally for a very special young man who is a student there.   He is bravely facing a health challenge, and the school raised over $4,200 to assist him.  He is a fighter.  He is going to prevail.  He looked thin and maybe a little tired, but he was smiling, and his eyes had a certain sparkle-- a little glint, like a tiger.   In the mornings at schools we have a minute of reflection time.  I will remember him in my reflection time.  I don’t want to change the name of the Wakefield mascot, but I am calling him the Wakefield Tiger.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, September 18, 2015

Good afternoon, Straight Talkers.  As I write this, it is 6:20 p.m. on Friday.  This will be my last official act of Week 5 of this school year. 

This has been an interesting week.  Thanks to all who read last week’s installment about Spiderman.  I will check on little Spiderman soon and let you know how he and his classmates are getting along.  It is fun and easy to check on little Spiderman.    I have had some great dialogue with many of you about the issues raised last week.  It gives me a great deal of hope to know that we are working together to solve problems.  When I took this position I said that I would do my best, but that I could certainly not accomplish much unless we come together as a team. I know we have a number of challenges, but I am extremely encouraged about the progress we are making.  Let me explain.

Commissioner Johnny Key and I arranged to tour some of our schools this week.   We left from the district office in my car.  I did not have an itinerary, and I had not called ahead to any schools to ask that personnel be on their best behavior.  I asked Commissioner Key where he wanted to go.  He said it didn’t matter. 

Our first stop was an elementary school.  We walked in and were greeted immediately in a friendly way by a smiling security person.  The Commissioner signed in.  We met a class of pre- kindergarten students in the hallway who were lined up for an activity.  All of them were smiling except one little girl, who was missing her mother.  The little girl next to her was comforting her.  The teacher was fully engaged and pleasant.  She was so proud of her kids.  The principal was out in the building attending to some business, but she came up and we took a short tour.   We met an enthusiastic teacher that was a friend of the Commissioner’s.  The classes we observed were busy.  The students had their heads down, books open, and pencils in hand.   The teachers were amazing.  I constantly marvel at the ability of our teachers to be in control, without seeming to be controlling, or overbearing.  We went in the science lab, and saw all sorts of animals.  Earlier that day a science class watched as a snake shed its skin.  What a great way to learn about reptiles.  It was fascinating to me, and I know it must be fascinating to the students.  Again, the teacher was professional, energized and on fire to educate kids.   He told us how he is collaborating with other teachers so that the things that are studied in the science enrichment are coordinated with the subjects that the students are studying in their regular classes.  

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, September 9, 2015

Last week I went to Washington Elementary.   Although the school has some empty seats, the classes are busy, and the staff appeared to be engaged.  The library is beautiful.  I saw a lot of students working hard.  Washington was a magnet school for many years.  It now is a much different place, with a number of empty seats.  I will talk more about all of that very soon.

I went to the Washington cafeteria and said hello to the students who were in line for lunch.  The students were in the P-3 pre-kindergarten program, which means they are three and four years old.  I met one very talkative young man.  I introduced myself and asked him his name.  He said, “I’m Spiderman!”  He laughed and pretended to spin some webs out of his wrists, as he made a great sound effect, “SSSSSTTTTTT!!   SSSSTTTT!”  I was captivated in more ways than one.  What a marvelous little guy!! He had a big smile, a big vocabulary and a great imagination.  How can we be sure that he does not lose the love of storytelling and the enthusiasm for education that he was showing me?  How do we keep it going past Pre-K?

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, September 1, 2015

I got up early last Saturday morning and went to the farm.  I worked outside all day.  Being outside by myself helps me sort things out.  Over the last few days, I have been troubled by a number of issues and problems.  Negative attitudes of just a few can threaten the positive direction our district is heading.  The answer is simple, I think.   Focus on student achievement.   If we all work with focus on this singular goal, almost everything will be resolved in our favor. 

Now, to the more than 3,000 LRSD employees who made school opening generally smooth and special, thank you.   I want to brag on the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked so tirelessly getting classrooms ready for our students.  I had a great time with many of these people, and I learned so much about our district by being in our buildings.   We have some of the best of the best, and we can achieve many great things this year. I have seen our teams cooperating and pulling together in the most fantastic ways.  I saw inviting classrooms all over this school district that were waiting for students to step in and get started on learning adventures.  I saw libraries filled with exciting books.   I saw great leadership, and great teamwork.    I think we are a much better organization than we were four months ago.  We can make crisp decisions, and we are much more nimble.  We are working much harder, with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, August 14, 2015

Dedication. 

On Monday morning I put on my workout gear and went to one of our high schools.  I arrived at about 5:15 a.m. to see some coaches organizing gear, other coaches working on practice preparation, and others setting up equipment on the football field.

By 5:30 a.m. lots of young men, and several young women who are managers, were arriving.  Some looked a little sleepy, but they showed up ready to go to work.   By 5:45 a.m., lots of people were sweating, including me.  Whistles were blowing.  Hands were clapping during calisthenics.  Coaches were teaching, and players were learning.   I am not sure that the average citizen of Little Rock understands the pride and dedication that our students and coaches exhibit. 

Athletic practice may be education in its simplest form.  The hard work, the preparation, the dedication and the effort pay off in visible ways.  Some students really thrive academically when they make the connections that athletics provides.   

We owe it to our students to provide them with the same academic and athletic facilities that students have in surrounding school districts.  We can accomplish this if we work together.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, August 7, 2015

This is a busy time of the year.  I didn’t expect that two of our playgrounds would be deliberately destroyed. If you missed the news, two large sets of playground equipment were burned last week.   The cost, in dollars, will be over $225,000.   The total cost remains to be seen, and depends on what happens next.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, July 31, 2015

Some schools get a lot of praise and positive attention, and a number of schools are criticized and get negative attention.  As this year unfolds, I am not going to play that game.   I am going to take a different approach.  I will certainly talk about schools by name, but I am also going to talk about students and dedicated colleagues without reference to school affiliation.  There are a lot of stories of success that are not being told, and the stories come from all over our district.  I still have my “Lion Pride,” along with the other schools (some of you Straight Talkers will recall that discussion!), but I want to be sure we lift up our district and support one another.  We need to start taking pride in our district.

I got a text message (Does anyone ever call?) from one of our students who just got back from a leadership conference in Chicago.  She had a great time while learning about how to be a leader.  She said she met students from eleven other countries.  She said the conference was “absolutely amaaazing!!”  I am sure she will have a major positive impact on the culture and climate in her school this year.  We need more of our students to travel to educational summer events.  These things can be life-changing.  Step up, Little Rock.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, July 24, 2015

This has been an interesting week.  We are working hard on a number of important tasks that need to be completed before school starts.  We are really trying to put our best foot forward in our schools.  We are planning for a transformational year.

I met with the Civic Advisory Committee last night.   We talked about a lot of things.  I reviewed a process map which we will use in the schools which are set to receive intensive support.  I want to be sure that each educator has a clearly defined role.  Last year we had a lot of folks who were working at the tasks, but I understand that there was some confusion—maybe too many cooks in the kitchen, or perhaps too many recipes being used.  The map is still in draft form.  The Arkansas Department of Education has worked with our team to assist with this process, and with the process map.  Students are at the top of the chart, with teachers just below the students. All of the support personnel are layered in the middle.  The commissioner of education is at the bottom, and I am just above him.   It is a servant leadership model, where everyone on the map serves those above them.   I was explaining the alignment to a group of my colleagues, and I wasn’t getting through to them.  I finally asked the group to imagine that everyone on the chart was in a classroom.  The teacher would be teaching, and the students would be learning.  Those in the middle would be supporting and assisting the teacher.  If a student were to get sick and throw up, the teacher would keep teaching.  I would clean up the floor, and the commissioner would take the student to the school nurse.    Classroom instruction would not be interrupted.  I was not joking.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, July 17, 2015

 “Esperanza. ”  Please say it out loud.  Esperanza is the beautiful word for hope in Spanish.  If you don’t speak Spanish, the word is pronounced as it is written, and you should say it out loud.  It has a melodic ring to it. 

This morning I went to Mabelvale Elementary School to see the ending celebration of Camp Can Do.  The Camp was for about 210 English language learners.  LRSD has 2,707 students who are classified as English language learners (“ELL”).  About 9 out of every 10 of those students speak Spanish.  The children at the camp had a lot of fun, but they also studied hard.  They had breakfast first, and then did some “dancing” as they went to class.   They studied science, biology and other subjects.  They focused on reading.  The students were tested when camp started, and tested at the end of camp.  Many of the students had strong growth in literacy. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, July 10, 2015

I have been on the job for two months now.  We have made some progress, but we really need to work hard during the next thirty days so that the 2015-2016 school year is different and better.  I apologize in advance about the dull nature of this Straight Talk, but it is very important.  Sometimes the basic execution of a fundamental plan is a bit on the boring side, but likewise the results of the work can be very exciting.  Imagine the excitement of enhanced student achievement, even if it results from execution of a rather dull plan!  If you can imagine this, you will be one of the first persons in LRSD history to do so.  In the past, we have imagined phenomenal results emanating from more complex and creative programs.  The plans and programs were exciting, but the results were not. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, July 3, 2015

I got an email this morning from a speech pathologist who works in one of our elementary schools.  She told me about working with a third grader who has a “mild articulation disorder.”  As she worked with the student, she “was always amazed by his interests and vast knowledge of various topics.”  She said he was able to comprehend and remember all sorts of things, but he was not a good reader.  He received reading interventions at school, but he did not make much progress.  At one point the little boy told her, “You know, I would be really smart if I could read.”  That statement broke her heart, and it makes my heart jump up in my throat.  This little boy IS really smart, and he needs help.  She is determined to see that he gets it.  She is going to follow through for this child, and her efforts may make all the difference.   I see teachers going the extra mile almost every day, and it makes me proud of so many of the people with whom I now work.  It makes me want to do all I can to be sure we have the time, tools and resources to help every child.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, June 26, 2015

I just left a meeting of the eight incoming principals who were recently appointed.  I told them that they were an outstanding group, and they are.  Six of the new principals will work in elementary schools or early childhood centers.   One thing the principals and I discussed was the transition of their students to middle school.   I have spent some time examining the readiness of our sixth-graders for middle school.  Far too many are not prepared.  We have one middle school where less than 49.5% of the students are proficient or advanced in math and literacy.  At another middle school, 46% percent of the students entering sixth grade last year were not proficient in literacy.  Sixty percent were not proficient in math.  We need to eradicate these problems, root and branch, both in the early grades and thereafter.  We will do all we can in every grade, but we simply must kill these problems at the root.    

We are seeking pre-K4 enrollees for our early childhood programs for next fall. Please help us spread the word.  We have 300 new pre-K seats for our Arkansas Better Chance kids.   We need to fill every seat.  We are going to get our kids ready for kindergarten, and then walk them up the ladder.  We are not going to give up on any of the older ones either.  I am asking a lot of questions about the best practices for later systemic solutions.    If we know that a ninth grader who reads at a fifth grade level almost never graduates, would it make sense to have intense reading academies in the summer before ninth grade for such students?  This wouldn’t be a program.  It would be the system.  If it worked, we would keep doing it.  If it didn’t, we would change to something else until we got it right. 

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, June 18, 2015

Straight Talk

Last week I spent more time visiting schools, particularly those that are in “academic distress.”  Thursday and Friday I spoke to the staffs at Cloverdale, Henderson, Fair and McClellan.  I had already visited with the staff at Hall, and the Baseline staff is going to be reconstituted.   (This means that most of the current staff, except for some support personnel, will be moved.  Some staff at Baseline who want to return may be rehired, but I expect the majority to be new in the fall.) I think the staffs at Hall, Fair, McClellan, Henderson and Cloverdale expected me to criticize them, or threaten them with some major reconstitution if results did not improve.  Instead of chastising them, I thanked them for hanging in there during a tumultuous year.  I told them that we face some real challenges, but that we will face those challenges together.  Some were relieved that reconstitution was not in the works.  Some of the folks were just plain tired.  I asked them to rest up, get recharged, and get ready for a new and focused school year this fall.  It is only about two months away.  We are going to have a fresh start.

The biggest challenge now for those staffs, including principals, assistant principals, teachers, specialists and support staff, is to work together as a team.  Organizations that are effective pull together and work together.   Effective school personnel spend their time on teaching and learning in the classroom.   Once that focus is lost, there is just not much else that gets done.  We will spend some time before school starts in  goal-setting processes that will let us know if we have the teams in place that can work together.  In schools where we do not, we will struggle.  If we are able to build some committed teams with common goals and with unity of purpose, we will succeed.  It will also be a lot more enjoyable for everyone.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, June 9, 2015

I spent some time last Saturday morning with the incoming student council officers from McClellan High School.  Most of you know that the McClellan mascot is a lion, so I met with a “pride” of wonderful young Lions.  I enjoyed getting acquainted with them, and I learned a lot.  They have some great ideas for next year, and I want to be a part of their plans.  I want all of our schools to have a quiet, confident sense of pride.  If we can instill a justifiable sense of pride and accomplishment in our schools, then our staffs and our students will expect more from themselves, and they will not accept behavior that erodes or undermines that sense of self-worth. 

The McClellan students asked me a number of great questions, including questions about our district’s long term ability to fund new schools.  I put some numbers on the board for them, so in sort of an odd twist the student council at McClellan was the first group to get a summary of the beginnings of a long range capital improvement plan.  As I mentioned, they asked a lot of great questions. I will share more on this subject, and we are going to need to talk a great deal as a community if we want to move ahead with respect to facilities.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, June 1, 2015

You can learn a lot from visiting schools, and talking to parents and students. 

I spoke at the 5th grade graduation at Jefferson on Friday.  I took my law school diploma, which has remained in the red mailing tube in which I received it since 1979.  I asked the kids if they wanted me to give my prepared speech, or talk about what was in the mailing tube.  They picked the tube.  I told the students that my first grade teacher at Jefferson, Mrs. Meeks, taught me to read in 1960.  Nineteen years later I got the diploma, but I would never have received it if I hadn’t learned to read.  In a way, she really sent it to me.  I went to her old room that morning.  I remember the way the chalk clicked when she wrote on the board. 

I went to McClellan high school several times last week.  I made arrangements with the incoming student council president to go to their planning retreat next Saturday.  We are going to get acquainted.  They will know I care about them.  I want them to set the tone in the school.  We need a good year there.  I will meet with the staff and principal before school starts.

Straight Talk by Baker Kurrus, May 15th, 2015

 

Straight Talk, by Baker Kurrus

May 15, 2015

I woke up at 2:33 a.m. this morning with my mind racing. It is now 3:28 a.m. I gave up on getting any more sleep. I fed the dogs, made some coffee, and now I am getting started with my work.

I have been on the job for about a week now. I want to give you a report on where I think we stand as a school district. I will give these reports weekly, and I think it is best if I give you the unvarnished version of where I think we are and what we are doing.

We have a lot of organizational weaknesses, but they can be fixed. We have allowed our administrative organization to lose some of its sense of purpose and connection, and most departments operate in relative isolation. We are task-oriented, rather than purpose-driven. We need to manage more toward our objectives, and less toward isolated task accomplishment. These problems can be improved by better management focus and more communication. Before we undertake any task, we need to understand how it will have a positive impact on teaching and learning in the classroom. If the things we do have no positive impact on teaching and learning, then we are not going to pursue them. We must also push authority downward in the organization, so that routine decisions are made by persons most capable of understanding the issues associated with the problems. This will improve morale, improve results, and promote accountability.