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.

One evening I went to watch my niece play volleyball for Arkansas State University.  Her team was playing UALR.  I met up with the volleyball team and the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students from Cloverdale.  I really enjoyed meeting with them.  Some of them were seeing their first collegiate athletic event.  A couple of them had never been on a college campus.  Thanks to their sponsors, Ms. Christy Jenkins-Strong and Mr. Hiram Sumlin, for accompanying their students on this trip.  I was proud of the students.  They represented Cloverdale Middle very well.

One morning I sat in the courtroom of the Arkansas Supreme Court and listened to oral arguments dealing with the school board reinstatement case.  King Elementary had 75 fourth and fifth graders in the courtroom to observe.   I made it a point to sit next to two very bright students named Daylin and Heaven.   As we sat and talked quietly before the hearing began, Daylin asked, “Are they really going to have an argument?”  I told him that they would be taking different sides of the issues, but that they would be respectful, and that we would all abide by the justices’ decision.   Heaven and I chatted about her schoolwork and her future.  Heaven asked me to tell her what I did as superintendent.  I told her my job was to help her and her teacher, who I believe is Ms. Fletcher.   Let the judicial chips fall where they may.  I am going to be respectful, abide by the decision, and do the best I can as long as I am here. 

 I went to Parkview and sat in on Erica Ivy’s English class.  It was such a pleasure.  The class was discussing a poem, Diving Into the Wreck.  Ms. Ivy and her students were completely in sync, and all engaged.  It was a privilege to be in a classroom as a “student” and to experience the energy of young minds as they found their meanings in a marvelous poem.    Parkview is a gem.  It is a coat of many colors, or a warm blanket woven of many strands, where all are valued and important and wonderful.  (That was the use of “syndeton,” as I learned in English class that morning.)   If I get up enough nerve I will write a poem and send it to the class at Parkview.

We have reached a contract with our teachers.  This is monumental.  The contract speaks for itself, as we lawyers say, but it is also very important to note that we reached an agreement calmly and respectfully, with a lot of discussion about how we can cooperate and collaborate.  I enjoyed working with LREA leadership.  They were firm but fair, and gracious at every turn. 

We are looking seriously at two new schools.  We have to start planning for next year.  We are assessing academic progress, and we will have the PARCC scores in mid-November.  We have too many students who are not achieving, and we have too many academic buildings that are not satisfactory.  We have poor athletic facilities, and we have settled for much less than we should have in other areas.    We have become desensitized to things that are unacceptable.

In summary, we have years of problems, and a short time to work them all out.   To be successful, we need at least five things- trust, complete commitment, optimism, energy and perseverance.

The most important element is trust.  Trust is like a brick wall.  It is built carefully and slowly, a little bit at a time.  It can ultimately be very strong, but it can also be damaged or destroyed by hammer blows struck in anger or frustration.  If we who value public education cannot work together to build a foundation of trust, our success will be elusive.

The human element is the most important part of our school district.  All the best  45-day plans, improvement processes,  organizational charts, remediation programs, professional development initiatives and other  endeavors designed by the world’s most effective educators will not move a single student unless we have capable and compassionate people working directly with our students.  We are focused on this reality.  We are making a lot of progress.   Last week the administrative team got together with principals and assistant principals for dinner.  We ate dinner, and just talked.

It is the human touch that makes the difference, and it builds trust.

I was at Baseline last week with Commissioner Key.  We dropped by to see how things were going.  People were working extremely hard there, as they are in our other schools.  The opening day excitement has subsided, and the difficult work of each day is in front of us. 

Some students were lining up in the hallway to return to their classroom.  I asked some first graders what they had been doing.  They talked about their recent spelling lessons, and they began to spell words for me.   As I moved down the line I recognized a little girl named Jessica.  I have spoken with her before, and she is a bit shy.  When I got to her, she took my hand.  She didn’t shake it, or want to let go.  She just wanted to hold my hand.  So we held hands and walked back to her class.  I leaned down to say goodbye when we got to the doorway, and Jessica quietly said, “I can spell ‘because.  B-E-C-A-U-S-E.’ ”   I was more than impressed.  I told her that I was very proud of her, and that I would see her soon.   I walked away with a new spring in my step.

I have had some long days recently, with many high points and some real disappointments.  When I wonder why I am tackling this job, I say to myself, “Because.”


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