OPINION | JEFF WOOD: Culture Change – Arkansas Online | Team Cansler

Education leaders in Arkansas need to stop making excuses and make a plan.

Earlier this month, the Arkansas Department of Education released its annual review of the state of public education here in Arkansas. The report was not good. In fact, it was mostly bad.

Compared to 2019 (the last year each school was assigned a letter grade before the Covid shutdown), 2022 has seen the number of high-performing schools halve and the number of unsuccessful schools more than double. And there has been a strong trend among schools to move in the middle of the wrong direction.

But I learned something very important that day: all the excuses I’ve heard over the years as to why a school can’t perform highly on the annual evaluation are dead wrong.

You know what I’m talking about; You’ve heard it before: we have too many poor children. Our special education population is too high. Too many of our students are learning English as a second language. we are too small we are too big We need more money. covid.

But a deep dive into the data debunks all of this.

For example, consider Grace Hill Elementary in Rogers. 78 percent of the students come from low-income families and 51 percent learn English as a second language. Still, Grace Hill improved from a D in 2019 to a C in 2022.

Ninety-one percent of Western Yell County Elementary’s students are from low-income families, 24 percent are special needs students, and the total enrollment in K-6 is only 156 students. But this school improved from a D to a C.

At Eudora Elementary School, the student body is 100 percent minority, and 91 percent of them come from low-income families. Still, it held a C ranking during the pandemic.

And consider Quitman Middle, which went from C to B while spending just $4,500 per student, well below the state average of $10,820.

If you think these are just isolated examples, you might be surprised to learn that during this period, 389 Arkansas schools (40 percent) either improved by a grade or more, or maintained a grade of C or better. Of these, 315 qualified for federal Title I assistance based on family income, 152 had more students from low-income families than the state average, 88 had higher minority enrollments than the state average, and 210 spent less money per student than the state average .

That’s not to say everything is fine. No, just the opposite. There are too many students in underperforming schools and we need a significant amount of reform. But the most fundamental might be a reform of the culture – the culture of leadership.

At a recent gathering, Christina Meister, principal of this school against the odds in Rogers, explained to an attentive listening room how she did it. It was brilliantly simple. She just changed the culture.

“We started with the school culture,” Meister said. “We wanted to create a culture where all teachers and staff genuinely believe that all children can learn at a high level…rather than blaming all circumstances.”

Let me repeat that: instead of blaming all circumstances like poverty, special education, community size, money, Covid.

Another director at the same gathering said her team made a conscious decision to stop arguing with the results, stop denying the data and admitting where they were so they could go in a different direction.

They didn’t blame the test or argue with the results. They adapted and succeeded.

Shifting from a culture of excuses to a culture of expectation is hard. Very difficult. Therefore it seems that the majority of our schools do not do this.

The principal at Sylvan Hills Elementary in Sherwood knows how difficult it is. Britney Hickman told this gathering of the arduous work that such an attitude requires. Her leadership team created a customized action plan for. Everyone. Child. in. that. Building. And her disciples reaped the rewards. Your school rose from C to B during a pandemic.

More resources for our schools would be great; I am for competing with our neighbors to show commitment to education. But what we need more than anything is more leaders like Meister and Hickman and hundreds of others like them who have the will to transform the culture of their buildings and their teams.

Turnaround can happen anywhere. It can happen under any circumstances. It can happen to any child in this condition. Schools in every corner of Arkansas prove it.

So it’s time for our educational leaders to stop making excuses.

And it is time for our citizens to stop accepting them.


Jeff Wood is a member of the State Board of Education and a father of three children in Little Rock public schools.

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