Get­ting schooled in He­lena

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

Ivividly re­mem­ber the day that the state of Arkansas took over the He­lena-West He­lena School District in April 2005. I was work­ing in the gov­er­nor’s of­fice at the time, and the takeover was planned with the pre­ci­sion of a mil­i­tary in­va­sion.

Of­fi­cials from the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion en­tered the district’s ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices with­out ad­vance no­tice, tak­ing pos­ses­sion of com­put­ers and fil­ing cab­i­nets. Ex­tra state troop­ers were as­signed to the area in case there were prob­lems.

Ken James, the state ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner at the time, later said the district’s fis­cal con­di­tion was among the most out­ra­geous ex­am­ples of “mis­man­age­ment and malfea­sance” that he had ever seen.

The state re­stored lo­cal con­trol in 2008, but by 2010 se­ri­ous ques­tions again were be­ing raised by state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers. An au­dit in March of that year found that the district had im­prop­erly dis­bursed $34,781 to mem­bers of the school board and district per­son­nel be­tween July 2008 and Novem­ber 2009. Money was used for travel ad­vances that were never doc­u­mented, al­co­holic bev­er­ages and per­sonal ex­cur­sions by school board mem­bers when they at­tended con­fer­ences. The au­di­tors found an­other $52,538 that had been spent at restau­rants and other busi­nesses with­out ad­e­quate doc­u­men­ta­tion. Thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of fur­ni­ture and sup­plies also were pur­chased with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion.

In June 2011, the state took over the district again. By then, Tom Kim­brell had re­placed James as ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner, and Mike Beebe had suc­ceeded Mike Huck­abee as gov­er­nor. But the takeover mis­sion sounded much the same. An Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment news re­lease on the morn­ing of the takeover noted that “Kim­brell and other key ADE staff ar­rived in He­lena-West He­lena this morn­ing to in­form the su­per­in­ten­dent, Wil­lie Wil­liams, of the changes in district lead­er­ship. Steps have been taken to se­cure school records and to en­sure district oper­a­tions will con­tinue un­in­ter­rupted.”

En­ter An­drew Ba­gley, an in­struc­tor at Phillips County Com­mu­nity Col­lege who was pres­i­dent of the ad­vi­sory board dur­ing the sec­ond state takeover (the school board was dis­solved) and has a pas­sion for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. And en­ter John Hoy, a highly re­spected ad­min­is­tra­tor who be­gan serv­ing as the state Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment’s head of pub­lic school ac­count­abil­ity in July 2011 and was sent to He­lena as su­per­in­ten­dent in July 2014. Hoy un­der­stands the Delta since he grew up at Hughes. He be­came the district’s 15th su­per­in­ten­dent in 23 years and stayed in place once the state re­lin­quished con­trol.

In March 2015, Ba­gley wrote to the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion: “The lead­er­ship pro­vided lo­cally through the Ad­vi­sory School Board, com­bined with the painful trauma as­so­ci­ated with the stigma state takeover brought to our com­mu­nity, has equipped our com­mu­nity to be ready for and de­serv­ing of an­other chance to lo­cally op­er­ate our schools. . . . We have made great progress dur­ing the last four years, and our com­mu­nity has learned many lessons from this ex­pe­ri­ence. We are con­fi­dent of a bright fu­ture for our district and its stu­dents. Four years is plenty of time to serve as a con­se­quence of our past sins.”

It would take an­other year be­fore lo­cal con­trol re­turned to the He­lena-West He­lena School District, but that day came in March 2016. A new school board was elected later that year, and Ba­gley be­came its pres­i­dent. District of­fi­cials also an­nounced that they would ask vot­ers to en­act a prop­erty tax in­crease of 9.75 mills to sup­port a ma­jor con­struc­tion project on the Cen­tral High School cam­pus. There had been no ma­jor struc­tural im­prove­ments to the high school for decades. Ba­gley says the cam­pus has ex­posed wiring, out­dated re­strooms, dam­aged doors, floor dam­age, holes in walls, wa­ter dam­age and de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ceil­ings.

De­spite a vig­or­ous cam­paign by the pro­po­nents, the mill­age pro­posal failed by 108 votes last Novem­ber in a com­mu­nity where white pa­trons largely had aban­doned the pub­lic schools. The school board de­cided to try again. In March, the in­crease passed by 79 votes as the He­lena busi­ness com­mu­nity fi­nally bought into the need for the tax in­crease. Work is now be­gin­ning on a $28 mil­lion project that will be com­pleted in time for the 201920 school year. Ba­gley says: “It’s a re­ally de­press­ing en­vi­ron­ment with a build­ing that’s leak­ing from the top, leak­ing from the bot­tom and has ex­posed wiring in be­tween. Now we’ll go from hav­ing some of the worst fa­cil­i­ties in the state to some of the best.”

In March 2016, the district broke ground for a build­ing that will serve ele­men­tary school stu­dents on the district’s J.F. Wahl cam­pus. Classes will be­gin in that build­ing this week. For the first time in decades, there’s op­ti­mism when it comes to the He­lena-West He­lena School District. The only good news be­ing re­ported in the me­dia when it came to ed­u­ca­tion in He­lena con­cerned the KIPP char­ter schools. And that has been well-de­served recog­ni­tion. Scott Shirey showed up in He­lena in 2002 with a dream. With strong sup­port from a core group of civic lead­ers, Shirey was con­vinced he could use the KIPP (which stands for Knowl­edge Is Power Pro­gram) method suc­cess­fully at He­lena. In 1994, Mike Feinberg and a fel­low teacher named Dave Levin be­gan the first KIPP school in Hous­ton af­ter com­plet­ing their Teach for Amer­ica com­mit­ment. Soon there were dozens of KIPP schools across the coun­try with the vast ma­jor­ity of stu­dents com­ing from low-in­come fam­i­lies. Only about 20 per­cent of stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies at­tend col­lege. Al­most 90 per­cent of KIPP alumni went to col­lege.

Shirey suc­ceeded in He­lena and has ex­panded the con­cept to Blytheville and For­rest City. In vis­it­ing with Ba­gley, it’s ap­par­ent that he’s in­tensely com­pet­i­tive with KIPP. Hoy, the su­per­in­ten­dent, states flatly: “It’s our in­ten­tion to com­pete at ev­ery level.”

The com­pe­ti­tion from KIPP and state man­dates forced the He­lena-West He­lena School District to get bet­ter (test scores have been up for four con­sec­u­tive years). Con­versely, the new mo­men­tum in the district will make KIPP step up its game. The real win­ners are the stu­dents.

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