The Influencers: Michael Poore of the Little Rock School District

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 12:00 am  

It’s probably best to be an optimist if you want to lead the Little Rock School District. By that measure, Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key made the right choice last April in selecting Mike Poore as superintendent of the state’s biggest — and long-troubled — school district. One of Poore’s revealing conversational quirks is asking “Guess what?” It comes after he lays out a problem only to follow it with a confident assertion that the problem is already on its way to being solved. He’s challenging a listener’s skepticism.

For example, here’s Poore describing the district’s new Excel program, which is seeking to connect high school students with careers in health care, technology, teaching, construction and aeronautics and to award them concurrent high school and college credits:

“When we announced that we were moving forward on Excel, [Delta Dental] came up with the corporate challenge. Guess what? The corporate challenge has already got three different businesses that have said we’re going to take care of kids’ concurrent credit. One of them is Delta Dental, the second is Nabholz Construction and the third is Baldwin Shell. All have stepped forward all at different times to say we’re in.”

Those companies each will contribute $2,500, covering the cost of those college credits for a class of 25 students.

“That’s a valuable gift for the kid, because now he’s getting bang for his investment, and it’s something that goes with him as he exits out into post-secondary because he may go right into the workforce, but eventually he’s going to need some additional college training,” Poore said. “He’s already got this kind of in the bank. That’s powerful.”

This confident optimism is contagious. It’s also deliberate. Poore is a believer in the “appreciative inquiry approach,” which — simplified — seeks to institute change by focusing on what an organization does best.

“What you ask is, ‘What is it that you most value about the organization?’ What is it that’s a core commitment that you just believe everybody in the whole organization stands behind? What is it that we do better than anyone else?’ So you’re asking very positively worded things. It’s not, ‘What’s wrong?’”

Going “down the road of what’s wrong,” Poore said, can lead to a dead end. That’s because people’s opinions of what’s wrong can vary widely and soliciting those opinions can result in unhelpful blaming and finger-pointing.

After identifying what’s best, Poore said, the appreciative inquiry approach asks the organization’s stakeholders — in the district’s case, parents, teachers, students, community leaders — where they’d like their organization to be in, say, three years.

“So when you combine these two things, what ends up happening is that you actually create a core of ‘Here’s what you say you are.’ It’s not me. It’s all this input that’s come in.”

That effort to engage the public is one of the three primary tasks that Key assigned Poore when Poore left the Bentonville School District for the 23,000-student Little Rock School District. The state’s Board of Education took over the LRSD in January 2015 after six of the district’s 48 schools were determined to be in academic distress. (Three of those have since been removed from the academic distress list.)

Since then, Key has controlled the district, serving in place of its elected school board, which was dismissed. The lack of a locally elected board is a sore spot for many in the district, and leading the district to a return of local control is the No. 1 task Key gave Poore.



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