The Influencers: Michael Poore of the Little Rock School District

Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore
Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore (Karen E. Segrave)
Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore: “We’ve got to be aggressive, and I hope that the community feels like that’s what’s happening in Little Rock right now.”
Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore: “We’ve got to be aggressive, and I hope that the community feels like that’s what’s happening in Little Rock right now.” (Karen E. Segrave)

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.

The third, Poore said, was developing “world-class career centers.”

Poore took over a district in turmoil. Key had made Poore the district’s chief in place of Little Rock businessman Baker Kurrus, who had earned the support and respect of many in the school system.

Kurrus also had opposed the expansion of charter schools within the district’s boundaries, which, some speculated, was the real reason Key, who has been supportive of school “choice” and charter schools, replaced him. Key denied this, citing Poore’s background as a professional educator.

Rocky Road
Poore came to Arkansas in 2011 to become superintendent of the Bentonville School District. He previously had served as deputy superintendent of two Colorado school districts.

Once in Little Rock, Poore immediately launched an ambitious campaign to introduce himself to the community, gather ideas and reassure district patrons about his intentions. The plan involved calling 10 students, teachers, parents, community or business leaders every day “in an effort to build relationships.”

Poore also went door to door, talking to parents and others about the district, an effort he said would continue. And he got an earful, good and bad, about Little Rock and its schools.

Poore, 55, attributes his work ethic to the example set by his parents, farm kids from north-central Kansas, the state where he was born. But by the time he was 2, the family had moved to Colorado, where Poore spent most of his youth.

His father worked for Continental Oil, but in 1972 he left the company and moved the family to Summit County, Colorado. There he opened what Poore described as one of the first convenience stores, a full-service gas station that also sold gifts and groceries.

“Well, the whole family worked as part of that business,” said Poore, who was entering the fifth grade when the family moved to Summit County.

The school system was small and Poore “was literally involved in every single thing that you could be involved in.” He played three sports and was in choir, band and student leadership.

The experience shaped him, Poore said. “It gave me an appreciation of everything from a classroom to what it means to be in the performing arts, what it means to be in athletics and how valuable that is.”

He entered college with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but his experience heading the sports program at a summer youth camp changed Poore’s career trajectory. He realized he loved helping children and decided to enter the education field.

Poore, genial, open and enthusiastic, is also pragmatic. Asked about the challenges facing public education and the dangers of developing a two-tier school system — one for the affluent and motivated and one for everyone else — he said:

“I’m not in favor of vouchers. I’ll say that to you. And I don’t believe that enhancing a two-tier system is the right approach. I think that the solution on the public ed side is, first off, we do need to compete. We need to understand that we are competing. And some people I think still struggle with that. But that’s a ship that’s long sailed. Parents appreciate choice. That’s a fact.”

Competing means achieving academic success. “What gives us the best chance to have local control back? To enhance our learning environments.”

And it means creating a welcoming school environment — “that sense that we’re in it for something bigger than just ourselves,” he said.

The district faces many hurdles, including the loss of $37.3 million annually in state money. Budget cuts will mean the closing of three campuses and repurposing of a fourth.

A special millage election is planned for May 9 to vote on extending 12.4 property tax mills another 14 years. The money raised would pay for a $160 million capital improvement plan.

Poore hopes to generate “buzz” with his upbeat strategy. But he also knows how much is at stake — not just kids but an entire community.

“I’m impatient,” he said. “I’m impatient because we’re talking about kids and we’re talking about what this means for our community. We can’t sit around and not move forward. We’ve got to be aggressive, and I hope that the community feels like that’s what’s happening in Little Rock right now.”

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