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Baker Kurrus: Little Rock Schools on Detroit Path

4 min read

Little Rock is on path to a similar fate as Detroit’s low-performing public schools, Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus warned Tuesday.

Kurrus was candid and forthcoming in his assessment of the district during a speech at the Little Rock Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon at the Clinton Presidential Center. But he saved some optimism for the future and challenged the community to take ownership of its schools.

Kurrus, 61, a Little Rock attorney, long-time public school advocate and former LRSD school board member, was appointed to lead the troubled district earlier this year by state Education Commissioner Johnny Key after the state took control of the district in January. 

Six of LRSD’s 48 schools had been classified as academically stressed, with fewer than half its students scoring at proficient levels on tests, and two-thirds of its 30 elementary schools scored in the lowest 25 percent on math exams.

The district is the state’s largest with about 25,000 students. Last year, a federal judge ruled the state could halt $37 million a year to the district in desegregation funding. 

But Kurrus told Rotarians that money isn’t something the district needs more of. He cited aging facilities, the movement of middle school students to private and charter schools, and the loss of upper-income black students as major problems plaguing the district.

“We’ve got a $3.3 billion tax base,” he said. “We spent $13,000 per student, the most of any district in the state. Money’s not the issue.”

The district can’t survive with a population of low-performing and special-needs students, many of whom live in poverty, Kurrus said. He pointed to Detroit’s struggling public schools, where 20 percent of students are classified as requiring special education and others are moving to suburban districts. 

“A district can’t survive overwhelmed by special needs students and poverty,” he said. “The truth needs to be told. If we don’t change, this community is gonna be like Detroit. If you like Detroit, you’ll love Little Rock. But it’s gonna get better.”

Kurrus, who said he plans to help fix the district and then hand it over to a long-term replacement, wants to focus on improving schools that feed into problem schools. Many students are entering middle school unprepared, setting up those schools for failure. 

“That’s the long-term fix,” he said.

Kurrus also stressed that the public needs to shift its focus from race to income.

“We’ve lost the white middle class,” he said. “But we’ve also lost 200 upper-income African-American students this year. We’ve got to compete as a district. If what we want is community-based education, then we’ve got to mean it when we say it.”

He called the the loss of middle- and upper-income black students the district’s biggest disadvantage. 

In 1988, the district had about 9,000 white students. That number is now down about 45 percent to 4,000, Kurrus said. Those white students have been replaced by about 3,000 Hispanic students. Meanwhile, overall student population in the district is roughly the same, representing no growth.

“This community has a lot of thinking to do as far as what it wants from its school district,” Kurrus said. “LRSD will not survive if all the kids it educates are children of need. If LRSD becomes just a place where you send your kids if you can’t send them to a private or charter school, then it won’t continue to exist.”

He said all young students in the district should be able to attend a school like the 900-student Roberts Elementary in west Little Rock, where students perform consistently in the 90th percentile. But the district loses about two-thirds of its Roberts students to private and charter schools, he said.

Kurrus encouraged Rotarians to continue to volunteer at local schools where they’ll find students who are “marvelous gifts from God” (a phrase he used three times to describe LRSD’s young students) and teachers committed to their students. 

“We’re not dealing with widgets, we’re dealing with people. These kids are depending on us,” he said. “We’ve got to fix it for these kids. We don’t have a choice.”

Other points of interest from Kurrus’ keynote address:

  • Before his appointment, LRSD officials did not have the organizational capability to be effective, Kurrus said. “We’ve got a system in place now. That’s being fixed.”
  • The district’s 2014-15 budget was $319.3 million and it employs 3,700 people.
  • Kurrus noted one middle school where 67 percent of students read at subpar levels. 
  • Kurrus praised Baseline Elementary in southwest Little Rock for its “complete turnaround.”
  • LRSD has 28 schools with a student count below 500, which Kurrus called “not sustainable.” Springdale’s smallest public school has 499 students, he said. He also acknowledged the need for more elementary and middle schools west of Interstate 430.
  • Regarding charter schools, Kurrus acknowledged “the challenges there.” He said most parents with choices want their children around similar peer groups that want to learn.
  • Kurrus told Arkansas Business that he’s moving ahead with plans to build a new state-of-the-art McClellan High School in southwest Little Rock. He said the existing facility could be used to house a new incarnation of Cloverdale Middle School. Kurrus also wants the district to purchase the former Leisure Arts building on Highway 10 in west Little Rock for a new middle school.
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