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Ever since the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, the image of public education in Arkansas in the national consciousness has ... not been one associated with progressive best-practices, but Arkansas public schools did turn out a president and a number of world class artists and scientists. Today, though, the state ranks near the bottom of most indexes of student achievement.

County School District's Support For Black Leaders A Model, 35 Years Into Desegregation Order

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Arkansas Public Media
Shawn Burgess speaking before the Aspiring Black Principals group on their last meeting of the year.

At a brainstorming session after school recently at district headquarters, a group of black school employees sit around a U-shaped table discussing how to become principals. Coach Shawn Burgess, head of human resources at the Pulaski County Special School District, speaks to two women in the room who recently interviewed for leadership positions and didn’t get the job.

“And it’s not what you did wrong, per se. It’s about, ‘When is it my time?’” she said.

“That’s right. Um-hmm. That’s it,” echo the staff.

“Ok. So, every time is not your time,” she repeated. “So even though you did not get that job, they know who you are. You made a lasting impression on them.”

The group, Aspiring Black Principals, is made up of district teachers and assistant principals who meet once a month to listen to guest speakers, edit their resumes, and groom themselves to become future administrators for their district.

The program, part of an effort to resolve a decades-long mandate to desegregate the school district, was started after a federal judge, in 2011, refused to release the Pulaski County Special School District from a court order that began in 1984.

“It seems that Pulaski County has given very little thought, and even less effort, to complying with its desegregation plan. Complying with its plan obligations seems to have been an afterthought,” said federal Judge Brian Miller in his 2011 ruling.

Citing the need for a more vigorous commitment to desegregation, he tasked the district with doing something to remedy a range of issues, including the predominance of white teachers and principals in the district.

“Pulaski County has not identified how it sought to increase the number of black administrators hired from outside the district, nor has it shown the steps it has taken to groom promising black teachers for administrator positions.”

Last week, another federal judge, D. Price Marshall, ruled the district be granted “unitary" status in staffing, meaning it has been successfully resolved. Staffing is just one of the areas it must fulfill to be released from the court order.

After desegregation and bussing were mandated by the courts in the 1950’s and 60’s, whites in Little Rock increasingly sent their children to, or relocated to, nearby cities in Saline, Pulaski and Lonoke counties. Little Rock became a majority black school district.

In 1982, it successfully sued the county school district and the North Little Rock School District, which had accepted many white pupils who left Little Rock, to integrate all three districts.

In the 1984/85 school year, at the outset of the federal court order, the county’s school district had 23.6 percent black students, 21.7 percent black teachers, and 27.3 percent black administrators, but the ruling required it to further integrate the district by recruiting black faculty and transferring students in and out of Little Rock based on race.

Nearly 35 years since the beginning of the lawsuit, in its most recent staffing report, the county school district reports that during the 2015/16 school year, the district enrolled 46.2 percent black students and employed 23.7 percent black teachers and 46 percent black administrators.

After little success recruiting enough black teachers to the district, it has managed to steadily raise the number of black administrators in its employ, increasing by about a quarter since the Aspiring Black Principals support program began. Burgess says while her mentees don’t get preferential treatment, they do move up in the district.

Over the five years of the program’s existence at least 15 participants have moved into administrative roles. Shawn Burgess says any black staff member can apply to be in the two-year program. Ten to 20 people are selected based on a writing submission and recommendations.

“I think I look for people who [are] very open. Open to change. Open to learning. Open to reflective thinking. Open to just being a better educator, communicator,” said Burgess. 

Masako Christian completed the program last year and says it helped her land an assistant principal job at Crystal Hill Elementary School in Maumelle. She’s in her second year on the job after working 20 years as a elementary speech and drama teacher. She says the program tries to make up for historical barriers.

“Because, first of all, the opportunity wasn’t always there for African Americans, and it levels the playing field.”

As an assistant principal, Christian disciplines students, and she says black students sometimes tell her they think their white teachers treat them differently, and she tells them to look at their own behavior.

“It won’t be the first time that they will encounter someone who they feel is discriminating against them. And so I have to give them the tools that they need to be successful, regardless of whether they feel a teacher is discriminating against them or not."

And occasionally she has to confront teachers who she observes are discriminating, and remind them about the court order. The district still must address the disproportionate way black students are disciplined compared to whites, and has yet to achieve “unitary” status or equity in student achievement and facilities.

“The schools tend to mimic what’s happening in society. And so, if society is still afraid of dealing with one race, and there’s still discrimination in society, then we’re still going to have that problem in the education system,” says Christian.

As part of being released from the order for staffing, the district has committed to recruiting and creating incentives for black teachers, which make up only 23 percent of teachers.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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