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REX NELSON: Getting schooled in Helena

I vividly 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 2019-20 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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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 08/13/2017

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