The Pine Bluff School District was recently declared by the Arkansas Board of Education as being in severe academic trouble.

The educators on a high school level feel that the size of the campus is unmanageable. Juniors and seniors feel like they aren’t being prepared for the next phase after high school, so they told us that they don’t see a point in attending school on a regular basis.   Jeremy Owoh, superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District  

In addition to its fiscal distress status, the Pine Bluff School District has now been declared by the Arkansas Board of Education as being in intensive need of academic help.

The declaration was made at a Thursday state board meeting, where the district was identified as Level 5, which indicates the highest priority of need in the state’s school accountability system.

The state board took over the PBSD in September for fiscal distress.

Mike Hernandez, who works for the Arkansas Department of Education, will head an audit of the PBSD’s operations to form a game plan of how to help. The state board appointed Jeremy Owoh as the district’s superintendent shortly after the September takeover, which dissolved the local school board.

Owoh told the state board on Thursday that recent student focus groups at the district showed that “there’s just no motivation” to learn.

“They’re just not interested,” Owoh said.

“The educators on a high school level feel that the size of the campus is unmanageable. Juniors and seniors feel like they aren’t being prepared for the next phase after high school, so they told us that they don’t see a point in attending school on a regular basis.”

Owoh said elementary parents “aren’t interested in having their students on time, so we see students arriving 30 minutes or an hour from the start of school. Then, on the back end, they are checking their students out (early). Transportation hasn’t been an issue; individuals have not followed policy and procedures that have been established.”

Owoh also touched on overstaffing, which he said the district is suffering from “in all areas.”

“We have 3,200 students enrolled in the district, and we have a lot of personnel at the district level," he said.

"We want to streamline the district personnel as well as look at the essential key personnel members who we need for support in schools. We have classes K-12 with three students, five students, nine students. More of them than classes with 20-to-25 students. We’ve been able to shift some staff members this week, but we are looking to condense the number of schools and staff members and personnel outside the school walls as well.”

Additionally, Owoh told state board members that on-campus security is a major issue.

“The high school is located in a neighborhood, so not only do you have students moving unsupervised, but you also have individuals from the neighborhood,” he said.

“There are boarded up homes. Students have said they feel unsafe because of activity in the area. You name it, that type of activity is taking place right across the street from the school. During my first five weeks, we had break-ins in the gym that were taking place because of people who live next to the high school.”

To make matters worse, five of the district’s six schools garnered F’s from the state for the most recent school year. Another school scored a D. The grades are based on the ESSA School Index.

This measures scores on the ACT Aspire tests and notes any improvements students have made. Graduation rates, reading proficiency and attendance are also measured. Owoh’s report to the state was not all gloomy, however.

He said that the district has some stellar educators and students who are often not recognized. Hernandez said he plans to assist Owoh by taking a microscope to all district operations to find a solution.

Meanwhile, many parents of students at the district are concerned. Regina Smith, whose son attends Pine Bluff High School, said that she has been shocked at some of the stories her son tells her about the school.

“He says no one learns, and it’s just all play all day,” Smith said. “He has classmates who cannot even read. What kind of way is this to treat our children? How can a child be in school and not be able to read? Who is doing something about this?”

Wade Phillips has a daughter in elementary school at the district and has seen some improvement over the past few years, but “more needs to be done.”

“To be honest with you, a lot of the elementary classes are all right, but there is no way I want my daughter going to a high school in Pine Bluff unless some major changes are made," Phillips said. "Look around, man. These schools are like juvenile halls. A lot of these kids in high school are gang members. It’s just terrible.”