In taking the reigns of the Pine Bluff School District, Superintendent Michael Robinson vows to set high expectations, serve scholars from a broad perspective, provide professional development and involve parents and community members.
A son of Maxine Young Robinson and the late Clarence Robinson, Michael Robinson learned about the Pine Bluff School District superintendent opening through search firms. A native of Thibodaux, La,, Robinson had most recently worked in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland as a middle school turnaround principal, director of priority turnaround schools and instructional director. He started his current job in June 2016.
Besides wanting to work in Pine Bluff, Robinson said he chose to live closer to his mother, who taught school for 36 years. His mother suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and kept teaching despite its effects on her body.
“I watched my mother go to school sometimes with her legs swollen,” Robinson said. “I watched her teach her kids on her walker, sometimes with a cane. This is the same lady who I watched teach in stilettos, when she was a younger lady. She never lost her passion for teaching, despite how she felt physically.”
Robinson said he did not previously have any affiliations with Arkansas. With a doctorate degree in educational leadership, Robinson calls for partnerships among students, parents, educators and all district employees.
“When I read about the demographics of the district, this is a place I could call home,” he said. “My expertise is in turnaround. This is my calling and I truly believe in my work.”
“I love being around the kids,” Robinson said. “We have a long ways to go in Pine Bluff, but I am excited about the fact that we are moving in the right direction.”
Robinson recalled being a first-year teacher in 1996, earning $17,000 annually, and spending $3,000 of own money to buy supplies for children. He devised lesson plans involving the game of kickball to teach lessons in velocity.
As a child, he and a cousin used their imaginations to play school.
“I would always be the teacher,” Robinson said. “We got those old books that were being thrown away. We would set-up a classroom under the car port. My grandmother prepared snacks; those were the good old days. In the summer we helped my mother fix her classroom.”
Robinson described himself as an advocate for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. He prioritizes making sure students graduate ready to succeed in college, the armed forces or in the work force.
On the subject of his priorities, Robinson identifies having two-way communications, building culture and building trust.
One problem is students fighting each other.
“When you create a culture of high expectancy, there is not time for fights or down time,” Robinson said. “Kids are being challenged from bell to bell.
“You have to create a culture where our scholars focus more on academics and post-secondary options, which ultimately is going to transform the mindset of our scholars. Many of our children come to school with challenges that they have to face away from the school. And in many cases they do not always have somebody who can help de-escalate situations. We are trying to implement positive behavior intervention strategies.”
Robinson advocates creating care teams to work with students. Student Intervention Team Meetings involve teachers, counselors, social workers, students and parents.
“As a superintendent, it is extremely important people come to work happy,” Robinson said. “I cannot change where kids come from. We have to accept who our scholars are when they come to school and create cultures.”
He is considering re-opening the former Southeast Middle School building to house ninth-graders. Such a move would reduce Pine Bluff High School’s enrollment by about 300 to 325 students, making the campus a lot more manageable.
The Pine Bluff School District grew from 4,100 students in September 2015 to 4,300 students in September 2016.
“Although there are some for whom it has been a challenge to change their mindset, I have a host of other people who are excited for change,” Robinson said.
Another challenge Robinson is facing is regional re-accreditation at the high school. Robinson said he will ask the board to approve moving toward re-accreditation. It would entail a team from the AdvancED visiting the district, looking through documents, interviewing people, observing school culture, inspecting teacher capacity, inspecting leadership capacity and getting a global picture of what the district looks like.
AdvancED is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools throughout the United States and internationally. The loss of accreditation happened under former superintendent Linda Watson, who led the Pine Bluff School District from 2013 to 2015.
“The school district is accredited by Arkansas state standards,” Watson, who holds a doctorate in education, said. “Our kids are able to go to any institution around the nation.”
As for Robinson, he said the challenge hasn’t deterred him.
“People ask me if I am still just as excited as I was the night I was awarded [the job,]” Robinson said. “Regardless of the good days and the bad days, I focus on the scholars. All the other stuff — I do not focus on that.”