With a theme of “Mission Possible,” Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson highlighted literacy and numeracy as the keys to education during his state of the district address Thursday night at Pine Bluff High School. Robinson quoted the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for moving forward.

“If you can’t fly, then run,” Robinson said. “If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

Literacy and numeracy are the keys to learning and Robinson differentiated between a child reciting words versus reading. Robinson said he did not read until high school because he had a block regarding comprehension. Instead, he recited words even though he did not comprehend the text.

“Literacy is a problem across the United States,” Robinson said. “… I am all ears to hearing how we can improve.”

He called for collaboration to teach literacy so younger children will learn reading comprehension.

“If I can dream it or if I can think of it, I want our scholars to have it,” Robinson said. “That’s not lip service. That is from within my heart because that’s what I believe.”

The Pine Bluff School District is abiding by the Coherence Framework as developed by Harvard University scholar Richard Elmore. Pine Bluff has a team to implement coherence framework in the district. Robinson said the district must develop a culture by which employees work cohesively together, have honest two-way communication, and develop trust. On the subject of enrollment, the district declined from 4,701 students in 2012 to 3,720 students in 2017. The state provided a projection to all Arkansas districts to where they would be.

“Unfortunately, we are meeting that decline,” Robinson said. “All of the southern part of the state is declining in residency and in enrollment. … Even though we are declining, we are not walking around with our heads down. Our scholars, our teachers, and our administrators are still raising the bar.”

Quoting former President Barack Obama, Robinson said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.”

Many Pine Bluff children do not have Internet access at home. As a result, he is going to ask Pine Bluff businesses to partner with the district to allow students to use computers in their businesses.

“We are working on a one-to-one initiative for our babies to take laptops home,” Robinson said.

Pine Bluff High School graduation rate was about 79 percent in 2013, about 74 percent in 2014, about 71 percent in 2015 and about 66 percent in 2016. Robinson arrived in Pine Bluff in June 2016.

“As we decline in enrollment, we are declining in performance,” Robinson said. “But I do want to celebrate that we came off the academic distress list in 2017. That is a huge milestone and you should feel very good about that.”

About 56 percent of district employees have bachelor’s degrees, 41 percent have masters degrees, and less than 0.9 percent have advanced degrees. Amanda Cross is a teacher at 34th Avenue Elementary School and earned teacher of the year. Southern Arkansas is experiencing a shortage of teachers partially because educators are paid more money in many northern states and in northern Arkansas, he said.

The district is currently on probationary status stemming from kindergarten classes last academic year having more than the state-mandated maximum by “one or two, ” Robinson said. The district recruited teachers of kindergarten but did not have any applicants, he said.

“We also had concerns around special education, which we are addressing this year,” Robinson said. “But again, that is a very highly critical shortage area and most difficult to staff.”

On the subject of career and technical education, Robinson said the district employs awesome teachers. A total of 121 graduates in Pine Bluff High School’s Class of 2017 received a total of $6.1 million in scholarships. Economic development comes in communities where schools are performing, Robinson said. About 16 Pine Bluff scholars were awarded a ride for barber school, Robinson said.

“I love going to sit in the barber hair and who is going to cut my hair,” Robinson said.

About 15 percent of Pine Bluff third-graders met or exceeded reading standards last academic year, Robinson said. He provided figures showing Pine Bluff students scored below their fellow Arkansas students in reading.

“That is the reason why I am pushing Promising Scholars,” Robinson said. “That’s the reason why we opened K1 center at Southwood [Elementary School] because it is important for us to truly touch the lives of our scholars at a very early age … We have to do something different. And I know that people are not necessarily happy with some of the changes that we’ve made but we cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results. As a former principal, I had to move people to different grade levels.”

Robinson concluded his remarks by thanking the patrons for allowing him to be their superintendent. His full report will be posted to the district web site.