Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington centered this month’s town hall meeting, held Monday night at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, around the immediate needs and concerns of the local education system and what the community can do to improve things.

In Washington’s presentation, she addressed how adults can use the acronym L.U.C.K. to engage with today’s youths. The acronym stands for listen, understand, communicate and know, which are all effective methods in breaking down communication barriers between the older and younger generation, she said.

“It is so important that we listen to the youth today,” Washington said.

The meeting came in the wake of a state takeover of the Pine Bluff School District, which has been declared by the Arkansas Board of Education as fiscally distressed. The board meets in October to discuss whether the district also falls under academic distress.

Pine Bluff joins the Dollarway School District, which has been in state takeover for the past several years, in being run by the State Board.

Dollarway Superintendent Barbara Warren was the first educator to speak Monday night, saying the district has lost nearly 600 students this year alone. Starting at 1,600 students for the 2017-2018 school year, the district currently has around 1,000 remaining.

Fewer students mean less money for a school district. A state funding formula determines the exact amount given to each district based on student population. It amounts to several thousand dollars for each pupil.

In order to combat student population loss, Warren said during a PowerPoint presentation that the district’s mission is to collaborate, educate and graduate the whole child. She said the district has begun implementing three new programs to reinforce this mission.

The first of the three is Professional Learning Communities at Work, or PLC, which directly ties into the collaboration portion of Dollarway’s mission statement. The PLC initiative is geared towards creating a positive, professional learning environment for students in all of the district’s schools.

The second initiative, the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, practices discovering healthy behaviors in both students and faculty that result in a better atmosphere.

Finally, Literacy Across the Curriculum is based on encouraging students to read more. Warren suggested that parents let their children see them reading and not to judge the student’s reading choice.

“A child who reads is an adult who thinks,” Warren said during her final remarks.

Jeremy Owoh, who was appointed by State Board of Education Commissioner Johnny Key earlier this month to lead the Pine Bluff School District during state takeover, spoke after Warren and said that he has spent much of his time thus far visiting schools, meeting teachers and students, along with actively observing daily operations throughout the district.

According to Owoh, human resource audits are in progress as a means to correct the district’s fiscal distressed status. These audits will be a way to ensure that salaries throughout the district match the respective instructor’s skills.

“We have to focus all support systems on the students,” Owoh said.

Owoh said that human capital and personnel, facilities and transportation and student support, including before, after, and summer programs, are all things that will be assessed in the near future.

Watson Chapel School District superintendent Jerry Guess piggybacked a statement Warren made regarding a decrease in enrollment.

According to Guess, the district had 2,560 students enrolled during the 2017-18 school year compared to the current 2,480 students enrolled now. At one of point, the district had about 4,000 students enrolled across all of its public schools, according to Guess.

Stability with staff and enrollment is an issue that Guess said was one of their main concerns when it comes to remaining in good standing fiscally.

After noticing that 75-80 students enrolled in the district were classified as homeless, and 50 being homeschooled, Guess said that the district is following the footsteps of Dollarway School District and planning to team up with a program that will provide meals for students after school hours.

When it comes to safety precautions in the Watson Chapel District, Guess said that schools have restricted access to the campuses, and there are on-campus sheriff’s deputies, along with armed security guards, available to ensure that students are learning in a safe environment.

Pine Bluff police officers are invited to eat lunch with the students in hopes of building a positive relationship between them and law enforcement, Guess said.

As of late, the district has performed active shooting drills and sporadic drug sweeps.

Another problem Guess mentioned was absences and tardies, which are high throughout the district. He stressed that it is important that students arrive on time and stay the entire school day. Otherwise, they could miss out on valuable information.

During a question and answer session with local students and former instructors, Owoh said that the district is looking into forming student focus groups to allow students to voice their opinions and concerns.

He also mentioned that the district is exploring ways to make concurrent credit extend outside of Southeast Arkansas College and allow students to transfer credit to other institutions. When it comes to the teachers running these courses, Owoh said that new recruitment practices are being explored to find qualified teachers.

An issue about a lack of books was confirmed by a Pine Bluff High student, Taniya Riles, something Owoh said would be addressed.

All three superintendents chimed in to answer a question about the loss of students and teachers and what is to blame.

Owoh attributed the decline in enrollment to families moving and the increase in charter schools in the city. In order to correct this, Owoh recommended that things be implemented to change the reputation in order to bring students back.

According to Warren, families have not been satisfied with the school’s performances over the years. She expressed that it was imperative to showcase the positive news going on throughout the district and show the schools in a good light.

Guess said their district is trying hard to promote a good curriculum and show appreciation to the teachers for their hard work.

Retired Pine Bluff High School art teacher Virginia Hymes closed out the meeting with a few words of encouragement for the three superintendents and reinforced that if they wanted to get the districts in better standing, everybody has to celebrate the students, teachers and share the good news.