Feb. 15 marked a very sad day in local history as members of the State Board of Education made the trek from Little Rock to Williford to confirm what many hoped wasn't true, that their beloved schools would be closed at the end of the school year.
For many, this marks the end of an era of yet another two small town schools following suit and becoming what many claim is a victim of bureaucracy. Closing the doors, on a small community of which generations of children have attended the schools at both Williford and Ravenden Springs.
Prior to the meeting, the gymnasium began to fill to well beyond what many expected and talk resonated throughout the gym, despite the fact that the state board had previously met with staff, former board members and teachers regarding the fact that they had already made up their mind on the schools demise.
With allegations of nearby schools already beginning recruiting students, former School Board President Charlie Tyler spoke before the meeting and said that many parents had already began to withdraw their children and put them in other schools, something he said was addressed at the meeting with the commissioner prior to the public meeting. Tyler said they were required to go through the proper transfer procedures, something that would later be addressed as the commissioner spoke to the crowd.
The reason for the meeting, which was originally intended for students, staff, teachers and their families, to ask questions of the board, became a media fiasco as reporters from television and newspapers, as well as state representatives, superintendents from surrounding schools and the general public came to witness history, as for the first time in the state a school was closed for probationary violations. The proposed closure, according to most parents and students, was considered a complete shock, as many were completely unaware of the dire situation the school was in. This was due to what attendees, who were interviewed unanimously, agreed were a result of ineffective leadership by former Superintendent David Gilliland.
Most echoed something similar to what one parent of a Williford student said, "He has done nothing but make this school go downhill since he came here." Many angered former school board members, parents, teachers and students were all in agreement that Gilliland had repeatedly lied to them about the schools issues, resigning to avoid facing the music and conveniently disappearing from the public's eye, even refusing interviews about the ordeal of which the majority felt was entirely his fault for not doing his job and, as one former board member said, "merely sitting back and collecting a check." This was something echoed by nearly everyone interviewed, including many students who said he never cared about the school and was almost never on the Williford campus or at any of the school events.
Plans to close
Amazingly many did not even know the school had been on probation for over two years. Speaking to a crowd of well over three hundred, complete with numerous law enforcement officers and Arkansas State Troopers present to deter a potential riot situation or to control crowd outbursts, tears flowed abundantly as Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell announced the plans to close both campuses of the Twin River School District at the end of the current school year.
Kimbrell said, "For the past three years there have been issues of accreditation and compliance with standards in this school district. Those change from one campus to the other, that the law required when one campus, any of those campuses of your four, were in violation and in probation for the same standard two consecutive years, The State Board of Education, which is made up of members appointed by the governor of the state of Arkansas, must make a decision that involves eight different suggested remedies."
"When this was presented in December as a finding of the second year of probation, it was to the level of the board having to make one of those eight or a combination of those eight decisions. We asked the team be able to come to the campuses to see the extent at which these violations actually were occurring. Dr. Charity Smith brought a team of 10 people including people within the Department of Education and people outside the Department of Education, people working in and at the Arkansas State University and University of Arkansas and in that review they maintain that there were numerous violation of the standards of accreditation, numerous violations of not meeting the guidelines set forth by statute in the state, that prompted the State Board of Education, upon that review, to make a decision based upon a recommendation by myself after review with staff of all of the findings, that the board would relieve the leadership of this school district that included the board and subsequently the superintendent who had resigned the previous Friday. We accepted that resignation immediately, I informed the superintendent that he was no longer of service and to clean out his office and not to return."
"I did appoint Mrs. Crouthers as the acting administrator until I could find an administrator with superintendent experience that would be willing to come and oversee the running of this school district. Today, I am here to tell you that we have found that person and he will be working in this school district, Mr. Tom Arant, who is at the end of the table down here."
"Mr. Arant is a lifelong educator who has worked in small schools and worked as superintendent at Greene County Tech, worked at the Department of Education and he has also worked as a co-op director at Walnut Ridge of which Twin River's School District is a part, so he is familiar with your school district. He is familiar with the issues and is familiar with standards; he is going to be with you the remainder of this year as the best that he can be for the students at Twin River's School District," Kimbrell said.
Kimbrell stressed over and over the importance of a viable education and said that he felt the students deserved that. It was obvious the crowd did not agree that he was on their side, they merely seen him as a man in power and there to hurt them, something he assured the crowd was not his intention.
By the fidgeting of the crowd it was obvious that anything Kimbrell said, short of allowing patrons another chance to save their school and be given another chance under effective leadership, would not be taken well.
Kimbrell went on to explain that each year the Department of Education sends out a report card on various aspects of every school system in the state at the cost of a $1 million. He said each and every parent of a student enrolled in the district should have received one, yet many parents later said they had never seen the document, while others said the information was effectively hidden within the document rather than highlighted for plain viewing. He went further to address the violations and explained in depth the reasoning for the decision.
Kimbrell said, "Our review found that there were multiple violations in those standards, those include curriculum, instruction, teacher licensure and professional development, attendance and enrollment, graduation requirements and that last standard of accreditation. There were actually 18 standards of accreditation. We found that they were in violation of six of those 18. The State Board, after making the decision upon the recommendation to release this leadership of this district to the state. They also voted to ask this department, this agency, to develop a plan, to insure that the 330 students who are currently enrolled here have an opportunity to receive that quality of education that was promised them by the statute by the Constitution. It is our responsibility to find schools in districts within this area that will be able to integrate your students and your communities and your property into those school districts. When we look at those issues, it is the students that we focus on."
He told the crowd the Arkansas State Board of Education also directed the Arkansas Department of Education to develop a plan by July 1, for the annexation of the Twin Rivers School District into one or more contiguous districts including Highland, Mammoth Spring, Sloan Hendrix, Maynard, Hillcrest and Pocahontas.
Student, parent concerns
By this time, angered parents and students were talking amongst themselves, many yelling and chomping at the bit to get to the microphone to fire questions at the commissioner and his seven person board of senior staff members who accompanied him to help with the question and answer session. Several teachers, parents and numerous students lined up for their turn to fire at Kimbrell regarding the decision, something he undoubtedly was prepared for, as he patiently listened and answered questions, most not to the satisfaction of the crowd.
One parent who enrolled her children from a home school praised the district for the help with her children and their grades. Others had questions regarding what their options were, which the reply was repeatedly that there were very few if any.
Kailey Green, a 10th grade student at Williford gave a moving speech relating her life experiences as a student at the school. She told of the death experienced and how the students were like family in the small school. She was adamant she did not want to attend schools where she would not fit in. She said Williford was like a home to her, others agreed. She drew loud applause and cheers as tears streamed down her face while she begged for another chance before being escorted back to the bleachers by her friends, who were equally as distraught.
Many of the students who had previously attended Highland had nothing good to say and said they were treated as second class citizens and would not be accepted at the larger schools. They loved the small student teacher ratio offered at the small school. Some felt they would become a number with no identity when they went to a larger school. Still others interviewed said their parents could not afford the clothes that the kids in the larger schools wear and were afraid they would be made fun of as two of the girls said they had been when they attended Highland briefly.
Concerns were also voiced over those in both band and athletics attending other schools and how the schools already had established players and that star athletes at the small schools would not be allowed to play after the transfer. One patron addressed where the senior pictures, trophies and other things would be stored.
These were all questions, Kimbrell attempted to answer to the satisfaction of the crowd, but it was obvious nothing would please a crowd of over 300, many of whom had spent their entire lives at the school, and were being told their school was being closed.
Tony Lowe, the parent of a Williford student told of the help he received in encouraging his daughter to make better grades and gave praise to the administration. He spoke about the only way to change the leadership at the State Department of Education was to vote and encouraged the audience to vote against the members who had made the decision to close the schools.
Others were concerned about the length of bus rides that would be required of students who would have to transported long distances to other school districts, especially young children. One patron asked about the ABC program and Kimbrell told them that they could keep it in a private establishment. He assured the patrons that the ADE would do everything in their power to minimize the problems associated with the transfers.
Kimbrell addressed numerous concerns, but as the night progressed with well over an hour of questions being answered at times redundantly, it was clear that there was no solution. He explained he was only the messenger of the news, but it was very clear since he gave the recommendation to close the school that each and every patron held him just as responsible as Gilliland for the school's closing.
At one point Kimbrell angered the crowd in what most agreed was a snide comment about their choice of living in a rural area versus a more metropolitan area similar in nature to where he lives to achieve gainful employment.
Many of the students told of success stories from their school and those who have gone on to achieve great academic successes after graduation. Again, the crowd was visually upset when Kimbrell downplayed their plea and simply said, "Every school has success stories." At this point nearly in tears and shaking Linda Collins-Smith, a graduate of Williford who is running for State Representative for the district which includes Williford, gave an emotional plea on behalf of the entire district. She said, as a Williford graduate she is living proof that success stories come out of rural areas. She went on to tell that the people who live in this area are good, hard working people, a rebuttal to his apparent comment against rural residents. She asked for options, of which he really couldn't give any answer that pleased the audience.
At one point discussion ensued about the possibility of becoming a charter school. Kimbrell explained that it was a possibility but said the guidelines are much more stringent than that of a public school and gave them a date to apply for the charter, something that may still be an option for the school.
The schools have experienced decreasing enrollment since a state mandated consolidation in 2004 that essentially only consolidated the two campuses administratively, still having four campuses open, two high schools and two elementary schools which each are required to teach the required courses independently. This has been part of the problem, which undoubtedly led to these issues years later.
Kimbrell said the schools in which Twin River's students were annexed have all said they would hire teachers and staff as there were openings and said the department would help them find jobs but said it is possible they would have to relocate.
He said students also have school choice but parents must fill out the proper documentation before July 1.
During the May meeting of the Board of Education, Kimbrell said he would inform them of choices the state would make regarding the annexation into other schools, something they will be working on until the meeting.
Many were interested in the accountability of Gilliland, and were told the board is still reviewing financial records and assured them that he would be held accountable for his actions.
Kimbrell explained the offenses to the audience that resulted in their closure after being on accredited probation for over two years, which prompted the state to take over the district. The in-depth report provided to the Villager Journal by the Department of Education detailed information of the On Campus Standards Review Checklist from each of the visits to the four campuses in which they were out of compliance and given guidance on resolving the issues in question.
In October of 2008, the checklist detailed being out of compliance in 12 areas at the Oak Ridge Central Elementary campus, and 23 areas at the Oak Ridge Central High School campus, 36 at the district office, 10 at the Williford Elementary School campus and 19 on the Williford High School campus.
In the final report that was utilized in part as reason for the decision to close the schools, the following items were determining factors coupled with a declining enrollment. The date the findings were compiled by the ADE was from 2005-2009 and is in summary, as follows:
1. Twin Rivers School District Office did not publish the district probationary status for the 2007-2008 school years.
2. Oak Ridge Elementary had a teacher with an expired teaching certification, (Special Education) and two teachers not certified or approved by the ADE.
3. Oak Ridge High School did not teach the 38 units of instruction required by the ADE (instrumental music) and teachers not certified or approved by the ADE to teach courses they were assigned to teach. (Survey of Fine Arts, Pharmacy Technology Fundamentals, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Physical Science, ADE approved Life Science, Workplace Readiness, Content Area Special Program Administrator, Content Area Specialist, Program Administrator and Instrumental Music 1).
4. Williford Elementary had two teachers not certified or approved by the ADE to teach courses they were assigned to teach. (Elementary Library/Media Specialist and Content Area Special Program Administrator) and the principal was not certified or approved by the ADE.
5. Williford High School had five teachers not certified or approved by the ADE to teach courses they were assigned to teach. (High School Library/Media Specialist, Drama, Medical Terminology, Survey of Fine Arts, Computerized Accounting II and Content Area Special Program Administrator).
6. Williford Elementary School employed a teacher with an expired teaching certification in area that required a teaching certification. (Elementary Library/Media Specialist).
7. Williford High School employed a teacher not certified or approved by the ADE to teach courses they were assigned to teach (drama) and a teacher with an expired teaching certification employed in an area that required a valid teaching certification (High School Library/Media Specialist).
8. For the 2006-2007 school year, Twin Rivers School District had the following probationary violation: Oak Ridge High School did not teach the 38 units of instruction required by the ADE, (Oral communication/Drama and a math elective).
9. For the 2005-2006 school years, the Twin Rivers School District employed a superintendent who was not certified or approved by the Arkansas Department of Education.
Further, the district was in violation for the superintendent not supplying his professional development plan and both schools were also in violation, with the only exception being Paulette Crouthers, who had over 60 hours of documented professional development, which exceeded the state mandated requirements.
The final violation included the team reviewing random transcripts of seniors at the Williford High School campus and discovering three students being ineligible to graduate in May. This was because the school could not provide documentation of a course approval to teach drama as a fine arts credit, the half unit of fine arts is a requirement for graduation causing two to be ineligible for graduation. The other two students were lacking, respectively, half credits of World History, U.S. History and Civics. Kimbrell assured parents that measures would be taken to insure these students would be eligible by May to graduate.
The meeting ended with the crowd slowly dispersing while patrons were still asking questions of Dr. Kimbrell and the board. Finally, the meeting was ended and state police escorted the board members and Kimbrell out of the gym. Many remained talking about the meeting in a very agitated tone, others simply left in tears.