Future of Dollarway High, Safety Addressed

This is part three in a series about the state of the Pine Bluff School District.

School buses labeled “Dollarway School District” no longer travel down Fluker Avenue or the roads that cross it in the Townsend Park area. They now read “Pine Bluff School District”.

This has been the case since the former Dollarway district was annexed to its neighboring entity last July. Alumni gathered at Cardinal Stadium just days before the merger to ceremonially say goodbye to their own school system, while many expressed a sigh of relief that their community’s centerpiece, Dollarway High School, would remain open.

The state Board of Education demanded, when approving annexation in December 2020, that all Dollarway campuses remain open, and Superintendent Barbara Warren – who oversaw the two districts before the annexation – said campuses would remain open for as long as possible.

“Closing a school is a huge, huge problem,” Warren said, citing the Altheimer Unified School District’s merger with Dollarway in 2006. “Anyone who has spent time there knows the impact of school closures and how certain things happened at that time had on them at that time. And that impacts our children. So it’s not necessarily about protecting a place. It’s not even about protecting a place. “trying to make people feel a certain way. It’s about trying to make sure that we protect the community that protects children and meets the needs of our students.”

The remaining life of Dollarway High, whose current campus was renovated in 2010, is unknown. The school, however, has a declining population, which was a key factor in the state board’s decision to shut down the financially troubled district.

“We have to look every year at what we can afford to do,” Warren said, asking how long until Dollarway and Pine Bluff High Schools are potentially consolidated. “I mean every year, superintendents around the world, not just us in this area. You have to look at what you can do.”

When we look at what you’re going to do, it’s not just a question of money. It’s a huge driving force, but it’s not just about the money.”

Warren also reiterated his wish that a new campus at Pine Bluff High School would finally bring the two student bodies together. That plan was nearly systematized when district officials announced a plan in the spring to merge the district’s seventh- and eighth-grade students onto one campus, but it was put on hold when he instead opted to transform the two Jack Robey Junior High – feeder campus of PBHS. — and Robert F. Morehead Middle School in campuses serving grades 7-9.

Still, a high school merger is not out of the question.

“The long story about that…if I had my preferences, if I could just make the decision and disregard some of those factors, I would consider our reunion as a high school when the high school is built,” she said. said.

The “first thing” Warren said she was tasked with as superintendent of Dollarway was to reduce the number of campuses from four to three. Dollarway High moved from its original location on Dollarway Road to the old middle school campus on Fluker Avenue. Robert F. Morehead Middle School is now located on the campus of the former Townsend Park Elementary School.

Members of the PBSD Stakeholders for Consolidation have long opposed the continued existence of the former Dollarway schools – James Matthews Elementary, Morehead Middle and Dollarway High. Charline Wright, the group’s president, attended a state board meeting with 10 other group members to express what she described as “dysfunction, chaos, incompetence and confusion” during the first year after the annexation of the PBSD.

“Annexation management refuses to merge Dollarway high and middle school campuses with Pine Bluff High and Jack Robey [Junior High]which would solve the certified personnel issues,” Wright wrote in an email to The Commercial, among other complaints.

Wright, a retired educator, believes Dollarway Schools should have stopped operating, adding that Dollarway High has a projected student population of 173 students and 44 teachers for a student-teacher ratio of 4-1 and Morehead is expected to have 211 students. and 24 teachers, a ratio of 9-1. Pine Bluff High and Jack Robey Junior High had ratios of 14-1 and 10-1 in the 2021-22 school year.

Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioners Stacy Smith and Warren did not immediately respond to Wright’s complaints, which followed Friday’s state board meeting in which the board heard a quarterly report on the PBSD. Warren and his assistant superintendents spoke to The Commercial on Thursday.

Critics of Dollarway’s continued existence argue that the district would save money on operating costs by closing the three North Pine Bluff schools.

“To say you can save a lot of money here, maybe you could,” Warren said. “But what would that do to transportation costs? What would that do to other factors that may not be so readily visible, and it takes time to get it right. “

Kelvin Gragg, one of two new PBSD assistant superintendents, was involved in a consolidation as principal of Dumas High School when his district consolidated with Gould District in the 2000s.

“At that time, if we had our preferences, we would have gone through this and taken our time doing it, but the state didn’t give us that option,” Gragg said. “The state said, you will come, and you will come this day.”

The “big push” in the state legislature at the time was for districts to maintain a student population of 350 or more, Gragg said.

Phillip Carlock, another new assistant superintendent, was principal of an elementary school in Little Rock which he said absorbed two schools.

“You deal with all the cultural issues and try to blend the communities. All of those things are growing pains when the district is trying to be more efficient,” Carlock said.

In the meantime, Warren and other leaders have the task of beefing up security — another hot topic locally — at the nine PBSD campuses. The district recently hired Strategos International to conduct a risk assessment, which Gragg said he will hear this week.

“I always said, when I was director [at PBHS], campus security started with me and my staff,” he said. “What are the parameters? Where are we going? And above all, what are the expectations we have of our children? I think that’s going to be the start of everything, restoring those expectations. I really believe the kids are going to do what you expect them to do.”

Asked about security personnel, Warren said the PBSD currently has three officers in addition to an undetermined number of security guards under contract with Vigilant Force, a Pine Bluff security company.

“We’re just going to try to hire and fill positions,” Warren said. “We definitely need more security guards. We need more than five guards, but the strategy of how and where we put them, that will further determine what our numbers are. We’re still working on some of that. planning.”

Warren said she will release “a solid report” on security during the PBSD’s annual report to the public in September.

Tuesday: PBSD faces challenges with teacher pay.

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