Wednesday, July 03, 2013

TOP STORY >> Principal is walking tall at JHS

Leader editor

(This column from July 2012 won first place in the Arkansas Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.)

Jacksonville High School was in awful shape last July when Henry Anderson took over the failed school in a failed school district.

The place was rundown, morale was terrible and test scores were falling along with graduating rates.

The state Education Department had just taken over the Pulaski County Special School District. Teachers and staff grumbled because their unions faced decertification.

Suddenly, Anderson, 41, showed up like a new sheriff in town and told his staff: Help me clean up this mess or go teach someplace else.

“It’s been an exciting, roller-coaster year,” Anderson told the Jacksonville Rotary Club meeting Monday at Southern Oaks Country Club. But, he said, he’s seeing some encouraging results.

Test scores have improved, he said. Math and literacy scores are up 9 to 10 percent. There’s still a long way to go, but Anderson has inspired teachers and students to care about test scores.

Graduation rates are way up. Only 15 of 166 seniors failed to earn diplomas this year, a big improvement over recent graduation rates of a little more than 50 percent. One of the 15 students who didn’t graduate, Anderson said, was only half a credit away.

“If we can get them on the right track, they’ll be able to graduate,” the principal said.

Anderson is tired of seeing the school called one of the worst in the state. He wants JHS off the needs-improvement list and make it as good as it was 30 and 40 years ago, when it offered advanced-placement courses that were among the best in the state.

“We got a clean bill of health this year,” he said. “We’ve become a model. The school district is sending principals to our school to see what we’re doing right,” Anderson said. “The U.S. Department of Education will visit us to see how the school is making these improvements.”

Back in June 2011, before Anderson showed up, the high school was so bad, it qualified for a multi-million school-improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Jacksonville received a $2 million improvement grant from the department. Three other failing high schools — all in the poverty-stricken Delta — received slightly lesser amounts.

The four high schools — the others are Helena-West Helena, Marvell and Dollarway — were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, which qualified them for the school-improvement grants.

This is a grant you don’t want to shout about, but Anderson doesn’t mind bringing it up. He said Jacksonville is doing so well, it will get an additional $1.7 million this year and $2 million more in 2013, or as much as $5.7 million over three years.

Students now have computers in labs and classrooms and several iPads. There’s campus-wide wireless Internet, Promethian interactive whiteboards, equipment for science labs, recording equipment for band, choir and television-production classes, access to on-campus licensed social workers, credit recovery and concurrent enrollment with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.

The school district is paying for a $750,000 remodeling this summer, which includes a new front entrance and improvements in the library and cafeteria.

The principal wants to reward teachers who do a good job. “We’ve got a school to turn around,” he said. “We want the best and the brightest.”

He expects teachers to do more and not take off as soon as the bell rings.

“When you’re paid $75,000 a year, and you say you don’t have to call anybody after 3:05 p.m. That’s got to change,” Anderson said. “If we don’t see improvement, they’re terminated. It is what it is.”

That’s his mantra: Teachers must teach and students must learn.

Anderson means business. “If you don’t like it here, you can go someplace else,” he said bluntly. He was talking about students and teachers.

“If you’re going to get into a fight, you’re going to get arrested,” he added, talking about students.

He’s rebuilding the math faculty so parents don’t have to hire tutors to teach their kids.

There’s more blunt talk: If kids go out to McDonald’s or Taco Bell for lunch and don’t come back, he’ll have them arrested because Jacksonville has a daytime curfew.

That means students can’t be out on the streets when schools are in session.

Jacksonville High School hasn’t had a parent-teachers organization in years. But now, it’s forming a parent-teacher-student group that will hold monthly meetings.

Barry Hickingbotham, the assistant football coach, told the Rotarians that Anderson is the real deal.

“If he wants something done, he means it. That’s why our school is turning around,” the coach said. “If you miss two weeks of school, you miss two weeks of sports.”

“He’s what we need. Our school is improving,” Hickingbotham said.

Anderson bought a house in Jacksonville. “I’m the first principal in years who’s done that. Kids know where I live. They toilet papered my house.”

But that’s all right with him as long as test scores improve and the school gets better and more kids graduate.

“I’m loving it,” he said.

Someone told Anderson he could be the next superintendent when the state gives back the district to local control.

“I’d love it,” he said.

“We’ve got a great school,” Anderson said. “We still have lots to do. Our kids deserve so much more.”

(Postscript: Anderson will be principal at McClellan High School in Little Rock this fall. He received a big raise and a signing bonus.)