Friday, July 28, 2017

TOP STORY >> Interim chief says best is yet to come

Leader senior staff writer

Dr. Janice Warren, interim superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, wants you to know: “2017-18 is going to be our best year yet.”

Warren says she was as surprised as anyone when the Pulaski County Special School District board fired Superintendent Jerry Guess last week and asked her to serve as the interim superintendent.

“Our office received the agenda at 2:30 p.m.,” saying it was about desegregation attorneys. The agenda didn’t say anything about firing Guess, who had said he would not work with other lawyers on the matter.

The board fired the Roberts Law Firm as its attorney for the desegregation suit and other matters, and in the face of Guess’ refusal to work with other lawyers, moved on to fire him “effective immediately.”

The board then reconvened in executive session and emerged to promote Warren, an assistant superintendent, to interim superintendent.

She said she didn’t hesitate to accept the position.

“It was something I needed to do, so close to school starting,” she said of agreeing to take over as interim superintendent.

At the time, War-ren was director of elementary education and assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services. She still has those responsibilities, but hopes to pass them on soon. She will continue to be closely involved in satisfying court-ordered desegregation efforts.

Warren was superintendent of the Crossett School District for 10 years until retiring in 2010. She already had a working relationship with Guess, who had been superintendent of the nearby Camden School District.

“I came here (Little Rock) to be a grandma to my two grandchildren in Conway,” she said.

Guess reached out to herin 2012, after he was named superintendent of PCSSD, and asked her to apply to be director of the district’s 25 elementary schools.

“I thought it would be part time,” she said. “It turned into 10 days a week.”

Certified as an elementary principal, district administration, Pre-K through 12th grade; elementary school teacher and reading specialist, Warren holds an education doctorate in curriculum and supervision from Nova Southeastern University at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Before signing on at PCSSD, she was a classroom teacher for 10 years, an elementary principal for three years, an administrative assistant for four years, assistant superintendent for six years and superintendent for 10 years — all in the Crossett District from which she graduated.

By 2013, Guess had named her assistant superintendent of equity and pupil services, a particularly important job as the district worked to satisfy the courts and Joshua Intervenor attorney John Walker regarding progress on becoming unitary — desegregated — in all areas.


“Dr. Guess is the reason I am here,” Warren said. “In my five years here, he has done a lot of exceptional things. I don’t know anyone else would have been able to do what he was able to do. He was able to make progress prior superintendents were not able to.

“When (Plan 2000) started, PCSSD was still segregated in 15 areas, and was still deficient in nine areas. When he took over. He got the district declared unitary in six areas, for which he is to be applauded,” she added.

Warren is completely in the loop regarding the desegregation requirements, agreement and the federal court oversight.

She said, “I will work with Sam Jones,” the district’s remaining desegregation lawyer after the Roberts firm was fired. Jones’ participation in the case long predates that of the Roberts firm, and he has continued to be involved.

Warren, 60, will be the interim superintendent through the 2017-18 school year to provide continuity.

The job includes two large challenges not faced by most school districts, Warren said. First, the size of the district which has four feeder-school systems in four distinct parts of the county, and each in a different municipality with separate fire and police departments, she said.

Those are at Maumelle, Sherwood, Robinson High and Mills high schools in Little Rock.

The other challenge is the elephant in the room — the demands of getting out of desegregation oversight and requirements.

That’s on top of the rigors of operating one of the largest school districts in the state, Warren said.


“The deseg case is not typical of a school district in 2017, still under federal oversight,” Warren said. “I was a student in the ’70s in Crossett under court supervision and here in 2017 it’s still is a challenge.”

“Our focus this year is student achievement and improving academically, making the changes we need to do. I’m pleased with where we are,” Warren said.

A lot of the district’s schools are getting a C rating. “We are not providing students everything they need to succeed in college or their career,” she said.

The focus for secondary schools includes plans for schools of innovation and technology.

Old-fashioned libraries, with their books, are passé, she said. Books are often out dated by the time they hit the shelf.


Instead of book-filled libraries, schools will have technology-based learning centers. That’s particularly true for the three new high schools coming on line — Mills, Robinson and later, Sylvan Hills, which will be furnished with technology-use in mind. They will have movable seating, comfortable with Chrome laptop computers and other technology.

The emphasis in elementary schools will be on building a stronger academic foundation with special attention paid to reading, writing and math skills, but also with collaborative, hands-on learning.

The children will be problem solving and building things.


“Learning has to be relevant,” Warren said. “‘Sit-and-get’ learning doesn’t work.”

“All schools will be geared for 21st Century learning,” Warren said. All four high schools will be new, including Maumelle, which was the first new high school built in the district in 50 years.

Originally, PCSSD, Little Rock and North Little Rock districts were all considered segregated, PCSSD in 16 areas and bound in a single, sprawling desegregation suit and agreement.

When Guess and the state took over the district in 2011, PCSSD was still not unitary in nine areas, Warren said, and today it’s down to three — student achievement, discipline and facilities.


“If you get discipline in order, student achievement will likely follow.”

Toward addressing the discipline problem, the district is identifying those elementary schools with the highest number of discipline referrals. “We have a consultant we contract with to work with schools, principals and teachers and have some student programs,” she said.

In the secondary schools, where the discipline problem is greater, there is a consultant in every school.

She quotes U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall saying, “Show me a good-faith effort to improve discipline and achievement and close the gap in the disparity between black and white students.”

“We have people come from outside the district to work with us,” Warren added.


“I’ve always worked with the board and attended Arkan-sas School Board Association trainings,” Warren said.

She prides herself as a communicator with good relationships with the staff, superintendent and the board.

“The superintendent and board relationship is a key to a successful district,” she said. “My role is to keep them informed.”

“The board’s role is to make policies. My role is to make sure the district is running efficiently and effectively,” Warren said.

“I’m good at building relationships with people,” Warren said. “My raisin’ — people matter. Everybody’s voice needs to be heard, but I’m the final decision maker.”


Warren loves to read and travel in her free time and spend time with the grandchildren.

“I always loved reading biographies, autobiographies, especially of people who come from the bottom and work their way up,” she said.

She also likes inspirational books by authors such as Joel Osteen.

She keeps in touch with friends and family in Crossett.

As for traveling, it’s the warm water, sunny skies, beaches and laid-back lifestyle of the Caribbean, places like Jamaica, the Bahamas or also Hawaii she loves to visit.