Long serving a city recognized for its national park and famous for being the childhood home of President Bill Clinton, the Hot Springs (Ark.) School District was struggling by the late 1980s. "The high rate of poverty in our district, and the below average test scores of our students, resulted in declining enrollment at a rate of at least 100 students annually," says Roy Rowe, who became superintendent in 1989. "In a district of this size, those numbers were significant." The new Rowe administration was determined to reform the district, dramatically improve the education of district students, and halt the declining enrollment. The strategy employed three major initiatives.
When a 1991 bond issue provided funding for computers in classrooms and labs throughout the district, implementation was hampered by a lack of staff training. "At that time, a lot of our teachers saw computers as overpriced toys, even babysitters, and had no idea of their potential," says Don Benton, director of technology. As a result, in 1994 HSSD initiated a summer regional conference, the Hot Springs Technology Institute, hosted at the high school. Built on the concept that teachers learn best from collaboration, the conference enabled educators from the district and throughout Arkansas to share their ideas about classroom technology. The first event included nearly 200 participants, and each successive conference grew larger through word of mouth.
Today, HSTI involves 1,500 educators from Arkansas and surrounding states and includes several speakers, 150 breakout sessions, and more than 80 vendor booths. The 2008 conference will include new additions such as 25 workshops providing hands-on technology training, contributions from the Arkansas Department of Information Systems, and the presentation of the Arkansas Technology in Education Leadership Award. Recent keynote speakers have included nationally known educators and the creators of ABC-TV's Schoolhouse Rock. Benton, who has also directed the institute since 1998, says, "This is a very unique conference because it was created by educators, for educators, and as a result it has really helped all levels of district staff improve the education we provide, through more effective use of technology."
Relying on Research
In 2000, dissatisfied with inadequate research about what district students were learning, HSSD administrators sought the advice of the National Office of Research, Measurement and Evaluation Systems at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Joel Rush, a doctoral candidate in statistics, helped the district create a research organization called the Learning Institute by designing a new series of student evaluation tests based on the state standards and an electronic database to record the results.
The database allowed HSSD teachers and administrators to see printed results the day after the tests, illustrating the specific academic areas in need of improvement and enabling the teachers and administrators to adjust teaching accordingly. Now a private enterprise, the Learning Institute continues to administer thousands of tests annually, analyzing student learning for HSSD and 16 other districts throughout the state of Arkansas.
Magnet School Solution
Also in 2000, Don Waldrip, founder and first executive director of Magnet Schools of America, led a workshop for HSSD administrators describing the advantages of a magnet school format. "His philosophy was that when students have the power to choose to attend a certain school, their attitude will be much more positive and their achievement will improve," Rowe recalls, "and we felt it was the way for us to go." After hiring Waldrip as the district magnet coordinator, the reorganization of HSSD was funded by a three-year, six million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The district reallocated its elementary schools into four magnet-themed K5 campuses, which also served students from 12 surrounding districts. Similarly, the single middle school was divided into four academies and the high school into five "career academies." Themes include math, science and technology; visual and performing arts; and International Baccalaureate, the only such program in the state of Arkansas.
Today, after these extensive reforms, HSSD has been highlighted as an innovative district by the U.S. Department of Education, standardized test scores have improved by 35 to 70 percent, and instead of a declining enrollment, the district now gains an average of 100 students annually. Rowe recently retired, and new superintendent Joyce Craft is aggressively continuing the improvements, adding new technologies such as video security, a wide area network (WAN), and upgraded Web services and administrative software applications. "One of the things I learned aboutmy role as a superintendent during my tenure," says Rowe, "is that the best things happen when districts find the resources to equip their educators, and that's what Hot Springs continues to do."
Kurt O. Dyrli is a contributing writer for District Administration.