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New superintendent talks about the future of the LRSD

New Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright (left) rode with a school bus driver picking up students with disabilities at Mabelvale Elementary School on Aug. 22, the first day of the new school year.
Jermall Wright
Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright (left) rode with a school bus driver picking up students with disabilities at Mabelvale Elementary School on Aug. 22, the first day of the new school year.

Dr. Jermall Wright is beginning his first school year as the superintendent of the Little Rock School District.

In May, the district – which was under state control until July 2021 – announced Wright had been hired as its new leader. The Florida native has worked in school districts across the country.

He served as an assistant superintendent in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Birmingham. After that, Wright was the superintendent of the Mississippi Achievement School District. He says becoming a school administrator was a lifelong dream. While in high school, Wright says he developed a close relationship with his principal, which fueled him to pursue education as a career.

“High school was the best time of my life,” Wright said in an interview with KUAR News. “I felt like if I was a principal, I could set the stage for how students experience school.”

In his first 100 days with the Little Rock School District, Wright has worked to get to know the community. He says his goal is to visit every school and meet every principal.

“The one thing in common with the people I met is they want to see the Little Rock School District do well,” he said. “If goes the Little Rock School District, there goes the city of Little Rock.”

As part of his effort, Wright shadowed a school bus driver picking up students with disabilities at Mabelvale Elementary.

“These students were so eager to know who I was and why I was [there]. I was asked so many questions in the one hour and 45 minutes on the bus that by the time I arrived, I was worn out.”

Wright says one of his favorite things about the district is the vast array of options for students, including advanced placement, arts programs, EAST labs and medical clinics.

The greatest challenge facing the district, he said, is the achievement level after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning loss from the time schools were closed and mental issues caused by the pandemic have been challenges for schools nationwide.

“We have made some gains and strides from last school year,” Wright said. “We still aren't performing at pre-pandemic levels in all content areas.”

Wright says literacy is his top priority for the district. He hopes to improve student skills by implementing a daily phonics program into school curriculum. He says about 30 minutes a day should be spent in elementary schools building a foundation for reading and phonics.

Another concern is social-emotional learning, which he says the district has drastically increased. The key elements of social-emotional learning, according to Wikipedia, are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These core components were created so that school systems have clear goals and a framework for implementation.

“All of our schools, regardless of whether it is elementary, middle or high school, should be starting their day with some kind of social-emotional learning.”

As school safety is getting renewed attention nationwide following a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 students and two educators, Wright says he plans to implement new initiatives. One of these involves a panic system where teachers carry an attached panic button while at work. The Arkansas School Safety Commission is preparing to release a final report in a month with recommendations.

Wright also wants to improve teacher salaries and put the district in the top five for teacher pay in the state. The Arkansas Legislature refused to consider raising minimum teacher salaries during a special session earlier this month, with legislative leaders promising to bring up the topic during next year’s regular session after an adequacy study has been completed.

Wright succeeds Michael Poore who spent six years as superintendent for the Little Rock School District from 2016 to 2022. During his tenure, Poore was able to get the district freed from state control which had been imposed because of low student achievement on test scores.

In 2019, the Arkansas State Board of Education voted to return some local powers, including the ability to elect a local school board. In July 2021, the state board voted to completely return the district to local control.

Towards the end of the interview, Wright mentioned he was reading Simon Sinek’s book “The Infinite Game,” which was really resonating with him.

“You have to realize as an educator you may not be the person who gets us to that promised land or gets us to that ultimate place, but you do all the work that is necessary for the person behind you to pick up where you left off.”

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.