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How Black Educators in America’s Fastest-Shrinking City Are Reimagining Teacher Pipelines

<Ƶ class="subtitle"> A network of educators new and old in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, see a bright future for the city’s schools. What they’re doing to make it a reality.
By Marianna McMurdock | May 8, 2024
Teacher TyKesha Cross (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

Pine Bluff, Arkansas

When TyKesha and Dedrick Cross met in fifth grade, neither of them could have known that decades later they’d be married and working as dedicated educators serving kids that look like them in .

In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, people see education as a way out. Many of the Cross’s classmates moved on to nearby Little Rock, to Texas.

Their city has changed drastically over the last decade, its population dwindling from 49,000 to between 2010 and 2020. Businesses left alongside residents, leaving rusting signs and boarded windows in what once was a thriving . Two main school districts consolidated; school buildings remain vacant.

But for educators who’ve stayed to hold down the fort like the Crosses, there’s no question why Pine Bluff is still, as TyKesha calls it, a “diamond in the rough,” where they’ve raised their own and their neighbors’ children. 

“The community and the kids we serve is why we stick around. This is home,” said Dedrick, now an assistant principal at James Matthew Elementary. “Rearing these students and trying to have them beat the odds is what keeps us in this area.” 

TyKesha Cross looks on at her grandparent’s old home, where she spent much of her childhood. All around Pine Bluff, decaying homes and businesses stand as stark reminders of its past and current economic challenges and population decline. But local educators and leaders feel a new era of revitalization has begun. (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

The Cross’s spirit is not unique. Countless local educators and leaders, retired and early career, reared in Pine Bluff or not, share it and are beginning to see signs that stronger schools are not wishful thinking.

In a sprint to make schools families can trust, Pine Bluff is learning what it takes to build up their core: a strong educator workforce.  

Educators are quick to point to the : Quality teachers are the most important factor for student success. Local alternative and traditional university preparation programs are making teaching more financially and emotionally sustainable — expanding class offerings, child care or mental health grants. Programs are leaning into grow-your-own models, too, recruiting locals who understand students’ lived experiences to teach and lead schools. 

The momentum to revitalize has never been stronger. The district has regained control after a state takeover. The district’s new superintendent is committed to making the community a part of changes. A pandemic, local gun violence and new statewide investments have lit a fire for better quality education. 

While many rural schools nationwide face persistent challenges in staffing schools, Pine Bluff offers a different story, starting the 2023-24 school year 99% staffed. 

Pine Bluff’s educators admit there’s much more to be done, like ensuring training matches what teachers are struggling with, most recently student behavior and discipline. 

And superintendent Jennifer Barbaree is not one to sugar coat. 

“Systematically, our academic achievement is very poor. Classroom instruction is not where it needs to be. We have parents telling us that, we have community members telling us that,” Barbaree said. “It’s a process … We’re not going to go from an F school from the last 10 years to suddenly an A school.” 

Though many were skeptical at first, when a white woman from out of town took the reins, Dedrick thinks it is fading. “We needed somebody with some vision and some transparency.”  

The Crosses remember their first meeting with Barbaree fondly. Her frankness was the “breath of fresh air” Dedrick had been yearning for, especially from administrators. 

“She said, I’m gonna tell you, we ain’t got no money,” Dedrick recalled.

“That’s exactly how she said it, ebonics and all,” TyKesha added, smiling. 

TyKesha is hopeful for the future — in their small but mighty district of about 3,300, “love and untapped potential,” are abundant. 

She and Dedrick know intimately why investing in educators, particularly Black educators and those who reflect the student body’s demographic, is critical for student success. 

“It’s a process … We’re not going to go from an F school from the last 10 years to suddenly an A school.” 

Jennifer Barbaree, Pine Bluff Superintendent

After surviving a gunshot wound to the head and becoming pregnant by her senior year, it was an educator who knocked on her grandparent’s door and urged TyKesha to come back and finish high school. The same person recruited her to become an educator two decades later. 

Now a 9th grade business teacher, TyKesha introduces the next generation of homeowners and entrepreneurs to the pillars of marketing and finance. Her family members were some of the first free Black farmers in Arkansas, to this day running one of Pine Bluff’s oldest businesses and local favorite for fried catfish: . 

Carpenter’s Produce & Fish (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

Before teaching, she and Dedrick had careers in banking, real estate and counseling, and job offers out of state. But instead of joining the thousands who have left their hometown, they forged new careers in education. 

Having worked for a decade as a parole and substance abuse counselor, Dedrick knows the range of experiences children have in Pine Bluff, too. Some, he said, have been in survival mode since they were ten. Passing through the front door of one student’s home, he stepped on a dirt floor. 

Knowing what students go home to has reinforced their decision to stay and make their schools a safe haven for the next generations. Dedrick, now in his first year as an administrator after eight years teaching, has one rule for James

Madison Elementary’s teachers: that they get to know their students and not holler at them. They get enough of that, he said. 

The couple still wrestle with big questions, like how to curb the gun violence that claimed the lives of one of their students and nearly a child a month last school year. But, Dedrick said, “it keeps tugging on us to make that impact here.”

He’s not alone in his dedication and optimism. More and more, signs show Pine Bluff is rising to strengthen schools’ core.

Pathways to bring in more local talent are growing. This fall, more candidates than ever applied to the same 3-year preparation program the Crosses completed: Arkansas Teacher Corps. The partnership with the University of Arkansas provides community members, many already working in schools as paraprofessionals or substitutes, a path to being licensed. 

The district re-assessed all uncertified or emergency certified teachers to ensure they were completing preparation programs or exams. Those without adequate progress by the end of last school year were let go.

And Barbaree’s candor has shifted how the district has built partnerships with traditional university preparation programs. With a doctorate in the science of reading, she’s started asking: what textbooks are you using in your reading foundations courses?

Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree (left) and local HBCU education dean Kimberley Davis (right) have ignited a rare friendship to reshape Pine Bluff’s next generation of teachers. (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

“We need to do a better job partnering with universities and saying,” she said, “what do your teacher prep courses look like? How does that meet the needs of what we need in our districts?”

Kimberley Davis feels the Pine Bluff difference. Dean of the education college at University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, the local HBCU, Davis is no stranger to teacher preparation, having worked at four other universities.

She and Barbaree are on a texting basis. This is what she calls her first “true partnership” with a K-12 district. 

“We need them, and they need us,” Davis said.

Recruitment for rural realities 

Eyes are on Arkansas’s teacher workforce in part because of the state’s 2023 LEARNS Act, which boosted the salary floor from $36,000 to $50,000, requiring all teachers complete a yearlong residency guided by a mentor. 

“[LEARNS] was a huge wake up call … It disrupted the status quo enough that now people are trying something different,” said Brandon Lucius, Arkansas Teacher Corps’s executive director.  

Instead of recruiting far and wide, local preparation programs are now leaning into a grow-your-own approach to help capture community members working in and around schools, local leaders like the Crosses. 

Offering social-emotional support from the start of teacher preparation has made the difference for educators like TyKesha. Between her network of Arkansas Teacher Corps alumni, local mentors, and tools learned through ATC including yoga certification, she’s feeling a “five year fire,” not an itch to leave as many do by this milestone. 

More day classes, hybrid offerings and a free multi-day bootcamp for required licensure exams has become the norm at the local HBCU to ensure candidates graduate classroom ready. 

The district is switching things up, too, recruiting at the state’s flagship public university in Fayetteville and keeping a close feedback loop with local ones. Job posts in key subject areas stay open all year, in anticipation of vacancies. A teacher cadet program helps interested high schoolers matriculate into education classes at local colleges. 

Before its historic population decline, Pine Bluff’s teacher pool were mostly white graduates from traditional 4-year programs. Now, they usually come out of programs bringing career changers, parents and community members to the classroom through shorter, and more affordable teaching residencies like Arkansas Teacher Corps.

After embracing the grow-your-own model, the district’s pool flipped to nearly 75% parents of color, 97% first generation college graduates and older career shifters. The program now offers a $2,500 stipend; candidates can apply for grants for mental health services, child care, or personal computers. 

A similar transformation is happening in the administrator pipeline. 

“We’re saying we don’t want to drop someone in and hope that they stick,” said IMPACT Arkansas director John Bacon. The 18-month fellowship prepares teachers to become administrators in low-income districts, heavily subsidizing a masters in educational leadership.

‘The time has always been now’ 

To ensure Pine Bluff’s educators can stay in the field for the long haul, rising and longstanding teacher leaders name two needs: mentorship and social-emotional support. 

Burnout is the common culprit for departures or a dip in teaching quality — combinations of financial strain, frustration with student behavior that grew more concerning during COVID, and grief from trauma in the community. 

Local teachers in training have heard tales of Mattie Collins, one of Pine Bluff High School’s revered history teachers known for her firm but fair approach.  

She, like many informal mentors reared in Pine Bluff before and after her, was never interested in waiting for local or state leadership to catch up to the investment she saw as critical — teachers.

“Well, the time has always been now to Ms. Collins,” said Collins, who retired after 35 years and now leads a nonprofit for youth to explore STEM careers and prepare for the ACT. 

History teacher Mattie Collins (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

Her solution to some of the burnout and behavior concerns is relatively simple: have good lesson plans that keep everyone engaged, and make sure that young people know their teacher respects them. 

“It’s a two way street. It’s not just, respect Ms. Collins cause she’s the older person in the room. It’s that Ms. Collins respects you and thinks you’re great and wants you to do your best. They’ll do anything for you if they know that you really care.”

That pedagogy lives on in the classroom through her former students turned teachers like Kendra Jones. The type to “snatch you up,” in a caring way. 

Alongside classics, she uses literature she knows will keep attention and speak to what students care about. Dear Martin and Dear Justyce, two books focused on the experiences of young Black teens experiencing police brutality and navigating the justice system, are on the syllabus this semester. 

But even the beloved Jones has had thoughts about leaving, perhaps to be an administrator and make bigger waves or earn more. To sustain her family, she’s done hair and meal prepping on the side. 

Many Pine Bluff teachers work multiple jobs. Though LEARNS boosted the floor for teachers, it didn’t bake in funding or planning to level set pay for more experienced educators. With a master’s, Jones now makes the same as a first year teacher. Once she finishes her doctorate, she’d only see about a $3,000 increase annually.

On top of it all, Pine Bluff is a community in grieving. 

Jones went to five student funerals last year alone. In the back of her classroom shines a framed photo of one student, murdered six days after his birthday, a gift from his mother. 

“I look at the crime rate. I look at how our babies are being taken from us,” she said. “It’s things like that that make you say I can’t do this.” 

In those moments, she calls on her mentors. “But then you have people that have been here who also had those opportunities to leave like Ms. Collins and Mattie Glover and Virginia Hines. They’re retired and could be at home on the beach, but they’re still advocating.”

So is Jones, who has a reputation as the “trouble teacher” for making noise on behalf of students. When people speak ill of Pine Bluff, she’s quick to remind them where their roots are. 

“Somebody’s got to say something because right now what we need for our kids is not what it should be,” said Jones. “… I know what it could be and I have positive aspirations that greater is coming.”

To TyKesha, who teaches down the hall, the common denominator that anchors her, Jones and Pine Bluff’s “community of fighters” is love. 

Many of her students grew up in the same projects she did. Her classes start in the dark — a few minutes of free time with overhead lights off: listen to a song, watch a game, just pause for a moment. The only sound is the slow drip of water from a decorative fountain on her desk. 

pine bluff teacher tykesha cross smiles at her great aunt in her family's farm and fish business
TyKesha Cross smiles at a family member inside Carpenter’s Produce and Fish (Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

As students settled in one morning, Cross asked for a weather report — a social-emotional check-in learned from the Arkansas Teacher Corps. She’ll never forget one response: “acid rain,” with things falling from the sky. The phrase raised red flags for Cross, her innate sense of familiarity with her community’s challenges kicking in. 

She quickly emailed the student’s counselor, then the principal: their class was headed outside. 

Chalk in hand, students took turns writing on the sidewalk: “you’re not alone,” and “yesterday is not ours to recover but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.” 

It wasn’t until later the student whose response sparked the activity shared what was on his mind that day—  he had thoughts of taking his own life. The activity gave him encouragement, he said, and opened the door to talking more about his life with Cross and his counselor. 

For Cross, the incident confirmed why she became a teacher  in the first place — to  make schools the safe haven they were for her growing up. It’s a stark reminder, too, of the impact of investing in teacher development, to develop talent whose radar would go off like hers did that day. 

“Why do people stay here? That’s why,” Cross said tearfully. “To know that something I did, passed on to me from a program … I could have left and went to another big town or city and found another bank to work for, probably made $200,000. But I wouldn’t have been here for that day.”

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