Changing Faces Except in the Superintendent’s Chair

by Paul Riede

It’s sometimes said that leaders of tough school districts have to make so many difficult decisions they may lose 5 percent of their supporters each year.

Don’t tell that to Jim Rollins. “I’d be in a deficit,” laughs the 60-year-old Rollins, who has been leading the Springdale School District in the northwest corner of Arkansas for 25 years.

His longevity as superintendent is remarkable considering the changes that have rocked his school community during his tenure.

When Rollins, an Arkansas native, arrived in 1980 as director of secondary curriculum and instruction, the district had about 5,000 students, almost all of them white, and a budget of $15 million. Now it has 16,800 students — about half of whom are white and some 40 percent of whom are not native English speakers. The budget is $130 million.

In the last six years, Rollins has overseen the construction of 10 new schools — along with the attendant issues of redistricting and all the emotions these changes can bring. He also has nurtured the development of services for thousands of English language learners and the management of what amounts to a cultural revolution in the school district.

“I don’t know if there could be a tougher job in the United States, including president of the United States,” says Jim Bradford, a veteran school board member.

The population explosion has resulted from the concentration of large corporations in the area, including the headquarters of Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt Transport Services. The influx has been fueled not only by Spanish-speaking immigrants but by what Rollins says is the country’s largest concentration of immigrants from the Marshall Islands.

Recently, as the national immigration debate has heated up, the influx into Springdale has cooled, creating new challenges, including a slowdown in the growth of state aid.

Doug Sprouse, the immediate past president of the school board, says Rollins keeps on top of it all by combining hard work with a congenial style, a knack for hiring great people and an ever-curious mind. Sprouse says if Rollins is at an event and there’s a napkin and a ballpoint handy, he’ll start writing down questions and ideas.

“He is continually trying to learn a better way. He knows we have to keep moving forward,” Sprouse says.

Rollins attributes his work ethic to his upbringing in Greenbrier, Ark., where by age 7 he was waking up at 4 a.m. to help out on his uncle’s dairy farm before going to school. He dreamed of pursuing medicine, but got hooked on teaching after picking up a job filling in for a high school science teacher. He began his career as a chemistry teacher, but soon moved into administration.

In Springdale, the challenges keep coming. The schools are struggling with the standards of the No Child Left Behind law, which requires all those English language learners to take tests in English only a year after arriving in the community. Rollins says those goals are simply not realistic.

“I think the research is quite clear,” he says. “Non-English-speaking children need three to five, sometimes seven years. My hope would be we’d all be learners. We stress all the time that we ought to be very research-based teachers in our classrooms, and I think we ought to be following that model on the national level.”

Rollins, a two-time state superintendent of the year, says a key to getting children of all backgrounds to succeed is to involve them in sports and other activities. The district also is taking a more direct approach. One of its middle schools last year became one of the first schools in the nation to launch the national Postsecondary Access for Latino Middle-grades Students program, or PALMS. The outreach program aims to convince Hispanic students and their parents that college is a viable option.

Rollins says it’s all part of creating an environment where children can thrive.

“If you can organize schools where kids can give their best effort, you potentially can hit a home run,” he says.

Paul Riede is an editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.


BIO STATS: Jim Rollins

Currently: superintendent, Springdale, Ark.

Previously: director of secondary education, Springdale

Greatest influence on career: My mother, my early teachers and the dedicated school administrators I encountered along my educational pathway who showed confidence in me and made me believe I could excel. Through their caring, personal encouragement, and professional modeling, they motivated me and instilled in me a passion for educational excellence. I have been paying that debt of gratitude ever since.

Best professional day: Any day in which our students excel. The purpose of school is learning, and when our students learn at high levels, it is exhilarating to me.

Books at bedside: Turnaround Leadership by Michael Fullan; Good to Great by Jim Collins; Total Instructional Alignment by Lisa Carter; The Heart of a Leader by Ken Blanchard; Romance With Schools by John Goodlad; On Common Ground by Rick DuFour, Bob Eaker and Rebecca DuFour; 10 Traits of Highly Effective Principals by Elaine McEwan; and School Leadership That Works by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters and Brian McNulty

Biggest blooper: When either my team or I fall short in reaching important goals, I pay perhaps too high a personal price, especially when the goal is in the area of student achievement. With experience and maturity come perspective and the realization that essential learning can spring from both failures and successes.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA continues to develop a vision for educational excellence with a special emphasis on the role of school leaders.