During Jim Rollins’ tenure as superintendent, the Springdale, Ark., district has undergone an incredible season of growth and demographic change.
Schools and subdivisions have sprouted up where farms and pastures used to line Springdale’s outskirts, signs of the rapid growth of the northwest Arkansas region and driven by jobs at Tyson Foods, the poultry giant, and companies that support the headquarters of Walmart Stores in nearby Bentonville.
And Springdale’s student body, which swelled from about 5,000 students when Rollins arrived in 1980 to 21,500 students in the 2016-17 school year, is also markedly more diverse. Once largely filled with white students, schools now educate thousands of Hispanic immigrants, many of them recent arrivals to the United States.
Springdale has also become home to one of the largest populations of Marshallese people outside the Marshall Islands, a Micronesian country that was the site of U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War. Under a compact with the United States, Marshallese citizens can move freely between the two countries, which means some of Springdale’s Marshallese students are more highly mobile than their peers.
After decades of growth and rapid school construction, the Springdale district has developed a reputation among state and national education leaders as a model for steering schools through change while meeting the needs of emerging student populations.
And Rollins, who punctuates nearly every public address with his “teach them all” motto, has deftly helmed the ship. He began his career in Springdale as the district’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction and later became superintendent—a job he’s had for more than three decades.
A tall man with a thick Southern accent who lives on a cattle farm, Rollins, 69, does not fit the image some might have of an innovative and inclusive educational leader. But teachers, civic leaders, and superintendents throughout the state say his can-do attitude and efforts to recruit and train talented teachers and school leaders have inspired other school systems, even those facing less dramatic change.
“He doesn’t accept failure from himself or anyone else,” says Tom Kimbrell, a former Arkansas commissioner of education and current superintendent of the Bryant, Ark., district. “If the wall is 12 feet of concrete, and you know you can’t knock it down with your shoulder, you either get the tools to do it, or you find a way around it. I think he accepted the fact that those changes were coming, and he could either find ways to lead as a change agent or he was going to accept that he couldn’t be successful—and that just wasn’t in his DNA.”
Rollins didn’t always plan to be an educator. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., he did cancer-research work at the University of Oklahoma with the aim of becoming a doctor. Scrambling to find a job after his lab’s grant funding lapsed, Rollins called the superintendent of North Little Rock schools and secured a job as a science teacher.
“So I made that transition from the biology lab to the classroom and I actually fell in love with teaching,” he says. “I never went back.”
Prior to settling into work in Springdale, Rollins taught at the junior high and high school levels before he became a principal in North Little Rock. As he advanced in his career, he earned a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
‘Teach Them All’
Rollins’ unusually long tenure at the helm has been a time of great change for Springdale.
The district has built 22 schools since he arrived. At one point, leaders planned at least one new school building a year as the region was deemed one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country.
Under Rollins, the district’s leadership team has landed grants to finance innovative projects. That includes a 2014 federal Race to the Top grant of $26 million that the district is using to launch a high school that focuses on personalized learning, its 31st school.
Amid that growth, the district had to conquer some major challenges to embrace its changing student population. More than 55 percent of Springdale’s student body are children who are not proficient in English and 71 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. As leaders saw the transformation on the horizon, they avoided making excuses and sought ways to engage new students and address their needs, Rollins says.
“For the first 10 years, it was just tremendous,” he says. “There were years when we would have hundreds of immigrant children and their families come into the district. So you begin to think about initiatives that will help you connect with families. You need the entire family engaged in the education of any child.”
Some newly arrived immigrant families are reluctant to trust institutions like public schools, and linguistic and cultural barriers can be big hurdles for engagement. And Springdale, at least early on, didn’t have an established immigrant community—or even bilingual staff members—who could help broker those connections.
To help, the district hired Al “Papa Rap” Lopez in 2001, a bilingual radio host known in the immigrant community. He is now a family-school liaison who appears at public events and builds connections with newly arrived families who might be reluctant to trust school officials.
Teachers who most closely work with English-learner students developed a family-literacy program that brings parents into schools to learn English alongside their children, strengthening their own literacy while also building connections with teachers and engaging in their children’s education.
At Har-Ber High School, older immigrant students with less experience with formal education work in a new arrival center, where they get up-to-speed on academic English and life skills. Administrators, including Rollins, also met with community and ministry leaders to ensure that families felt welcome and understood at school.
Rollins has been a champion for the district’s new arrivals from the outset, local leaders say, and a source of reassurance to its established families who expressed concerns about how the rapid growth and shifting student body would affect their children’s education.
“I think he’s really helped diffuse a lot of the potential fear of change that communities experience when they are fast growing and see tremendous change in demographics,” says Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse, who is also a former school board member. “I think the school district has led the way. The school district is really the first contact for many of the families who came in.”
During the height of the district’s growth, Springdale school board meetings were one part celebration and two parts intense planning. They usually ended with a sermon-like speech, delivered by Rollins in his syrupy Southern accent. “Teach them all,” he’d say, reminding staff and board members that schools are responsible for engaging and educating all children, regardless of their background. To deliver on that, though, Rollins and his team knew they needed to get all of the district’s teachers prepared to teach English to native Spanish- and Marshallese-speakers.
That mantra became the name and the central mission of a partnership that has since been forged between the district and the University of Arkansas. Through Project Teach Them All, which ran from 2007-12, 90 Springdale teachers gained TESOL certification—meaning they were prepared to teach English as a second language—through night classes and participation in a professional learning group.
Today, about 40 percent of Springdale’s teachers are TESOL-certified, according to Rollins.
There were years when we would have hundreds of immigrant children and their families come into the district. [Y]ou begin to think about initiatives that will help you connect with families.
Diana Gonzales Worthen, who led the project at the University of Arkansas, says the understanding of language acquisition and cross-cultural teaching can make all teachers more effective, but it’s not a commitment every district leader would make.
“Dr. Rollins is not afraid of trying something and seeing it through to see if it’s going to work,” says Gonzales Worthen, who is also the co-founder of One Community, a multicultural community organization in Northwest Arkansas. The university partnership has grown and birthed a regional program that attracts teachers from more rural districts with English-learner populations.
In addition to language training, Springdale has also worked to train teachers on their students’ cultural backgrounds, Gonzales Worthen says.
“The way it could have gone could have been, ‘You’re new to this district, and this is how we do things,’ ” she says. Instead, Springdale has become a warm, tolerant community that celebrates differences.
But the district still has work to do, Rollins says. He’s still trying to recruit the district’s own Hispanic and Marshallese graduates to become teachers. Those efforts include a program that allows teacher’s aides to complete degrees through a partnership with the University of Arkansas. District leaders also go out-of-state to recruit teacher talent. Rollins has been mum about retirement plans. He much prefers to talk about the work ahead of him or tell stories of students who came to the district as immigrants who spoke no English and left as valedictorians bound for competitive universities.
“It doesn’t make a bit of difference to us whether a child comes from across the street or across the ocean,” Rollins says. “When they get to our schoolhouse door, they’re one thing. They’re our children.”