Q&A with Dr. Jim Rollins

August 11, 2020
Cory Biggs, Associate Director

ForwARd Arkansas has always operated under the belief that engaged and empowered communities with innovative partnerships are necessary to develop new opportunities for students and communities to advance education across the state. Our partnerships cultivated within our original five ForwARd Communities demonstrate this belief in practice. I sat down with one of these valued community partners, Dr. Jim Rollins, as he steps down as superintendent of Springdale Public Schools—after nearly 40 years at the helm—to learn more about what has inspired him, what he takes away from his time with the District and what makes him optimistic about the future. 

In your time as superintendent at Springdale Public Schools, you and your team built so many strong partnerships between the schools and parents, business and civic leaders, and the community in Springdale, as a whole, over the years—and we at ForwARd Arkansas are lucky to count ourselves as just one of them. What’s your secret?

The secret is keeping a clear focus on students. Parents and community leaders want to be a part of planning educational opportunities for students. They know, as I know, that when we work together, we make better decisions about how to accomplish that, and we’ve had a great experience with that over time.

From my point of view, the partnership with ForwARd Arkansas has been one of our very finest. Partnerships really should be symbiotic; they should benefit all of the partners. And when ForwARd came to the table, you came as a true partner. You came to help. ForwARd shared with us some of the very best people who clearly wanted to be true partners. You were there to help us get better, to help us build relationships across the community. When we had community meetings, ForwARd was there and contributed. Partnerships like that are treasured, and the relationship we’ve built with ForwARd Arkansas has always been student-centered; it has always been about pulling the community together to support our students and our schools. That has been a beautiful experience and one I will forever treasure.

So much of our work together has been focused on equity, and the pandemic has certainly put a spotlight on the gaps that exist in our systems, including our education system. What have we learned that should inform our work moving forward? 

Learning is a lifelong experience. Words, like “equity,” are one thing; to live the meaning behind the words is something altogether different. I believe that one cannot have excellence without equity. That’s especially true when looking at visionary statements that have guided us in Springdale such as “Teach them all,” and “All means all.”

When ForwARd joined us, I think we began to unravel, with greater depth than we had previously, the differential in terms of readiness to learn, the support systems that families need in order to be secure so that, in fact, they have an opportunity to send children to school who are better prepared to be learners. Then we really collaborated. We all talked together, and when you do that, you build on your understanding of empathy. You genuinely have to be able to walk a mile in your students’ shoes if you’re going to connect with them at the level that’s required for deep learning. Another critical term is efficacy. Through our collaborative work, trust and confidence was built. When you build on empathy first—understanding the needs of your students—and add efficacy, you can help students believe that they can learn at a higher level. And you can draw your community together so that they, too, are supportive in that effort. That is powerful, powerful, powerful.

Again, one has to live the conversation about the power of equity to understand its importance, but it is essential for our schools, for our communities, for our population, as a whole, to move forward at a level that we would all desire.

Teaching and learning are undergoing big changes right now, with so much of what we do moving to a remote setting. What can we do to maximize the potential benefit and minimize any adverse impact from remote learning over the course of the coming months?

Clearly, it is an unprecedented time. Community leaders, school leaders, organizational leaders are really attempting to manage the unknown, and we’re learning as we go. The middle of March to the end of the school year might’ve been the peak learning opportunity for the educators of the state, and to extend that even further, it might’ve been the peak learning opportunity for families, too. We had to learn how to really deliver instruction in a totally different way, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. We’re now in a position to build on those experiences.

Something I’ve learned throughout my career is that change can only take place when there’s an understanding by the participants that there’s a need for change. Today, that is a universal understanding. I think every educator and every caring adult truly understands this is an unprecedented time. We’re going to have to look for new ways to deliver instruction, and, from the school’s perspective, we’re going to have to find new ways to better connect with our students, and we’re going to have to build this understanding as we go. Einstein reminds us that there is no greater learning than learning through experience, and I think we are living that out right now. We are experiencing things that tell us we have to change, that we have to do things differently. We have to be learners ourselves. One thing we know about great teachers is that they are learners right along with their students, and that has never been more in demand than it is right now.

I am very optimistic that our future will be brighter than it’s ever been before. The learning curve will be steep, but the educators, students and their families, and community leaders are up to the challenge because they understand learning must be lifelong and for us to learn under these circumstances will require us to bring forward a new delivery system. That’s happening in every school across the country today. I’ve had the opportunity to sit and talk with some of the great teachers of our time, and, believe me, they are totally invested in bringing forward a new system that will better serve all students in unprecedented times.

What piece of advice would you give to support students and their teachers in adapting when going back to school this fall?

That question brings me right back to that term “empathy.” Schools historically have been about literacy and numeracy, and over the years we’ve added the social well-being of our students. Many of our students are in jeopardy. For organizations like the public schools and charitable organizations like ForwARd Arkansas, this is a new calling for all of us to come forward and deal with teaching and learning on a very personal level. Personalization of teaching and learning is the future of education in our country today.

Partnership-building, like we’ve discussed, is essential. Also acknowledging the fact that kids come from very different circumstances, very different support systems—the lack of access for online learning is critical and a challenge that we can and must solve, and we need to do it quickly. There are support systems in place. E-rate dollars from the federal government, appropriately directed, can be focused on the absence of access in so many areas, particularly high-poverty areas across our state. We’ve got to prioritize those funds and make sure that access is available. In the absence of access at home, I think we have to be organized as school districts, as cities, as communities and use the resources that we have available to target those who do not have access, who do not have equity in terms of educational resources. We must place these needs at the top of the list so that every child, no matter where they live, has access to a quality education.

If we can just focus our efforts, identify our need and make equity a priority, then we can move this thing forward. And now is the time to do that. I think our people—our community leadership and our schools—will respond in unison, and through that united effort we’ll make great progress in the days ahead.

What are you most looking forward to about your new role at the Northwest Technical Institute?

I’m looking forward to being a learner myself! The people here are just outstanding. They are absolutely committed to serving the career needs of the students in our region. As we build the right partnerships with local businesses, we will do some great things in our schools. I worked for 40+ years in the public schools, and during that period of time we developed what we call the “Staircase to Educational Excellence” that starts with teaching all students to high levels and then we progress through a litany of really powerful growth experiences, walking up the staircase. At the very top of that staircase is application of learning. Maybe it was fortuitous, but I do think I am at the right place at the right time where I can work with students from all backgrounds who really have an interest in careers. And in partnership with our local community and the staff here, I think we will do a lot of excellent work to close the workforce needs gap in our region. I am excited beyond words to have this opportunity.

What is one hope that you have for education in Arkansas moving forward? 

I hope that in every educator’s heart and mind we will put the learning of our children first, and that we will push ourselves to develop open mindsets where we can look at the individual needs of every child and bring forward personal education plans that allow them to grow and reach their own true potential and promise. The youth of Arkansas are some of the brightest you will find anywhere, and if we, together, can find a way to make the connections to help them grow through their education and realize that great potential and promise it will make their lives so much better and make our communities and our state stronger. And I know that’s what all of us want to see happen.

Image credit: Springdale Public Schools via The 74