On the fringes of the Arkansas Delta, in a county named “Lincoln,” lies a town of a little over 2,000 people: Star City. The school system that supports this remote Arkansas town is known to some of the country’s best educators to be a diamond in the rough. On the first day of November 2017, I traveled to Star City Schools to learn first hand what makes them so exceptional.
Superintendent Jon Laffoon and Middle School Principal Gina Richard kindly invited me into their “home,” the district office housed on East Arkansas Avenue. It was immediately evident that the Bulldogs of Star City, are fiercely fighting to make learning opportunities and subsequent economic opportunity attainable for every child.
Superintendent Laffoon shared with me that when he took his current position in Star City, where the median household income is $23,958, he recognized poverty to be the most severe barrier to learning. He knew that the district had to move to a whole child approach, but that alone would not be enough to break the cycle of poverty in the town.
My vision was to unite the whole community,”
Superintendent Laffoon told me.
To do so, Laffoon implemented STEM in every grade, from kindergarten to 12th grade. In fact, Star City School District was the first k-12 Project Lead the Way program in the state of Arkansas. His vision included every child, and he especially wanted his students suffering from the cycle of poverty to come in contact with successful professionals from the community regularly and beginning at an early age.
If they’re exposed early to those careers, they can dream about them.”
-Superintendent Jon Laffoon
As I toured the preschool ABC program, Jimmy Brown Elementary School, Star City Middle School, and Star City High School, it was clear to me that every person in the district is working to educate the whole child.
Star City SD is an Energy Bus district. All students have the opportunity to eat a free breakfast at the start of every day. Each Star City school is exploring and implementing restorative practices as an alternative to traditional discipline programs, which are known to be less effective for students of poverty. Yet, the most moving of all of the whole child initiatives being realized by Star City is the one that also happens to be the most innovative. The school district has partnered with Mainline Community Health Center to open up a health clinic housed right within the walls of the schools. The clinic employs full-time nurse practitioners who are available to provide basic medical services to students and teachers for free, even before the school day begins. Students who are suffering from mild illnesses that might otherwise keep them from attending school are able to access quality health care services so their learning is not interrupted. There are few things that could send a stronger message to families that the school cares deeply about their children and their success.
I’ve only just touched on the greatness that exists in this infusive school district. A quick glance at the district’s webpage reveals the assiduous pursuit of excellence by the students, as evidenced by their constant awards and achievements at the state level and beyond. The classrooms are full of the top educators in the field, including many state teachers of the year in their content areas. Those same teachers, along with the building principals, call Superintendent Jon Laffoon a truly transformative leader; however, these accolades are not the cause of the transformation taking place in Star City, Arkansas. It’s the hearts and the dedication of the educators and the community to opening every possibility for their children.
We all could stand to have a little more of that Star City Bulldog fight, especially when it comes to fighting for every child.