Student’s View: Look Closer at Our Shrinking City and You’ll See a Community Rallying Around Its Schools

Student council president: Urban decay & crime is only part of the story in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. This community is fighting for educational quality.

By John Thompson | May 6, 2024

Pine Bluff, Arkansas

I am the product of a single-parent household. My mother is a God-fearing woman who raised me in the church. She’s always taught me to be thankful for what I have and to strive to make my community a better place.

While I have a strong love for social media, I must admit it has not made the world the kind of place my mom raised me to envision. Some have used it to negatively portray my home town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Based on TikTok and Instagram, you’d think that crime and crumbling infrastructure are problems unique to us, and not a challenge throughout the United States.

That negative spin may tell part of the story. But it’s far from the complete picture. It leaves out how residents, particularly students, are working to turn the community around.

My mother made sure I followed the rules, got a good education and stayed safe. But I saw bullying up close when I was in the 9th grade. Worst of all, I was robbed one morning while walking to school. I lost my phone, my wallet, but most importantly, my sense of security. At Pine Bluff High School, I witnessed students being disrespectful to each other and not accepting people’s individual differences. I also have friends who got involved in fights. Some lost their lives to violence.

John Thompson and Mom (Barbara) before Debutante Ball. (Calvin Thomas)

I wanted to prevent others from experiencing what I did. When I was elected president of the Pine Bluff High Student Council in the fall of 2023, I formed a partnership with the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission to host events on our campus to deter bullying and bring a sense of family to the high school. Students signed agreements to work together and to tell security personnel, their teachers or the principal if someone was being disrespectful or talking about hurting someone. I am happy to say it worked. Some students became friends; others faced disciplinary actions. 

It has been a year of many revelations. Last summer, I was selected to attend Arkansas Boys State, a camp in Conway, Arkansas, that focuses on leadership and civic engagement. My time there awakened me to something my mother tried to shield me from — namely, that I had little exposure to people of different cultures. As a young Black male from Pine Bluff, whose school population is around 97% African American, I loved the opportunity to meet more white and Asian students from all over Arkansas. 

But the experience also revealed that many of my new friends had far more exposure to technology than we do in our poor school district — technology like AI, flying drones and robots. In Pine Bluff, we have an after-school program that touches on these subjects, but it would be great to have it offered in school every day.

Pine Bluff Class of 2023 graduates (Pine Bluff School District)

I am excited that our community is building a brand-new high school, with modern technology and learning spaces that can offer courses in AI and computer programming. I will be in college when the new school is built, but it makes me optimistic for the young scholars who will be attending the best high school in Arkansas in a beautiful, new state-of-the-art building. While my school is already tops in sports — number one in the state in basketball for the second consecutive year and 2023 5A champions in football  — I’m hopeful that one day the Pine Bluff School District will be number one in academics as well.

After COVID-19, some of us, including myself, fell a bit behind academically, especially in math. Most of us hated virtual learning and sometimes did not pay attention to our teachers. Owning up to the problem, the district’s new superintendent and newly appointed school board have introduced academic programs and partnered with community groups to help us catch up. For example, there will be year-round school starting next year. I believe this is going to help scholars increase their retention and knowledge, thus improving test scores. I am proud to say that ACT scores and academics in general are going up. 

Wiley Branton, flanked by William Coleman and Thurgood Marshall, arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court to present arguments in the Little Rock Nine school integration case. (Getty Images)

I know the doubters are wrong because change is in our bones. Pine Bluff enjoys such a rich history. I am most proud of the fact that Wiley A. Branton, Sr., a Pine Bluff attorney, helped to desegregate the University of Arkansas School of Law. I am so impressed that he represented the Little Rock Nine, the Black students who walked into Central High School in 1957, and also served as counsel with Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first Black justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

Branton’s historical accomplishments inspire me to become an attorney. I want to come back to Pine Bluff and make a positive impact in my community, bringing fresh ideas and helping students from single-parent homes understand that they can be successful in life. I plan to be a positive role model for kids who look like me. 

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