Pine Bluff’s Friendship Schools Bring Hope to the City ‘No One Wanted to Touch’

With an emphasis on Black teachers, the 7-school charter network is pushing to rejuvenate Arkansas’ once highly-educated Black metropolis.

By Greg Toppo | May 7, 2024
Physical education teacher Lola Johnson (right) leads students in outdoor exercises at Friendship Aspire Academy Downtown. Architects designed the outdoor space to be enclosed on all four sides to keep students from having to leave the building for outdoor activities. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Passersby can be forgiven for mistaking Friendship Aspire Academy for a place of worship: One of the elementary school’s main buildings is actually a repurposed church, a towering, ‘60s-era cast concrete sanctuary complete with a pipe organ tucked into an old choir loft.

The architecture suits the tiny elementary school on South Hazel Street, which has taken on a kind of spiritual significance for families since it opened six years ago. The first of seven charter schools here either taken over or built from the ground up by the Washington, D.C.-based Friendship Education Foundation, the school has quietly earned a position of trust in a community whose schools often mirror the city’s decline.

From 2010 to 2020, Pine Bluff’s population fell 12.5%, the largest drop in any metropolitan area in the U.S. Meanwhile the district lost nearly 2,000 students, or about 41% of its enrollment, according to state figures.

Friendship Aspire Academy Principal Jherrithan Dukes tours the school’s innovation center, a former church sanctuary. The school, which prioritizes hiring Black teachers, is inspiring loyalty among Pine Bluff  families. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

But in just six years, Friendship Aspire Academy has jumped to the top of the ranks of elementary schools, not only in the city but the state, thanks in large part to fully staffed before- and after-care programs, wraparound services like tutoring, a packed calendar of family events and a rigorous, literacy- and math-focused curriculum. 

In Pine Bluff, that’s enough to persuade many families to give it a try. The school now has a lengthy waiting list, and last year Friendship opened a second elementary school downtown.

Kimberly Davis, dean of the School of Education at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff , said the school is “really changing the outlook on education” in the city. “You look at Friendship, you go into the school, it’s like, ‘Am I still in Pine Bluff?’”

Observers like Davis say the new Friendship schools, while educating just a fraction of local students, have become the de facto alternative to the district as the only charter schools in town. And they’re helping to restore faith in a city that was once a highly educated, prosperous Black metropolis. 

Davis should know: Relocating here in June 2022, after a nine-year tenure as a professor of special education at Arkansas State University, she recalled, “People were like, ‘Why are you going to Pine Bluff?’ I said, ‘You don’t see what I see. I see potential. And where there is potential, that could be success.’”

‘Every kid here has a voice’

For parent Kazmira Davis (no relation to Kimberly), the moment she knew her kids belonged at the school was in 2018, when her daughter sat for skills tests as one of the school’s first kindergartners. She tested in the second- and third-grade levels in reading and math, respectively. Since then, Davis said, she’s always tested at least a year above grade level. “She hasn’t been stagnant since.”

Our kids have an environment where they feel like they matter. Every kid here has a voice.

Kazmira Davis, Pine Bluff parent

Nor have her two younger siblings, who are also testing above grade level.

“Our kids have an environment where they feel like they matter,” said Davis, who runs a tutoring and college counseling business. “Every kid here has a voice.”

The approach amounts to what she calls “Go mode,” a constant challenge to both students and teachers to push the limits of what’s possible.

Ten-year-old Kylie, Davis’s oldest at the school, is now a fifth-grader. She pointed out that she has earned straight A’s since kindergarten and has no plans to earn anything less than A’s going forward. “I like the teachers and I have a lot of friends there,” she said.  

Kylie Davis poses in one of the shirts that she designed for her family’s Christian-oriented clothing line. (Courtesy of Kazmira Davis)

She wants to go into clothing design and has already created two shirts for her family’s Christian-oriented clothing line. She said teachers focus a lot on helping students figure out what they need to be successful once they graduate. 

“Some days in school, they’ll ask you what you want to do when you grow up, and then we’ll have an essay that we have to write,” she said.

Rebecca Newby, one of the school’s academy directors — a job equivalent to an assistant principal — grew up in Pine Bluff and was educated in a district that was long ago swallowed up during one of many rounds of consolidations. In four years, she attended five high schools. She graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 2013, and taught for four years in the nearby Watson Chapel district, remembering that the only times parents were invited on campus were for orientation and parent-teacher conferences, she said. “And those were required days.” 

At Friendship Aspire, parent nights are packed, she said. “You can’t even get down the street” because of all the cars parked along the school’s fence-lined street.

Perhaps most importantly, she and others said, students here, about 98% of whom are Black, are immersed — often for the first time — in teaching by well-trained Black instructors, which research shows can have many benefits. In March, researchers at the University of California and the University of North Carolina reported that Black boys, especially from low-income families, are less likely to be referred for special education when they have Black teachers. 

Many of Friendship Aspire’s teachers grew up here and were trained at the local branch of the University of Arkansas, an historically Black university. Overall, about 90% of Friendship Aspire staffers are Black.

“I do see it as a long-standing change agent that Pine Bluff has needed for a long time,” said Newby.  

‘An exporter of talent’

Many see Friendship Aspire and its sister schools as part of a long-term, perhaps even multi-generational, effort to restore Pine Bluff to its former glory as a haven for well-educated, prosperous families. 

But even as the school radiates a contagious, productive energy, it can hardly make up for the loss that so clearly lies at the heart of this community.

Pine Bluff’s Southern Mercantile Co. in 1902. The city was once a thriving commercial center that in 1900 had the fourth largest concentration of Black wealth in America. (NYPL)

Each morning, Mary Ann Lee turns the key to her storefront cafe, Indigo Blue, on a quiet side street off Pine Bluff’s once prosperous Main Street. Originally a dress shop built in 1883, the renovated building now features Instagram-worthy high ceilings and stylish, comfortable seating that wouldn’t be out of place in a college-town cafe. Jazz plays on the stereo and historic civil rights memorabilia, lovingly collected over decades by Lee herself, cover virtually every wall. At the back of the room, an eclectic assortment of books, mostly from Lee’s personal collection, comprise what amounts to an ad-hoc used bookstore. 

But as cozy and inviting as Indigo Blue is, the shop looks out onto abandoned storefronts in nearly every direction. A cake shop opened next door a few years ago, and an engraver now operates on the other side of Lee’s cafe, but these few establishments, plus one or two nearby, amount to the largest concentration of functioning businesses for blocks.

It wasn’t always this way.

Just a century ago, the scholar and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Dubois surveyed the city and found that Pine Bluff had the fourth largest concentration of Black wealth in America. In 1900, a city directory listed 235 Black businesses. 

W.E.B. Dubois

In 1913, the 23-mile-long Dollarway Road, the first concrete road in the South, opened here, reaching about halfway to Little Rock. Drivers would actually ship their cars in by rail to drive on the bump-free, high-tech road.

For generations, a passenger railway station greeted visitors in the center of downtown, as did the magnificent six-story neoclassical Pines Hotel and a Black-owned streetcar line.

In the late 1950s, Lee, the cafe owner, recalled, “Pine Bluff used to be ‘the thing,’” a bustling little city with department stores, movie theaters, amusements, a horse racing track and an annual carnival. “You couldn’t even walk on the sidewalks, there’d be so many people,” she recalled.

Mary Ann Lee, who bought an 1883 building originally built as a dress shop and now owns Indigo Blue, a cafe that is one of the few businesses still operating downtown. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

The city now has exactly zero movie theaters. The streetcar, department stores and amusements are all long gone. Rail service ended in 1968 and the Pines closed in 1970.

After the loss of much of the domestic cotton industry, as well as decades of disinvestment from manufacturers and government, families moved away, abandoning not just businesses but homes. Block after block of crumbling buildings now haunt the quiet streets. The city’s population has never exceeded its 1970s census numbers. 

Lee, who attended city schools, remembered that teachers pushed her and other Black students to excel “because integration was coming and we needed to show that we could compete, and that we can learn just like any other kid.”

She left town in the late 1970s, and would go on to a long career promoting human rights and civil rights in Michigan, first with Detroit’s city government and later as a leader of the state NAACP. In that sense, she’s like a lot of Pine Bluff residents who took their good educations and got out.

Over the past century or more, the city has seen a diaspora of smart people leave and, in many cases, never return, said local historian Lori Walker Guelache. They included George Edmund Haynes, co-founder of the National Urban League, and businessman O.W. Gurley, who founded Tulsa’s Greenwood district, otherwise known as “Black Wall Street.”

A row of buildings across the street from Indigo Blue. Its owner wants to develop the spaces into commercial properties including an ice cream parlor and a martini bar. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

“We’ve done a great job of cultivating talent historically, but we haven’t done a great job of creating pathways for them to come back,” she said. “And so I guess you can say we’ve been an exporter of talent.”

‘We found it’s a great city’

Those losses have eased somewhat in recent years, she and others said, with small upticks in population for most age brackets — except two: children, as well as adults aged 35 to 44. “So basically young families,” Walker Guelache said. 

An entrance to Friendship Aspire Academy, which was built partially from a repurposed church’s cast concrete sanctuary. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

That reality, among others, drew Friendship to the region. It now runs 11 schools statewide. Already the operator of half a dozen well-respected charter schools in Washington, D.C., it came here in 2018 at the invitation of the Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation, which admired its work creating a pipeline of Black teachers — especially Black male teachers — in D.C., said Kim Davis, a senior advisor who leads Walton’s work in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. 

“They’re really good at not only saying, ‘Hey, we think that there is a talented person at the beginning of their career, but we also have a development program for those individuals,’” he said. 

Davis also said Friendship’s willingness and ability to partner with the local University of Arkansas campus was critical to attracting more Black teachers to schools here. 

But the decision on where to invest was up to Friendship, said Phong Tran, its southern regional superintendent. “Pine Bluff has always been the city that no one wanted to touch,” he said. “But we found that it’s a great city.”

In many educators’ eyes, Friendship Aspire and the six other network schools — they include the new downtown elementary school and a new middle/high school — are leading the push to keep families here. Through its strategic takeovers and new openings, Friendship has quietly built a group of schools that nearly matches the number of remaining district schools, with plans to continue expanding.

A lot of what Friendship has done is to simply offer families a peek into what high-quality schools do, said Friendship Aspire Principal Jherrithan Dukes. Though not a Pine Bluff native, he attended college here at the University of Arkansas and worked at charter and traditional public schools in Little Rock before arriving in the fall of 2020.

Newby, the academic director, said Friendship’s policy to offer free before- and after-care from the beginning showed that it understood the community. “We have working parents that need the support,” she said. “And so we offer that free,” an anomaly in the city.

It doesn’t hurt that the Friendship schools offer nationally recognized curricula that are raising literacy and math skills in ways that other local schools have struggled to do, said Davis, the University of Arkansas dean.

In the most recent state achievement tests, no district-run school earned a grade higher than a D; just 19.4% of third-graders districtwide proved “ready” or exceeding standards in math and 15.4% in reading. 

At Friendship Aspire, a different trend is beginning to take shape: 75.9% of students scored “ready” or exceeding standards in math and 33.3% in reading, scores high enough to earn the school a respectable 70.7% rating, a solid C.

When Friendship expanded last year, one show of support was to build the new elementary school in the heart of downtown, partnering with the local public library, which was renovating its downtown building. 

“When you want to revitalize a city, what better place to build a school than downtown?” said Tran, the regional superintendent. “There are a lot of parents who come to work downtown. So where are they going to drop their kids?”

For Pine Bluff, that comes with fraught considerations. The city ranks as one of the least safe in the U.S., with more than a dozen teens killed since 2020. So when they designed the new school, architects included a large outdoor space surrounded on all four sides by classrooms to keep students from having to leave the school’s confines to play outside. 

Students at Friendship Aspire Academy practice a cheer routine. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

Kay’Leah King, 12, a sixth-grader at Friendship STEM Academy, said she thinks a lot about safety, and worries about school shootings, which are often on the news. She’s glad the school, like Friendship Aspire Academy, which she also attended, keeps its doors locked all day. “On every door that’s on the outside and in the office, you have to have a key code to get in,” she said. “And you can’t get in without it. You can’t get in through those doors without being let in.” 

Kay’Leah King (Friendship Schools)

Best in the state

Dukes said many of his students’ parents vividly remember the substandard education they got in Pine Bluff just a few years ago — and don’t want a repeat experience with their kids. 

As a result, they fiercely support the school, organizing events such as the annual “Trunk or Treat,” a Halloween tradition in which they park cars outside the school and essentially recreate house-to-house trick-or-treating for students who may not be able to do it otherwise. Several parents said the city’s violent crime rate makes them think twice about letting their kids go house-to-house each October.

Parents at Friendship Aspire Academy organize an annual “Trunk or Treat” event, a Halloween tradition that recreates house-to-house trick-or-treating for students who might not be able to do so in their neighborhoods. (Photos courtesy of Kazmira Davis)

The school is tidy and orderly. On a recent morning, Dukes patrolled the halls, reminding students to cross their arms in front of them as they pass between classrooms to keep their hands to themselves.

Davis, the Arkansas dean, said her students, teachers in training, push to work at Friendship Aspire and the other network schools, lured by their energy. In a sense, she said, salaries have become less important due to a 2023 state law that raised public school teachers’ minimum salaries from $36,000 to at least $50,000. That puts the burden on schools to support teachers in other ways. 

People were like, 'Why are you going to Pine Bluff?' I said, 'You don't see what I see. I see potential.

Kimberly Davis, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Last fall, Friendship brought in the D.C. coaching firm SchoolKit, which provides literacy coaches to work with small groups of students. The Arkansas Public Schools Resource Center also provides tutors and helps teachers pace lessons. And the school partnered with the Detroit-based Center for Strategic Leadership, which helps teachers improve math instruction and provides retention bonuses for those who stick around. 

More importantly, Friendship is offering what many here never got during their K-12 schooling: a plethora of well-trained Black educators. 

Countless adults here can recount the experience of attending school with mostly Black classmates but mostly white teachers. “Growing up, the majority of my teachers did not look like me,” said Friendship Aspire Academy Director Brianna Reynolds, who began here as a kindergarten teacher in 2018. 

Growing up, the majority of my teachers did not look like me.

Brianna Reynolds, Friendship Aspire Academy Director

In many years, she said, her only Black teacher was her home economics teacher.

From kindergarten on up, Dukes and others said, Friendship principals prioritize hiring Black teachers. At the new Friendship high school, they comprise half of Principal Anitra Rogers’ staff. She recounted literally praying to God to provide the campus with the teachers it needed, “preferably with Black men.”

The result is a small but growing set of schools that are quietly changing people’s minds about the city, said Reynolds one recent morning. “It changes the narrative.” 

As if to underscore the change, that morning as he chatted with Reynolds and other staffers in his office, Dukes received a flat cardboard parcel in the day’s mail. He sliced it open to reveal a gleaming glass plaque: Friendship Aspire had been named a U.S. News & World Report “Best Elementary School.” The magazine, which ranks schools and colleges nationwide, named Friendship Aspire the 28th-best elementary school in Arkansas and its No. 1 charter elementary school.

As he scanned the plaque, colleagues cheered. Dukes beamed, saying repeatedly, “There it is. There it is.” He held it up to pose for photos. “There it is.”

Friendship Aspire Principal Jherrithan Dukes celebrates as he receives a plaque honoring the school as one of the best in Arkansas. (Greg Toppo/The 74)

‘We’re raising a great generation of students’

Meanwhile, in downtown Pine Bluff, small signs of life are beginning to peek through. A new aquatic center, proposed in 2011, finally opened in 2019. The historic hotel’s owner sold it for $1 to a nonprofit named Pine Bluff Rising, which plans to revitalize it.

And Lee, the cafe owner, is now thinking about renovating the second story of her building to create a loft apartment for her retirement. Forever busy scheduling speakers at the cafe and working with other building owners on downtown preservation projects, she’s excited about the new possibilities. 

Each morning, she looks out her renovated storefront windows and across West Barraque Street onto a block of three abandoned, brick-wrapped buildings. Their owner says he’s finally ready to renovate them, with plans for an ice cream shop, loft apartments and a martini bar.

But all of these efforts, locals said, need families to stick around.

Friendship continues to explore new schools and new takeovers, even as the State Board of Education last fall voted unanimously to return full local control of Pine Bluff schools to the district. State officials will continue monitoring the district’s academic and fiscal performance for another year.

For his part, Dukes, the elementary school principal, is cautiously optimistic — and patient. He believes real change in the city may take years.

“I feel like once these kids get older and get grown and come back to this community, we’re going to see a real take-off in the city,” he said. He’s not actually sure he’ll be around to see it, but he’s convinced a rebirth is at hand. “I feel like we’re raising a great generation of students.”

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74. The foundation also provided early financial support to the Friendship Education Foundation to set up a charter network in Pine Bluff.

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