Special Report: Making the Grade


BISMARCK, Ark.- Aristotle once said, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”  

Aristotle never made his way to what is now Arkansas, but if he were to swing by Bismarck, he’d find what’s cultivated and grown there is indeed bearing the fruit he’s talking about.

But why here? How is this small rural school ranking in the top five in overall academics in the state?

It’s something other districts want to know too. 

“We have had a lot of districts reach out to us,” says Susan Kissire, Superintendent of the Bismarck School District. We’ve had quite a few districts that have come in, observed our classrooms, sat with us.”

Finding a formula that creates academic success for a district is as simple as opening a can of alphabet soup and arranging the contents in alphabetical order while wearing mittens. It’s just really hard to do. 

“It’s just a constant process,” says Kissire. 

Kissire says it’s been a 10-year process that’s paying off. 

Not only are other districts noticing, but so is the governor and Director of the State Board of Education Johnny Key, saying:
“What Bismarck has done is what we want all of our school districts to do. Take the information and set goals to be better for the students.”

“We are very humble with the things we have gone through, not for a minute are we going to sit here and say ‘Oh, look at what we have done,” Kissire says. 

What Bismarck has done is achieve academic growth in elementary, middle and high school categories- A’s across the board.

Kissire says success begins and ends with the reason the district exists.

“Our motto is ‘Every Student, Every Day,’ and we live by that,” says Kissire. “It’s not something we say, it’s truly something we believe.”

Every teacher, every day is bought in that what worked yesterday may not work today, and what’s working today may not work tomorrow, but they have to find what works. 

What’s working? PLC’s, also known as professional learning communities. Not a new idea, but it has brought Bismarck to new heights. 

“That has been critical to the success of our district,” Kissire explains. “That collaboration piece with our teachers is just amazing. They are meeting departmentally and through grade level teams, and coming in and saying, ‘What do we want our students to know? What are we going to do if they don’t know it? What are we going to do if they already know it?” 

“You may have a student who does well in math class, then comes into English class and struggles,” says Kissire. “So if you can get those teachers working together and say ‘What’s working for you? What do you know that I might need to know from you that’s going to help me help this student?’ That collaboration is so critical to the success of our students.”

The rewards are reaped at every level, the $100,000 given to Bismarck for academic achievement by the state, made its way down to individual students for their academic achievement.

There will never be any one program that gets credit for the top-down success of success of Bismarck, it’s teachers and it’s students. 

“One of the biggest things I always say is that it’s people over programs,” explains Kissire. “I could spend $1 million on programs, but if I don’t have the right people, that would be a waste of money.”

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