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Incoming Strong-Huttig superintendent says all students can learn

Posted on May 3, 2019

For Kimberly Thomas, every student can learn.

Thomas, who is currently the director of counseling at El Dorado High School, was voted by the Strong-Huttig School Board to take on the role of superintendent starting in the 2019-20 school year.

She is a 1994 graduate of Strong High School. Thomas attended Grambling State University before working as a teacher in 1998. In her time as an educator, Thomas has taught at the Marion School District in Louisiana, Gardner-Strong Elementary School, Murmil and Yocum elementary schools, Jackson Mississippi and Washington Middle School. She’s also been the principal at Retta Brown Elementary School.

“It was very rewarding coming to Strong at the time because there were three first grade teachers,” Thomas said. “I had two other people in the building that were doing the exact same thing I was doing. We could kind of plan, work together. Shirley Cow that year, she was my mentor. We taught together for five years and during that time I learned a tremendous amount just from working with her. She was very organized so she taught me a lot about being a classroom teacher.”

During her time at Washington Middle School teaching reading, Thomas decided she wanted to go into counseling. She attended graduate school at Southern Arkansas University in 2004 with a focus in counseling.

She worked as a counselor with the El Dorado School District for five years at Murmil and then at Yocum Primary. Thomas then started working on a degree in leadership when she returned to Washington Middle School as the dean of students. She became the assistant principal at Hugh Goodwin and Northwest Elementary before becoming the principal at Retta Brown Elementary School.

“I’ve kind of moved around, worked in several different areas,” she said. “But I’ve been in education for over 20 years now.”

Thomas said her background in counseling will have a positive effect on her as a superintendent because as a counselor she’s learned how to be a good listener and read between the lines of what students are saying.

“Even when their words don’t say one thing, you can really become in tune with their actions and realize that there’s something underlying that really is the problem,” she said.

Thomas said her main goal for the Strong-Huttig School District is to strength those relationships it has with local agencies as well as finding grants that will benefit the students.

“Find ways to make sure the student body and the community is aware of what’s available to us,” she said. “I really want the students to have rich experiences through field trips, inviting artists in, finding ways to connect the students here with resources that a lot of times are free. I just want to make sure the students, the staff, the community are plugged into what’s available to them in the community.”

There are challenges Thomas will have to face as superintendent. One of the things she expects to face is the idea of making sure that what she sees as valuable is echoed through the staff, parents, students and community.

“Every day, you don’t know what you’re going to have to deal with on a day to day basis,” Thomas said. “There might be some things that even if I anticipate it, I can’t be fully prepared for everything. (I need) to make sure that people stay open minded and that they’re motivated. Just inspire students to learn, inspire parents to get their students to school on time everyday and sometimes if people have not done that on a regular basis or if they’ve just become kind of complacent. So just kind of set standards high and helping push and move people to those higher standards.”

On a state level, the Strong-Huttig School District has gone to the Department of Education the past – years to petition for a waiver to the rule of having at least 350 students in the district. That waiver has been approved each year. The current enrollment is 293. The district has also received a score of an F for Gardner-Strong Elementary and a D for Strong High School from the state for the 2017-18 school year.

However, the high school was recognized by the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas for student growth on the ACT Aspire Mathematics and English Language Arts exams.

“I know that south Arkansas as a whole, as far as population, we are not growing as fast as other regions of the state,” she said. “In that sense, we can’t change that. Our goal is to make sure that we’re providing a quality education to every student who attends Strong-Huttig School district. We hope that people who live here will have a sense of confidence in what we’re doing and that some parents who possibly might have discounted us … maybe they will look at us with time and reconsider when they see that we’re doing great things for students every day.”

Thomas does think that coming from a bigger district like El Dorado will allow her to look at things differently. While she said bigger districts have certain resources when it comes to finances and people, she’s able to come in with the confidence that something can work because she’s seen it work somewhere else.

“There are a lot of resources that a bigger district has – financial resources, people, there are a lot of systems that are fine tuned and in place,” Thomas said. “When you go to somewhere that is smaller, I don’t want people to think that I’m constantly comparing ‘we used to do this in El Dorado, we used to do this in El Dorado, why aren’t you doing this?’ Sometimes people have to have a vision, sometimes people need to have more support at a smaller place. Maybe they haven’t tried that before so they’re reluctant to try it. I think that’s a bridge I’m going to have to get people over. That ‘Well, we’ve never done it before.’ Just because you haven’t done it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Thomas will be the only female superintendent and the only African American superintendent in Union County, but she said she has no concerns about that or her relationships with other district superintendents.

“I know I’m a female, I know I’m African American, but I don’t wear that on my sleeve with every interaction that I have,” she said. “I’ve worked with people in the past before and I feel that I don’t use my race or my gender as a crutch. I still know that the expectations are going to be the same. I know I still have to meet those expectations. The fact that I’m a woman or the fact that I’m an African American woman, I feel like I will approach things possibly differently. I’ll view things in a way that other people may not necessary see, but I don’t see it as anything that’s going to hinder me from doing the job that I need to do.”

At the end of the day, Thomas said her philosophy to education is that every student can learn and be successful in a positive and supportive atmosphere.

“Not necessarily the same thing at the same time, but every student has that innate ability to learn,” Thomas said. “When you are surrounded with rich content, somebody that really cares about you and they take the time to break things down to your level, it just makes learning that much easier. But I really feel strongly that every student can learn with the right support, every student has the ability to be successful in some areas.”

Michael Shine may be reached at 870-862-6611 or Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook @MichaelAZShine for updates on Union County school news.