HER Cover Story

An­der­son, Ne­hus are in it for the stu­dents

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story by Lind­sey Wells, pho­tog­ra­phy by Richard Ras­mussen

Build­ing a fu­ture An­der­son, Ne­hus are in it for the stu­dents

Even though fe­males con­tinue to rise into tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated roles in the United States, statis­tics show that only 13 per­cent of school dis­tricts in the na­tion are led by women. Of the county’s seven public school dis­tricts, only two are led by women: Cut­ter Morn­ing Star School District, where Nancy An­der­son is the su­per­in­ten­dent, and Hot Springs School District, led by newly ap­pointed Su­per­in­ten­dent Stephanie Ne­hus.

An­der­son is en­ter­ing her sixth year as Cut­ter’s su­per­in­ten­dent. Her ca­reer path in ed­u­ca­tion be­gan at Lake­side School District, where she taught sixth-grade stu­dents for eight years be­fore trans­fer­ring to Cut­ter Morn­ing Star and ac­cept­ing a po­si­tion as el­e­men­tary prin­ci­pal. She served in that role for five years be­fore the op­por­tu­nity arose to be­come the school district’s su­per­in­ten­dent.

“That’s typ­i­cally the nat­u­ral path. You’re a teacher, then prin­ci­pal, and then a lot of peo­ple go into some kind of build­ing level role like an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal, and then as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent, and then su­per­in­ten­dent. But I didn’t have that op­por­tu­nity be­cause I’m in a smaller district, so I went straight from the class­room to prin­ci­pal­ship, from prin­ci­pal­ship to su­per­in­ten­dent,” An­der­son said.

She de­scribes Cut­ter Morn­ing Star as a “hid­den se­cret” on the east side of town, with strong ed­u­ca­tors, an ex­cep­tional school board, and great stu­dents and par­ents.

When she took over as su­per­in­ten­dent, An­der­son said the district was in fis­cal dis­tress and she im­me­di­ately took steps to rem­edy that.

“Some teach­ers had to leave. It was a very, very dif­fi­cult time. Prob­a­bly the hard­est thing I ever had to do was get rid of peo­ple be­cause we were over­staffed and los­ing stu­dents,” she said. “But we had a lot of com­mu­nity sup­port. We were com­mit­ted — as a su­per­in­ten­dent and as a board, com­mu­nity, par­ents, teach­ers, staff, we were com­mit­ted to

get­ting Cut­ter back on track and do­ing well.

“I wasn’t al­ways pop­u­lar be­cause I not only had to get rid of po­si­tions but I had to say ‘no’ to a lot of re­quests and it was hard be­cause you want to give your staff ev­ery­thing they need and want. I feel like we gave them ev­ery­thing they needed, not al­ways what they wanted. You’re deal­ing with morale is­sues, things like that, so it’s kind of hard to re­bound from where we were. But, my main fo­cus was, whether you’re sit­ting in as a prin­ci­pal, build­ing level leader, or su­per­in­ten­dent, you’re al­ways a teacher and your heart is al­ways for the kids, so every de­ci­sion that I make, I re­ally think about how it’s go­ing to af­fect the kids.”

Dur­ing her sec­ond year, An­der­son be­gan al­lo­cat­ing funds to put aside to pro­vide ba­sic school sup­plies for the stu­dents, and the district has been able to do that for the past four years.

“When you look at some of the school sup­ply lists, it could be $80-100 for school sup­plies for just one child, and then you think about a par­ent that has three chil­dren, and that’s just for school sup­plies. You have to start pay­ing for lunches when you come back to school, there’s other ac­tiv­ity fees, clothes. There’s all these costs associated with start­ing school so that was one thing that was im­por­tant to me to try to take off par­ents,” she said.

Be­cause of the school’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion when she took over six years ago, build­ings in the district were in dire need of re­pair. An­der­son and the board were able to se­cure part­ner­ship fund­ing through a pro­gram at the Arkansas Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and in­stall a new roof on the el­e­men­tary school build­ing.

“It was very much needed. I re­mem­ber when I was el­e­men­tary prin­ci­pal, I needed an um­brella to walk down the hall. I’ve al­ways been a very pos­i­tive per­son so I didn’t com­plain; I knew we didn’t have the money. I did the best I could with what I had. I re­mem­ber one par­tic­u­lar time, it was open house ac­tu­ally, and we had this one area in the build­ing that had a lot of ma­jor leaks so fi­nally we just pulled out a swim­ming pool, set up a lawn chair be­side it, put some ducks in the pond and just made light of it. You do the best you can with what you have,” An­der­son said.

In ad­di­tion to a new roof and new heat­ing and air units, An­der­son was able to se­cure enough fund­ing to re-in­su­late and re­paint the build­ing, have plumb­ing work done, and have new floor­ing in­stalled.

An­der­son said she tries to have one build­ing on the cam­pus painted per year. This year, the mul­ti­pur­pose build­ing was painted and new bleach­ers were in­stalled.

The district was also awarded fund­ing to in­stall a new roof and fire alarm sys­tem on the cam­pus gym­na­sium, which should be­gin at the end of sum­mer.

The an­nual school elec­tion is set for Sept. 19 this year, with early vot­ing on Sept. 12-15. Cut­ter Morn­ing Star plans to pur­sue a mill­age in­crease to build a new high school and bas­ket­ball gym­na­sium on the cam­pus, two projects that An­der­son said the district des­per­ately needs.

“It’s im­por­tant that vot­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers un­der­stand that at Cut­ter we have an op­por­tu­nity to get close to $7 mil­lion for a new high school and a com­mu­nity ac­tiv­ity cen­ter that I feel, based on in­for­ma­tion that has been re­leased, isn’t go­ing to be avail­able for us again,” she said. “So to walk away from $7 mil­lion dol­lars is a big thing, but, of course, that’s up to the vot­ers. It’s their com­mu­nity, it’s their school, it’s their choice. But Cut­ter is do­ing some re­ally great things and I would hate for us to lose that fund­ing.”

The new­est build­ing on the Cut­ter Morn­ing Star cam­pus is 10 years old, An­der­son said, with the re­main­ing build­ings rang­ing from 40-60 years old.

“Where we’re go­ing for 8.4 mills now, if we let this part­ner­ship money go away and in five years de­cide that we’re go­ing to build a new high school, we’d have to go for twice that much be­cause we’d be pay­ing for the en­tire pro­ject out of our own pocket. So I re­ally want vot­ers to un­der­stand that not pass­ing

the mill­age is turn­ing away $7 mil­lion. Our stu­dents de­serve build­ings like that and a safe and warm and dry place to go to school,” she added.

In ad­di­tion to the fa­cil­ity ren­o­va­tions, An­der­son and the school board has im­ple­mented changes in the way stu­dents are learning.

Cut­ter Morn­ing Star was one of the first schools in the area to switch to Flex Mod sched­ul­ing in the high school, and An­der­son said they have also im­ple­mented a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the Flex Mod schedule in the mid­dle school.

“We run our high school com­pletely dif­fer­ent. There’s no bells, we have a store up there that’s open through­out the day so stu­dents can go get juice and wa­ters and sand­wiches, wraps, sal­ads, par­faits, what­ever, be­cause they have this ex­tra time. It’s re­ally kind of like a col­lege atmosphere; we’re try­ing to pre­pare them for col­lege or ca­reer. When you’re in col­lege or ca­reer no­body rings a bell for you, no­body tells you when to go to lunch, when to eat break­fast. You have to dis­ci­pline your­self and make those de­ci­sions.

“We’re try­ing to in­still that de­ci­sion mak­ing and prob­lem solv­ing in them be­fore they ac­tu­ally leave high school, whether they’re go­ing to a job or to a tech­ni­cal school or twoyear pro­gram or col­lege,” An­der­son said.

Per­son­al­ized learning plans have also been im­ple­mented.

“Kids all learn dif­fer­ently and are at all dif­fer­ent lev­els. We’re not re­ally con­cerned about how old they are, what grade they’re sup­posed to be in; we’re con­cerned about where they’re at aca­dem­i­cally and how to meet their needs where they are. Each kid has a per­son­al­ized learning path or plan that they’re on,” An­der­son said.

“Stu­dents have to have the avail­abil­ity to learn any­where, not just in the con­fines of school. They have to be able to take their de­vice, and let’s face it, that’s how kids learn. They have some­thing in front of them. We’ve used our re­sources to pro­vide a lot of those op­por­tu­ni­ties for our kids.”

When asked what mo­ti­vates her to get up and go to work every day, An­der­son said, “the stu­dents, hands down. What gets me up and com­ing to school every day is those kids and when I walk through those build­ings and see the kids ac­tu­ally en­gaged in learning ac­tiv­i­ties, and the hugs, and the con­ver­sa­tions that we get to have. You can sit in your of­fice all day do­ing dif­fer­ent tasks; you have dead­lines and due dates and I’m not say­ing they’re not im­por­tant but at 3:30 p.m. all the kids are gone, so I have a short win­dow through­out the day to see those kids. We’re an ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tute. We’re here for our stu­dents and I tell peo­ple that all the time, that’s why I do what I do.”

An­der­son has three chil­dren and one grand­child and has been mar­ried to her hus­band, Johnny, for nearly 29 years.

Ne­hus is start­ing her first year as su­per­in­ten­dent of Hot Springs School District.

Her teach­ing ca­reer be­gan in Ben­ton

School District where she taught math at the ju­nior high school be­fore be­com­ing a se­condary cur­ricu­lum co­or­di­na­tor. She then moved to Stuttgart School District and served as the ju­nior high prin­ci­pal there for a year-and-a-half be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Hot Springs and ac­cept­ing a job as prin­ci­pal of Langston El­e­men­tary. Af­ter three years, she moved to Hot Springs School District and has worn many hats, in­clud­ing di­rec­tor of spe­cial projects and di­rec­tor of se­condary ed­u­ca­tion. She be­came as­so­ciate su­per­in­ten­dent of learning ser­vices be­fore ac­cept­ing the po­si­tion as school su­per­in­ten­dent this year.

“I al­ways wanted to be a teacher. I did a lot of baby-sit­ting as a child, al­ways played school at home, and then, re­ally, I was im­pacted by Patty Wilk­er­son who was my eighth-grade math teacher. That’s when I re­al­ized that I wanted to be a math teacher and I never wa­vered from that,” Ne­hus said.

She went to col­lege at Hen­der­son State Univer­sity di­rectly out of high school and ob­tained her bach­e­lor’s de­gree in three and a half years and im­me­di­ately started on her mas­ter’s de­gree.

“Ac­tu­ally, when I started teach­ing, I thought I would never not teach kids. An op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self and af­ter six years in the class­room as a teacher, af­ter a lot of thought and ac­tu­ally a lot of en­cour­age­ment from my su­pe­ri­ors at that time, I de­cided to take that step. Then, again, re­al­iz­ing that I wanted to be with kids more di­rectly is what led me into build­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion and then the rest is just kind of his­tory.

“It’s ex­panded and grown and op­por­tu­ni­ties have pre­sented them­selves. Prob­a­bly five years ago I would have said, ‘Oh, I won’t be a su­per­in­ten­dent.’ And then here I am today. I’ve been blessed,” Ne­hus said.

Ne­hus said she worked with Mike Her­nan­dez, for­mer Hot Springs su­per­in­ten­dent, closely over the last two years as they made a lot of ma­jor changes in the district in­clud­ing the pass­ing of their mill­age.

“As of right now I don’t fore­see mak­ing any ma­jor changes be­cause I’ve been a part of the changes that have started and so I re­ally just look for­ward to car­ry­ing out that process and get­ting us to that end re­sult of some new con­fig­u­ra­tions and some new build­ings. It’s just ex­cit­ing,” she said.

When asked what the big­gest chal­lenge she has faced in her ed­u­ca­tion ca­reer has been, Ne­hus said, “I think it’s just hear­ing peo­ple talk neg­a­tively about our youth. I feel like if you’re work­ing to im­pact and to make change and to sup­port and help and grow and men­tor, then you couldn’t pos­si­bly say those neg­a­tive things, be­cause you have to be part of the so­lu­tion and not just talk about a prob­lem. The neg­a­tive talk that takes place around ed­u­ca­tion by peo­ple out­side of ed­u­ca­tion who aren’t in the throws try­ing to re­ally make a dif­fer­ence.”

Ne­hus said an­other chal­lenge is en­sur­ing that she and the school board ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate the pos­i­tive things they’re do­ing in the district to the com­mu­nity and the stu­dents’ fam­i­lies.

“It’s about mak­ing our district a wel­com­ing place where the com­mu­nity and fam­i­lies feel like they can come, be a part, sup­port. That’s our goal, is to re­ally build parental in­volve­ment, build com­mu­nity in­volve­ment, and just want­ing to get that in­for­ma­tion out to the public. We have a won­der­ful school district, won­der­ful kids, won­der­ful teach­ers, and we want to high­light that,” she added.

Ne­hus and her hus­band have three chil­dren who at­tend Park Mag­net School.

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