O ne of my personal rituals on most Sunday mornings is to read some of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and eat breakfast before attending church. Last Sunday as I sat down at our local McDonalds, I opened my newspaper to no less than four pieces of positive press coverage of our community. Three were in the perspectives section and two involved the monumental progress being made by the Helena-West Helena School District and were written by the senior opinion editor, Rex Nelson.
I will confess that my eyes watered when I saw it. For so long, our community and our schools have been battered by the statewide press. Some of it we brought on ourselves and some of it was simply piling on. But this past Sunday saw a change in the narrative about Helena-West Helena and our school district. Finally, we received well-deserved recognition for the hard work and great things that are happening because of the great people we have who give their best every day to make our home a better place.
Obviously, my eyes turned immediately to the two pieces that included the work in our schools done by Rex. Mr. Nelson is one of the most widely-known writers and commentators in the State of Arkansas with a vast array of journalistic and political experience that includes his work for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Delta Regional Authority, Simmons First National Bank, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He and I share a bond as graduates of Ouachita Baptist University. I also call in to discuss Cougar Football on Rex’s weekly scoreboard show each Friday night during high school football season that airs on over 40 radio stations around the state. There is no doubt that when Rex Nelson writes, people read. To get this much space in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette written by him shows how huge the story is. As I read, I knew how important this moment in the media was for the Helena-West Helena School District.
As I sat there in McDonald’s, in a corner booth in relative solitude, I reflected on what a difference a few years of hard work from our School Board, staff, and community can make. My thoughts took me back to a day in October 2014. I had been President of the Advisory School Board for a little over a year. Mr. Hoy had been on the job for just a few months. Things were tough and I was reading an article about the schools in Helena-West Helena and the Pulaski County Special School District. In that article, Dr. Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and now the chair of the State Board of Education, praised the progress in Pulaski County Special School District but described HWHSD as “an impossible task.” As I read Rex’s column, a smile crept across my face as we were no longer being viewed as that “impossible task” but as a school district on the rise that has embraced its challenges, focused on the ways we could improve, thought outside the box, focused on what was best for students, and is now seeing the benefits of so many tough choices and sacrifices that had to be made.
Rex and I spent a lot of time together the day he came to Helena-West Helena. We talked about so many things that were being done to make our school system the pride of this community and a beacon for all that can be done right in the field of public education. I knew there was no way that everything we discussed could make it into the paper. It is my hope that we will do what is necessary for Rex to come back and write a follow up of the continuing rise of this gem of a town we call home.
This is our moment
I want everyone to know that this moment belongs to our entire community. The improvement in our schools is a team effort. Our school board and our administrative team are to be commended for having to make many tough decisions and offer strong leadership. Our staff has worked very hard to raise the bar in the classrooms and lift this district up. No words can ever thank them enough and no salary is sufficient for the diligent effort they make on a daily basis with our students. Our community is to be commended for going to the polls and voting to make the financial sacrifices necessary to put our kids in facilities fitting a 21st century community. In fact, it is apparent that passage of the millage on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 got the attention of the whole state and showed that Helena-West Helena is serious about having great schools and a great community. Without that community support and that leap forward for HWHSD, I seriously doubt that the positive media and the accolades being bestowed by professional organizations would be happening.
This is our opportunity
We started school Monday. Our teachers were excited. Our students were brimming with expectation as they entered our doors. We are embarking on another year with another chance to improve.
Learning continues. Progress continues.
Optimism is the new attitude in Cougar Country. Sunday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette demonstrated that what we are doing in the Helena-West Helena School District is working. The key is to keep building on the momentum, working hard, putting kids first, and remaining focused on doing whatever is necessary to have great schools and a great community.
Until next time, GO COUGARS!