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 two- year 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.