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Mark Lewis

Conway principal believes in making learning fun

By Tammy Keith

This article was published January 29, 2012 at 2:25 a.m.

— Getting sent to the principal’s office at Jim Stone Elementar y S cho ol in C onway might not be so bad, considering the cool things Mark Lewis has in his office.

There’s the Dallas Cowboys cap and a photo of linebacker DeMarcus Ware, both signed; golf paraphernalia; a stuffed monkey; the shelves of children’s books; and a ceramic container that says, “Ashes of Problem Students.”

Uh-oh.

The 38-year-old elementary-school teacher-turned-administrator said he believes education should be fun.

“If you don’t want to make learning fun, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.

“There’s a huge cultural and paradigm shift in education and generally the way that we teach. Right now, the worksheets are really going to stop. Would you rather come in and open your book to Page 75 and start answeringquestions, or work hands-on and do an experiment?”

That’s not to say schools should completely get away from paper-andpencil tasks, he said, but schools are competing with things such as Xbox.

Lewis and his staff must be doing something right. The U.S. Department of Education named Jim Stone Elementary School a Blue Ribbon School for 2011.

C onw ay Sup e r i nt e n d e nt G re g Murry told Lewis that Tom Kimbrell, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, nominated the school.

“We didn’t seek this,” Lewis said.“We were blindsided - Dr. Murry was blindsided.”

Lewis reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a binder with dozens of pages inside: the “massive document” the school had to submit.

Out of 138,000 schools in the United States, 416 were nominated and 304 were selected, he said.

The test scores at Jim Stone Elementary have gone up, even as the percentage of free and reduced-price lunches has risen, he said.

Lewis and two other staff members attended the Blue Ribbon ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“We were more of a think tank,” hesaid. “It was amazing how much more we knew than states that have always touted high achievement.

“It’s very flattering. Being nationally recognized is a humongous accomplishment, but Conway has such phenomenal elementary schools. There’s not a single elementary school in this city I would not send my son to.”

Lewis grew up a teacher’s kid. His mother, Carolyn Lewis, taught elementary school before becoming an elementary principal (and from 2000-2010, a school board member).

He recalled spending time on thes c ho ol pl ay g rou nd af te r s cho ol w hen his mot her worked late, which was regularly.

“My real empathy for teachers’ kids is that you can’t get away with anything,” he said.

“Mom made an extra special effort to make sure I wasn’t treated differently, special. She never once requested a teacher for me - not once.”

Lewis credits his mother and Pat Larsen of Conway, a retired University of Central Arkansas art professor, with inspiring him to go into education.

Lewis, who played baseball for the Conway High School Wampus Cats, helped Larsen coach a Young Business Men’s Association baseball team. Larsen saw that Lewis was good with kids, especially those who needed extra encouragement.

Lewis took over an “expansion” team, he said, one with kids other coaches hadn’t picked, and led them to an undefeated season.

“It wasn’t like the Island of Misfit Toys, but I saw something in them. I saw some potential, and I taught them that with hard work, they could do anything,” Lewis said.

Larsen said that even though Lewis was just out of high school, he immediately recognized potential in him.

When Larsen needed help coaching, he thought of Lewis.

“I wanted to find young men who I really respected as far as really being a role model for younger students,” Larsen said. “Mark came to mind. I always felt like Mark was honest and had qualities that other young men could look up to.

“Even at an early age, I felt like he would make an excellent teacher and even become a principal, and lo and behold, that’s what happened,” Larsen said. “He’s such a good person, and I’m so proud of him.

“I think I turned a little light on.”

Indeed, he did.

Lewis got his degree in early childhood education from UCA and taught third grade at Ida Burns Elementary School for three years.

“I loved every second of it,” he said.

“The toughest thing as a new teacher is coming in and realizing there are always going to be those kids that you are a seven-hour island in the 24-hour hell of their lives,” he said. “I tell my teachers, … ‘You may be the only smile, the only hot meal they get all day.’” Lewis became assistant principal, dividing his time between Jim Stone and Theodore Jones elementary schools, before becoming full-time principal at Jim Stone Elementary in 2004, when it had 635 students. It was built for 500 students.

“I was too young and stupid to know any different,” he said of the population size. “When people talk about traffic problems [at the school], I have to laugh.”

When Woodrow Cummins Elementary School opened, part of Jim Stone’s students were transferred there. Now, Jim Stone has 431 students.

One of them is Lewis’ 6-year-old son, Adam, a kindergartner.

This is where the conversation takes a serious turn.

Adam is in remission from leukemia, which he was diagnosed with at age 3. Lewis remembers the day the roller coaster started.

“We were in the middle of Hurricane Gustav; I’ll never forget. It was Sept. 3, 2008,” he said.

Flooding had caused one ofthe student pickup areas at Jim Stone to close.

“I got a phone call from my wife. She said, ‘I need you home now.’ She wouldn’t tell me why,” Lewis recalled.

He drove home, his heart racing. Adam had experienced a few minor problems, like a swollen lymph node behind his ear, so pediatrician Steve McNabb ordered blood work.

When McNabb saw the test results, he told Lewis and his wife, Debbie, to take Adam to Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Lewis recalled gripping the steering wheel, trying to keep the vehicle on the interstate during the blinding rain, ashe drove to the hospital.

After hours of tests, a doctor gave them the diagnosis.

“When he said the word leukemia, it was an out-ofbody experience,” Lewis said. “I thought the Rapture had come.”

Adam spent five days in the hospital, and Lewis recalled that a nurse pulled him aside and said, “As a father, you either learn to take this one day at a time, or it’s going to kill you.”

Lewis took the advice to heart.

“You take it one day at a time, and you trust God,” he said.

Adam underwent 38 months of treatment, taking a chemotherapy pill every day.

The little boy still has a port and makes monthly visitsto Arkansas Children’s Hospital for blood tests.

The cure rate is 85 percent for this type of leukemia, and Lewis said he and his wife are now “between celebrating and survivor guilt.”

A celebration will be held at Jim Stone Elementary School this week. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is granting Adam’s wish, which will be a surprise. Adam asked for either a trip to Atlantis in the Bahamas to swim with dolphins; to meet Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo; or a play set in the backyard (which he already has, Lewis said, thanks to Lewis’ dad, Gary Joe.)

To tell them his wishes, Adam did a PowerPoint presentation for the Make-A-Wish representatives, which amused them, Lewis said.

“I said, ‘That’s what happens when geeks marry.’”

It’s a misconception that the foundation grants wishes only for those who are terminally ill. Wishes are granted for children who have had “life-threatening” medical conditions, too.

Adam plays soccer and is full of life, Lewis said.

“I know he’s my kid, but I’ve never met a person who enjoys life as much as that kid,” he said.

And because of that, Lewis is a dad and a principal who enjoys life to the fullest, too.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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getting to know Mark LewisFamily: My wife, Debbie; and son, Adam Hobbies: Golf and working out Someday I’ll: Have a child who is designated as cured of leukemia.

Favorite book: Sasquatch by Roland Smith Favorite movie: Tough question. I’m going to humiliate myself and say Happy Gilmore.

If I had to choose another career, it would be: Meteorology. I am a huge storm geek.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 148 on 01/29/2012

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