New Conway Junior High principal ready for challenge

By Tammy Keith Originally Published August 18, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 16, 2013 at 2:48 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Todd Edwards, 45, of Greenbrier has 22 years of experience in education. He started in the Greenbrier School District and was there until he took the job as Conway Junior High School principal, starting this school year. Edwards said he is impressed with the facilities on the new campus and the quality of the teachers.

Longtime educator Todd Edwards of Greenbrier said there’s nothing like baptism by fire.

It’s a good thing he likes it, because he’s about to experience it again.

Edwards, 45, is the new Conway Junior High School principal, moving from a campus of about 500 students in Greenbrier to one with more than 1,400.

“That is the big change,” he said. “That’s the challenge, and that’s what really excites me.”

Born and raised in Vilonia, he said his parents were obviously smart, but they didn’t have college degrees.

His father, Gary, an electrician, died two years ago, and Edwards’ mother, Lynette Edwards, still lives in Vilonia and is retired from Virco Manufacturing in Conway.

Todd Edwards went to the University of Central Arkansas, and an adviser helped him narrow his career choice.

“I knew I wanted to teach,” he said, but not what age group.

“He said, ‘What was your favorite part of school?’ I said, ‘Elementary school.’”

So, Edwards earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

“As I matured and gained experience, I gravitated toward the older students,” he said.

His first job was in Greenbrier in 1991 teaching sixth-grade social studies in middle school and serving as the junior-high assistant football coach.

“That’s when I knew I liked the [middle-school-age] students. They were interesting,” Edwards said.

Coaching was a bonus, he said.

“That was great. I never meant to coach, but that ended up being a big part of my life.”

He also spent four years as assistant baseball coach at Greenbrier High School.

In 1996, Greenbrier created an assistant elementary-school principal position, which was split between two campuses, and Edwards was hired for the job.

“You’re totally overwhelmed when you start,” he said. “I had done everything I could to prepare, but there’s nothing like baptism by fire. That first year was hard, like it should be. I enjoyed it.”

He went from assistant principal of Greenbrier Eastside Elementary School to principal in 1998 when Rick Whitley was promoted.

Being an elementary school principal was good for Edwards’ ego.

“You’re like a rock star,” he said, laughing.

He became Greenbrier Middle School principal for grades five, six and seven in 2005.

“I did not realize how many questions a principal gets asked in a day,” he said. “I’d already been told, ‘If you don’t know, say you don’t know, but you’ll go find out the answer,’ so that’s what I did.”

He was a middle-school principal until he was hired at Conway Junior High School.

“A couple of years ago, a friend applied [for junior-high principal] and used me as a reference,” he said.

Although the friend didn’t get the Conway job, it made Edwards think.

“That got the wheels turning. I thought, ‘I’d like to work at that school if that job ever comes open.’”

It was serendipitous that he found out about the opening.

He and Pam Ferguson of Greenbrier, an assistant principal at Conway Junior High, sat together at a Greenbrier baseball game watching their sons, who play on the same team.

“We never sit by each other,” he said. “We talked shop.”

She mentioned the opening at the junior high.

“Because I had that seed, I had it in my mind,” Edwards said, and he applied.

“I knew that I knew how to run a building, and I knew [the position] would be very competitive,” he said.

“Being local, I knew I could get an interview, to get my foot in the door,” he said.

It was a whirlwind experience: applying, interviewing and getting hired quickly.

He got a call from Conway School District Superintendent Greg Murry that he’d gotten the job.

“We were in Nettleton at the first round of the state baseball tournament,” Edwards said. “I was excited; then I think the shock hit me. Professionally, I grew up in Greenbrier. I was on my second generation of students coming through,” he said.

Some of the students he taught in sixth grade are teachers now.

“Things like that are hard to give up, but this is a great, great opportunity,” he said, sitting in his office on the south side of the Conway campus.

Travis Barentine was the principal prior to Edwards. The campus was home to ninth- and 10th-graders until the past school year, when the school became a junior high for eighth- and ninth-graders.

Edwards said the most important aspect of the school is to make sure it’s safe.

“Education can’t take place unless you feel safe,” he said.

“The big challenge is the size of the school and the curriculum,” he said. “Conway Junior High School is one of the bigger junior-high campuses in Arkansas.”

“There are a lot more electives, more higher-level courses,” he said. “Conway has a reputation, and I know so many of the administrators and teachers. They’re progressive; they’re good at what they do, and they want what’s best for students.”

Edwards said his No. 1 goal is “to give teachers what they need to teach the students” and to help them be “the best teachers they can be.”

He exercises his teaching chops as an adjunct instructor on Saturdays each semester in the educational leadership department at Harding University in Searcy.

Edwards said Whitley, the former Greenbrier administrator, told him something he never forgets: “If the decisions you make are in the best interest of the students, you can go home at night and sleep with a clear conscience.”

In his 22 years of experience in education, 18 of them as principal, Edwards said, the classroom has changed.

“Teachers are so much better. They’re worlds ahead of where I was when I came out,” he said. “Accountability is the difference. Teachers now have to know where every student is.”

No Child Left Behind is moving on, and Common Core State Standards are coming in, and Edwards said that’s a good thing.

“It’s not only looking at how they score, but how much they’ve grown,” he said, even for the advanced students.

This is the first year for grades three through eight to use Common Core, which the majority of states have adopted.

“Common Core ratchets up to the next level,” he said.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s how Common Core is,” Edwards said.

“Ten years ago,” he said, ” the question was, ‘How are teachers using technology in the classroom?’ Today, it’s ‘How are students using technology in the classroom?’ It’s expected that teachers will use it.”

He said teachers might ask students to look up something on their iPhones.

“That’s the world,” he said. “I think we could put Conway schools up against any school in the country.

“We have to start asking questions they just can’t look up. We have to create students who are problem-solvers. The goal is to prepare students to be functioning citizens.”

It’s a tall order.

“Every decision we make, we have to weigh what’s best for that student,” he said. Edwards pointed out that the Conway School District’s motto is Every Child, Every Day, Whatever It Takes.

“That’s my goal, and to ingrain that in who I am in that regard and lead by example,” he said.

Even if he has to go through fire to get there.

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

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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