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Plainview educator speaks up for small rural schoolsOriginally Published January 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 2, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.
PLAINVIEW Jimmy Cunningham is a champion for small rural schools. He is a product of one, having graduated from Plainview-Rover High School in 1970.
During his 36 years in education, Cunningham, 60, has worked in small school districts throughout the state, first as a teacher and coach, then as a principal and finally as a superintendent. He is past superintendent of the former Plainview-Rover School District and is now superintendent of the Hampton School District in Calhoun County in south Arkansas.
Throughout his career, he has spoken up for the smaller rural schools and has represented them on a state and national level.
He is president of the National Rural Education Association and has testified before Congressional committees in Washington, D.C., three times. He is a member of the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition and the American Association of School Administrators Governing Board in Washington. He also is a past president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association and of the Arkansas Association of School Administrators.
It was during his tenure as president of the AREA that he became active in the fight against school consolidation.
Cunningham is a son of Mildred Cunningham of Plainview and the late J.L. Cunningham.
“Dad worked in the timber woods and at the lumberyard and Mom worked for 40-years plus as a nurse’s aide at the city hospital (now known as Chambers Hospital) in Danville,” he said. “There were five of us kids and we learned how to work early and how to do without. We might have not had much, but we didn’t know it.”
He graduated from Arkansas Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and history in 1975. He was a four-year letterman in basketball and baseball. “If it had not been for the way Tech took care of me, I would have been in Vietnam,” he said. “I was very impressed by the way the school cares for its students.”
He received his master’s degree in physical education with a minor in school administration from Mississippi State University in 1976.
His first teaching job was at Jasper High School in Newton County, where he also coached basketball. From there, he went to Wonderview High School in Conway County, where he coached basketball and taught for five years. “We were really successful there,” he said with a smile. “We were the state runner-up with a record of 36-4. I also had two undefeated junior high teams. Great people live up there.”
In 1985, Cunningham returned home to Plainview so his wife, Kerry, 56, could finish her college education. Kerry, who was born in Los Angeles, recently retired after 25 years as a teacher and administrator; she now writes grants for a number of organizations. The Cunninghams have been married for 37 years.
Cunningham served nine years as principal of Plainview-Rover High School and 10 years as the district’s superintendent. His last year there was during the time the Arkansas Legislature passed the Public School Reorganization Act during a special session beginning in December 2003 and extending into 2004, requiring 57 small school districts with 350 or less students in grades kindergarten through twelfth to consolidate beginning July 1, 2004. He would serve for one year as assistant superintendent for the newly created Two Rivers School District, which consolidated the Plainview-Rover and Fourche Valley school districts with the already consolidated Ola-Perry-Casa School District.
“It was also during that time that we lost our son Lance,” he said. “He was killed in a car wreck not far from our house on Sept. 6, 2002. He was only 19.
“That was a really difficult time for us,” he said. “It still is.”
But when the Legislature convened for the special session in December 2003, Cunningham was there “every day, for 61 days straight,” he said.
“We accomplished some things,” he said of the effort to oppose school consolidation. “(Gov. Mike) Huckabee wanted high schools with 1,500 students or less to be consolidated. We whittled that down to 350 students for K-12 schools.
“Consolidation can devastate a community,” he said, “It establishes longer bus routes and it does not assure any more (class) offerings than we had in the first place. And I hate to see the idle campus buildings just sit there. In many cases, the school districts are still paying on them. They just sit there until they rot. It seems there should be something that could be done.”
“In the case of the Two Rivers district, it is hard for citizens in a district that has four schools in one to ever pass a tax,” he said. “All of this is why I became involved in the National Rural Schools Association and the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition. I’ll always be there to be a voice of the small rural schools.”
Cunningham is now in his fourth year as superintendent of the Hampton School District. “We are the only school district in the county and are a K-12 school,” he said, adding the district, which covers 500-square miles, serves approximately 550 students.
“I have a good board that I am fortunate to work with,” he said. “All of south Arkansas is losing kids. We’ve finally got that stabilized. They passed a bond issue before I came to build a new gym and some other buildings. We almost had it built when straight-line winds demolished it last year. We are rebuilding. When it’s finished, it will be second to none.”
Cunningham said when he returns to work in Hampton on Jan. 7, one of the first things he will do is bring together his staff and board along with public officials to address safety in the school. In light of the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn., he said, “Our number one concern is safety. This is an issue we are going to address even further.”
Since Cunningham has been home for the holidays, he said he has enjoyed spending time with his wife and their daughter, Ashley Cunningham, and her children, Alanceia, 5, who is named after his son, Lance, and Ella, 7 months.
He’s also been trying to enjoy his one hobby, golf. “Although my golf game has suffered because of the time I spend on the road traveling to and from Hampton,” he said. “And recently, it’s suffered because of the snow.”
When asked if he had any advice for young people aspiring to become schoolteachers, he said, smiling, “First, I think the job is almost recession-proof. We’re always going to need good teachers.
“Second, you really need to have a real compassion for kids,” he said. “You’re going to see every level of child in the classroom. I think it’s a blessing from God to be able to serve kids.”
Cunningham said he has no immediate plans to retire, but, “I would like to serve the state in some capacity,” he said. “Maybe in the Senate or House of Representatives. But I’ll have to wait until I retire before I can get that involved.”