NEWPORT When Larry Bennett first came to the Newport Special School District as superintendent more than two years ago, he was overwhelmed by what he saw.
The aging buildings were desperate for repair, and the school board was busy trying to solve problems with discipline, academic performance and a changing culture within the halls. Students were adopting technology so fast that the district hadn’t had time to keep up.
“The students could carry around a better computer in their pocket than we had in the classroom,” Bennett said.
So Bennett set to work, like he had with so many districts before, coordinating with school board members and setting the district on course to gain trust from the community and its kids.
“The improvement of facilities and the technology issues are key issues that we’re very proud of,” Bennett said.
Now, the district has an iPad for every teacher and interactive SMART boards in most classrooms. Instead of banning cellphones in the hands of students on school property, the kids are allowed to use their phones for schoolwork.
“They’re accustomed to using the Internet that way, and you need to adapt, or kids get turned off,” Bennett said. “Education mirrors society, so we need to be tech-based.”
This year, Bennett has his eyes on May, when the district will hear whether the state’s Facilities Partnership Program will provide the district with the additional money needed for Newport to move forward with building a new junior high school. If the money comes through, no tax increase will be needed to fund the project.
“I love my job, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it,” Bennett said. “I came here to prove that there can be a school in the Delta that adapts and succeeds.”
Bennett was hired as superintendent in Newport after years of working in school districts in Texas, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a small town outside of Palestine, Texas — “not even a wide spot in the road,” Bennett said — he was the youngest of four boys. His father worked at a local sawmill, and his mother worked for a basket-making company.
Though he started as an athlete, playing basketball and baseball in high school, Bennett found his way to the FFA program and began learning shop and raising cattle. He realized that agriculture and, specifically, teaching agriculture could become a career for him.
Bennett went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education, a master’s degree in vocational education, an administrator’s certificate and a doctorate in vocational education. It was a huge amount of continuing education for a man who for many years didn’t see college in the picture.
“I was raised in a place and time where, for our parents, 11th grade was graduation,” Bennett said. “You get out, and you go to work.”
The summer after his senior year of high school, Bennett’s father put him to work on a truck behind a mule, pulling logs.
“I decided real quick that wasn’t want I wanted,” Bennett said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Bennett went to work right away as an agriculture teacher in Texas. He loved being able to interact with his students every day. Helping with long-term agriculture and FFA projects meant Bennett could include the
students’ parents in the process, and soon, Bennett was looking for a way to impact even more students.
“I decided that as an administrator, I’d have the potential to impact all the kids in a school,” Bennett said. “And if I worked at the district level, I could impact every student in the district. So why not try?”
It was while working as an agriculture teacher that Bennett met his wife, Mary, who now works as a math teacher in the Newport schools. To Bennett, Mary is an example of everything a teacher should be.
“She had one student who never missed a day of class,” Bennett said. “The student one day said to her, ‘When I grow up, I want to be like you. I want to be a math teacher.’”
For Bennett, there can be no higher compliment to an educator. As he likes to say over and over, “It’s all for the kids.”
At 64, Bennett has already looked retirement in the face several times. He retired officially in Texas before deciding to head to Arkansas in 2002, where he could collect Social Security as well as school-teacher retirement, when he was done working. Texas doesn’t allow Social Security benefits to teachers. He worked for a few years as a superintendent in northwest Arkansas before retiring again — this time to work for the state department of education as a school-improvement
specialist. But all the travel started to wear on him. He felt it was time to try one more school when the opening at Newport caught his eye.
With big plans for the district’s 1,340 students in the next year, retirement isn’t on Bennett’s mind now, though he says that’s up to the school board.
“My wife and I have moved 13 times over the years, and we’ve liked every place we’ve lived,” Bennett said. “The neighbors we have right now are the best we’ve ever had.”
Throughout his many years as an educator, Bennett has seen hallways and classrooms change many times over, but as long as districts can adapt, Bennett said, they can succeed.
“I’ve put 40 years into this business,” Bennett said. “You just need to teach kids that school is a job. All they need to do is show up, act right and pay attention.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.