NEWPORT — The original two-story portion of the high school in Newport has its place literally cemented in history. Built in 1930 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, the red-brick building anchors the campus in Remmel Park. But within these walls, the activity is anything but static.
In a “business” where most decisions require several levels of review and must meet strict compliance guidelines, the Newport Special School District is capitalizing on current economic conditions to upgrade, renew and restore all its resources — students and structures.
“With the help of excellent advisers, the school board and I have been able to take advantage of financing opportunities that are available to us,” said Superintendent Larry Bennett, an educator for 37 years and head of the school system in Newport since 2010. “Newport voters approved a millage for the schools in 2007 that does not expire until 2028. We are using some of the same strategies that many homeowners do when interest rates are low — making our resources work smarter.”
Starting with a new elementary school in 2009, the district is striving to keep up with the pace of technology and was able to add state-of-the-art wireless Internet on each campus, 180 iPads in the elementary school and 60 iPads in the junior high school. All high school students were issued laptops last fall, partly to address a new law that takes effect in 2014 that requires each high school student to take at least one digital-learning course online for a credit to graduate.
Many other projects to improve the campus are in various stages of planning or implementation. The high school auditorium and the Technical Science building are undergoing renovation; new sidewalks are being built; new lighting is being installed in the classrooms; and the complete HVAC system is being overhauled, including the field house. In addition, new fire-alarm, telephone and Web-based video-camera systems are being installed for the security and safety of the students.
Newport is the home of the Greyhounds, who are two-time state champs, so it isn’t surprising that when a bulldozer is on the football field, there will be talk — lots of talk.
“The bleachers were old and beginning to be dangerous, so they are being replaced with stadium-type seats, and the field will be artificial turf,” Bennett said.
“As we have improved and renovated our facilities, our value has risen as well. With increased value, low interest rates and smart board members, we have been able to generate an additional $8 million based upon the original millage agreed to by the voters,” Bennett said. “Sometimes I get questions about additional expense to taxpayers, but there is none. This is just the school board and administration, always with oversight and approval from the state Board of Education, putting our available resources to the best use.
“As always, the focus is on the students. Any renovations or repairs are all meant to improve school buildings to make them more conducive to learning.”
And the progress shows. The junior high was just designated as one of nine Exemplary Schools in Arkansas, as well as being recognized as one of the Top 20 in Math Achievement. The Newport High School Agriculture Program, led by Steve Davis, is ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 1 in its multi-state region. These are only a couple of the accomplishments and achievements of the district.
With a school board and administration so focused on improvement and innovations, the community is also supportive.
The Newport School District Charitable Foundation was designed in 2006 with the simple goal of assisting with educational programs and activities that benefit Newport students in all grades. Funded by private donations, the board provides funds for endeavors that aren’t typically covered by students’ parents or the school itself. The foundation contributed $47,794 for the benefit of students in the 2012-2013 school year.
“The students are exposed to many activities that would not have been possible prior to the creation of the foundation, said original board member Jane Parnell, a Newport alumna and retired teacher. “The foundation works closely with school administrators and teachers to choose the most appropriate activities for our students. In addition to programs for students, the foundation created the Hall of Fame to recognize and honor Newport alumni who have made exceptional contributions in their chosen field while exhibiting outstanding leadership, character and service to their community.”
Dean Sides, chairman of the Newport Economic Development Commission, also talked about community support of the Newport schools.
Sides is also the owner of George Kell Motors, which was named Small Business of the Year by the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The NEDC is very supportive to any improvements to our school system,” Sides said. “A strong, vibrant local school system is vital to our economic-development efforts.”
Dr. Jabez Jackson, a 2011 inductee into the Hall of Fame, summed up the history of excellent education: “Three or four blocks on my childhood street produced three doctors, two lawyers, a renowned painter, one member of the first graduating class at the Air Force Academy, the owner of the largest accounting firm in Little Rock and several others that are tops in their chosen field, all educated here in Newport public schools,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t be prouder.”