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Kayla Turner

New middle school principal wants to preserve culture of school

By Mark Buffalo

This article was published April 22, 2018 at 12:00 a.m.

Kayla Turner, the current instructional facilitator for Southside Middle School, was recently hired to be the new principal at the school, replacing Dion Stevens, who was promoted to assistant superintendent of the district. Turner has worked at Southside for six years.

It’s all a matter of timing for Kayla Turner.

Turner, 30, was recently hired as the new principal at Southside Middle School. Turner, who is in her eighth year of education, started her teaching career at the Jackson County School District after doing her student teaching there. She taught two years at Swifton Middle School. Then an opportunity to move to Southside came a few years later.

“My mom is a teacher, … my aunt is a teacher, so I just felt like that was the natural path for me,” Turner said.

Turner graduated from Batesville High School in 2006. That was only after her previous school, Sulphur Rock High School, consolidated with Batesville prior to her senior year.

She attended the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville for two years before transferring to Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, where she received a bachelor’s degree in midlevel education in 2010. Turner earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from ASU in 2014.

“I did my student teaching in Jackson County at the Swifton campus,” Turner said. “They had an opening, so I just fell in right there.

“Then there was an opening here. I wasn’t looking to leave Jackson County. It just kind of fell in my lap. God just opened those doors for me.”

Turner is completing her sixth year at Southside Middle School. She taught fifth-grade literacy for four years. She’s been the instructional facilitator the past two years. Turner also completed her National Board Certification.

One of the connections that brought Turner to Southside was her basketball coach at Sulphur Rock.

Chris Hardin, who was Turner’s coach, is the Southside Middle School assistant principal.

“He is the one who contacted me when there was an opening six years ago,” Turner said of Hardin. “I was on maternity leave. It just kind of went from there. It was a fifth-grade literacy spot, which is what I was teaching. I was closer to home. I was driving 45 minutes. I knew once my son was getting into kindergarten, I knew I wanted to get closer to home, just because that kind of drive can be hard when you have kids. Now is my chance.”

After teaching fifth grade for four years, she became instructional facilitator for the middle school. Then early in 2018, Dion Stevens, the current middle school principal, was hired as assistant superintendent for the Southside School District. At that point, superintendent Roger Rich approached Turner to gauge her interest in becoming middle school principal.

“I had to go through an interview process,” Turner said. “Mr. Rich did come and see if I was even interested in it. I came back to him and said ‘Yes; this is something I’m willing to do.’”

Rich said it was an easy decision to hire Turner as Stevens’ replacement.

“She’s got the heart and passion that we’re looking for,” Rich said. “She has a servant’s heart. She has proven herself to be able to work with others very well. She knows her content and curriculum. She’s been a leader for us in her instructional-facilitator capacity for us the past several years.”

Turner said that a year ago, she couldn’t imagine herself being a principal.

“I never thought that was my path,” she said. “I love being instructional facilitator, but this opportunity presented itself to me. I thought, ‘This is just one more way that I can grow.’ I’ve had an excellent example with Mr. Stevens. He’s just been awesome. We love him at Southside. We were so happy to see him get promoted but sad at the time here at the middle school.

“So when this opportunity came to me, I went home and thought about it and talked to my family. It is a big commitment with two small kids. It’s just something that I felt like I should take advantage of.”

Turner said being able to transition now to the principal’s job instead of waiting until the summer is good for her.

“It has been overwhelming at times,” she said. “I’m very thankful that we can transition now and not over the summer. I’m getting a head start at learning things that I really didn’t know about on the administration side now instead of having to do that in July and August. It’s been great, and I’m excited.”

Turner said her former partner teacher, Roetta Tucker, has helped her during her first four years at Southside.

“She took me in. … I feel like I owe a lot of my success to her,” Turner said of Tucker. “She mentored me. We just had a great team. Before I moved into the instructional-facilitator role, I was really nervous about leaving her because it had just been us. We just worked so well together. She’s probably been my biggest supporter within this district because we’ve been so close.”

Another person whom Turner speaks highly of is her former coach Hardin.

“He’s someone that I’ve always looked up to,” Turner said. “We’ve always had a professional relationship, and it will continue to be a professional one. I don’t really look at it like I’m his boss, and he is my employee. I look at it like we’re a team, and what can we do together to make this school run and run well and do what is best for the kids?”

The culture at Southside is something that is important to Turner, as well as Rich. Both said that while the Southside district is growing, it still has that hometown feel to it.

“The first thing that I want to continue is preserving our culture,” Turner said. “The middle school is a great place to be. We have great teachers. We all work so well together. I want to just continue our culture, and that does not need to change.

“We want that down-home, small-school feel. I think we have really valued that in our culture. We’ve really protected that as we’ve grown, and it will get harder the bigger you get. But when you keep that as something you value as part of your culture, I think it will continue.”

Rich agrees.

“The culture is something we feel is very important at Southside,” he said. “[Turner] can step into that role. The building has a great feel to it and great culture, and [we should] be able to continue on with that and even take it to another level.”

While preserving the small-town culture, Turner said, Southside wants teachers to grow.

“Southside wants you to grow professionally and grow personally, as much as you want,” she said. “It’s just happened for me here. It’s been fast. It’s been great. I just appreciate Mr. Rich allowing me to get these opportunities and allowing me to really take advantage of them. My age didn’t bother him. The fact that I’ve only been in education eight years didn’t bother him. He knows that I love Southside, and that is No. 1 here.”

Turner said no big changes are in store for the middle school.

“As far as big changes, that will just have to happen as we grow and get numbers, as far as how we’re set up,” she said. “My first year, I just want to keep on how we’re going. We have a good thing started, and it just needs to keep going.”

Turner and her husband, Landon, have two sons,

Harrison, 6, who is in kindergarten at Southside Elementary School, and Henry, 5 months.

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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