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story.lead_photo.caption Tami Edwards was recently named the new principal at Collegeville Elementary School in Bryant. She has spent the past six years as an assistant principal at Ida Burns Elementary School in Conway. Edwards is taking the position after former principal Katie Thomas died unexpectedly in April. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Tami Edwards knows she has some impossible shoes to fill.

Edwards, the new principal at Collegeville Elementary School in Bryant, was hired after former principal Katie Thomas died unexpectedly on April 14.

“When I was first hired, I had some concerns just about how that would be received,” Edwards said.

Edwards was originally hired at the Bryant School Board meeting in March as the assistant principal at Bethel Middle School. But after Thomas died in April, Karen Walters, superintendent for the Bryant School District, and Pam Kenney, assistant superintendent, called Edwards and asked if she would consider becoming the principal at Collegeville.

“Even though I have known Mrs. Edwards for a short time, I can already see her passion, warmth and care for students and staff members,” Walters said in a statement. “She hit the ground running and has already become a valuable member of our team.

“Mrs. Edwards walked into a difficult situation following the death of former principal Katie Thomas, but I believe [Edwards] is the person to lead Collegeville Elementary School.”

While Edwards was finishing the school year at Ida Burns Elementary School in Conway, she would visit Collegeville from time to time, including during an event called Popsicles With the Principal, and she introduced herself to the parents and students.

Edwards served as an assistant principal at Ida Burns under Principal Cindy Thacker, who retired at the end of the school year. To finish out her contract at Ida Burns, Edwards worked until June 8.

“And I had this enlightening moment. Several of my teachers were already coming by to say good-bye, and there were some tears — because they were kind of losing both their mommas (her and Thacker),” Edwards said.

“From the stories they were sharing, their fears and reservations, feelings and worries — I was seeing my Ida Burns people, but seeing through Collegeville eyes,” she said.

“The difference is, [the Ida Burns staff] can call me anytime. They can text me if they still need help or advice. It just gave me perspective,” Edwards said.

Edwards, who was officially hired at Collegeville during the May Bryant School Board meeting, said she has never felt so called to a position like she has for Collegeville.

“I have had a lot of professional things go well in my lifetime — I love my job, love what I do, loved being at Ida Burns,” Edwards said. “But I have never felt so deliberately picked up and placed somewhere in my whole life.

“Destined is how I would describe it.

Edwards said that when she was working on a presentation to introduce herself to the

Collegeville faculty, she remembered that Brad Cowger, who works as a physical-

education teacher for Ida Burns Elementary School, is Thomas’ brother-in-law.

“So we had this family connection,” Edwards said. “When Katie passed away, we reached out to Brad and extended our hurt for them. … I couldn’t get them out of my head and what they must be going through.”

She remembered that when Collegeville Elementary announced online its Teacher of the Year, the winner had stood in the middle of the group for the photo, and everyone had pointed to her.

“And I thought it would be fun to mimic it to recognize our teacher, so I took the picture and sent it to Collegeville’s Facebook page,” Edwards said. “And I attached a note that said we love Brad, and we were thinking about them.”

Unknown to Edwards, Thomas was the only one who had access to the social-media account, so no one had seen the photo yet.

“So when I was doing my presentation, I shared it with them,” Edwards said. “I wanted them to know I did feel destined to be here. I was drawn to them, even before this had transpired.

“I feel like I need them, and they need me. The strengths I have as an administrator I feel like are aligned with what they need at this time.”

Edwards is originally from Valley Springs, having graduated from high school in 1985. She spent two years at John Brown University in Siloam Springs on a volleyball scholarship before finishing at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1990 with a degree in elementary education. She earned her master’s degree in 2007 from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and her specialist degree from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

She decided to work toward her master’s degree after having to take a part-time job working for Bank of America, processing checks at night.

“My husband at the time didn’t work for a year,” she said. “I got to thinking, I could get my master’s degree and go up on the salary schedule and make way more, and leave school and go home instead of to another job.

“That’s what prompted me to get my master’s degree.”

Edwards’ dad was killed in a motorcycle accident when she was 4, and her mom, JoAn Rider, was about four months pregnant with Edwards’ sister, Teresa Bult.

“I had a fabulous childhood, but I was raised below the poverty level,” Edwards said. “My mom was a hard worker, and for us, not going to college was never an option. It was always expected.

“She knew that education was the ticket.”

Edwards’ sister is now a lawyer and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and Edwards’ mom went back to school and earned her degree after Edwards graduated.

“I know that getting my degree moved us from the poverty level to middle class,” Edwards said.

She has worked for Ida Burns Elementary School in Conway for the past six years under Thacker. This will be Edwards’ first time as principal, but she credited Thacker for her leadership and guidance.

“She was a fabulous mentor, and I wanted to stay under her leadership. She was one of the reasons I remained as an assistant principal,” Edwards said.

“She was fabulous. She did such a great job mentoring me, and I was just joined at her hip. I genuinely feel very prepared,” Edwards said.

“I learned a lot from her as well,” Thacker said. “She is very tech-savvy. She is very loving, compassionate and very smart.”

Thacker said that when she interviewed Edwards for the position originally, one of the things that stood out to her was Edwards’ curriculum and motivation, and “her personality was a good fit.”

“She is a very motivating person, and she is very energetic,” Thacker said.

Thacker said that in education, administrators and staff have to leave their problems at home.

“If we are in a bad mood or unhappy and we don’t treat our ‘family’ as a unit, that’s not good,” Thacker said.

“Tami was always happy and glad to be at work. She seems to really enjoy what she is doing,” Thacker said.

“I really feel very good and very prepared because of the job my principal did,” Edwards said.

“I am very indebted to her, and she really did an amazing job. I was going to stay there as long as she was there and soak up as much as I could,” Edwards said.

“I am going to miss her tremendously,” Thacker said. “I think she will be very successful. She went into that job knowing what they needed, and they are very blessed to have her as their leader.

“She will do an excellent job.”

Edwards wanted to move to Bryant after marrying her husband, Todd Edwards, the principal at Bryant High School, on July 1. The two met after working together in Greenbrier, but he moved to Saline County after earning the job at the high school two years ago, but the two stayed in contact.

“He knew I had a grandmother, Thelma Rider, who lived in Haskell,” Tami Edwards said. “She is 94, so I spent a lot of time in Saline County over the years because she lives alone.”

Edwards said Todd told her the next time she came through to give him a call, and he would take her out for dinner. So she did.

“It was just one of those things that I never saw coming,” she said.

Edwards said one of her first goals as principal at Collegeville Elementary School is to learn every single student’s name. But with nearly 500 students, it is no easy task.

“I love being able to impact kids in a different way, and I love being able to serve teachers so they can be better at what they do,” Edwards said. “I love getting to know my parents and my kids.

“I want them to know I am here for them, and I feel honored that you are going to trust your baby in my care.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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