JACKSONVILLE To really understand Henry Anderson, walk the halls with him between classes.
At a looming 6-feet, 5-inches, Anderson is impossible to miss, and students don’t hesitate to shout greetings and playful jabs the minute he makes his way out of his office.
Anderson tries to be among the students between every class and before and after school, a routine he’s been following since he first took over as principal in 2011. As a principal, he manages to smoothly ebb from structured leader to relatable caregiver and back again.
“Where are you supposed to be?” Anderson questions one student, whom he addresses by name before she even walks into his eyeline. After directing the student to get moving toward her after-school credit-recovery class, he notices her takeout bag.
“And don’t even think about coming in here with McDonald’s next time unless you’ve got something for me.”
Question students about what they think of their principal, and they’ll say Anderson is “all right,” with a smile. A big compliment from the mouths of teens.
In the halls, the words “Mr. Anderson” fly around so often, it seems unlikely that students at Jacksonville High School will ever forget the gregarious principal who once walked the halls with them.
Anderson still remembers the teachers who made an impact on him, middle initials and all. There was sixth grade with Valvora T. Yancey, third grade with Marie P. Davis and 10th grade with Odessa B. Talley. It was a grade in Talley’s class that gave Anderson his final push into education.
“I had an 89.9, and she still gave me a B,” Anderson said.
When he disputed that his grade should be rounded to an A minus, Talley refused.
“She said, ‘Grades are not given; they’re earned,’” Anderson said. “She told me that education was the gift.”
In 1988, Anderson graduated from Little Rock Central High School. He first headed to boot camp, joining the Army Reserve, which he’d end up serving in for eight years. After the summer, it was off to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where Anderson had a full ride. But it didn’t last.
“I couldn’t handle the freedom,” Anderson said, jokingly.
He returned to Little Rock and began taking classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, graduating in 1992.
After that, it was on to more schooling and teaching around the Little Rock area. In 2009, he became principal of Crossett High School.
“When you’re teaching, you have autonomy over your class, and you’re only concerned with the maybe 100 students you see during the day,” Anderson said. “But as a principal, you suddenly have 80 faculty members, 20 support staff, 800-plus students and 800-plus parents.”
At first, Anderson wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a principal. But his mind was changed by Janice Haynes, a principal at Wilbur D. Mills High School.
“She groomed me to be a principal,” Anderson said. “She taught me about building a master schedule, putting in extra hours on the weekend and how to balance the school.”
In 2011, Anderson “came home” to Jacksonville, accepting the vacant principal position at Jacksonville High School. But when he arrived, Anderson was concerned at the mood he felt.
“There was a bad perception of the school,” Anderson said. “The mindset from outside in the community, and even inside the building, was that Jacksonville High School was not the place to be.”
So Anderson set to work. He wanted to raise graduation rates, so he started to identify students who needed extra help to get their last few credits. Anderson hired a tutor to come in and help one student get the final 60 hours of school work he needed to get his diploma. When LaRome Kelley finished his class work, Anderson and several other leaders for the district held an impromptu graduation ceremony for the student and his family in the school library.
Anderson wanted students to be proud of their school and have it feel like home. So he set out to make prom more affordable, getting rid of the $100-per-couple tickets and Little Rock party and helping bring the dance back to Jacksonville. When prom night came just last weekend, Anderson was there, dancing.
In the two school years that Anderson has been at Jacksonville, the school has seen an 11 percent increase in the number of students in the Advanced Placement program. He’s established a Principal’s Cabinet with students from all walks of life, and he’s listened to what they have to say.
“I think we need to bring the student voice back into the school,” Anderson said. “People are hesitant because it takes extra work, but it makes a difference.”
Students have made suggestions on instruction, discipline, scheduling and testing. Many suggestions have led to changes in policy, including adding more ACT preparation.
With so much change in so little time, it’s easy to see that Anderson is always thinking about Jacksonville High School. He’s so focused on the school and its students that a middle-of-the-night idea and poor understanding of the school’s alarm system led area police to finding him at 2 a.m. at his desk, pajama pants and all.
When a community member walks into Anderson’s office, asking about renting the auditorium, and Anderson recognizes him as an educator from another school, the meeting turns quickly into an impromptu interview. The man already has a job at a school on the Little Rock Air Force Base, but Anderson sees potential.
“Why don’t you come on home to Jacksonville?”
The idea of building up community pride around the schools in Jacksonville is one of the reasons that Anderson is in support of the recent proposal to establish a new Jacksonville/North Pulaski County school district, separating Jacksonville High School and several other nearby schools from the Pulaski County Special School District. Currently, a petition is circulating to gain enough signatures from registered voters in the Jacksonville area to set an election on forming the district.
“We’d be able to make this a hometown district, to focus on making decisions locally,” Anderson said. “Creating the new district will be a massive undertaking, but the kids will really benefit from more local control.”
While the question of the new district is still in flux, one thing is certain: Anderson has big plans for Jacksonville High School in upcoming years.
“I want to see an even higher graduation rate,” Anderson said. “I want to see more championships in basketball and football. I want us to be an art mecca for central Arkansas. I want scholarships for our students to double.”
Above all, Anderson wants to see the kids at Jacksonville High School be proud to say it’s where they graduated.
“I want them motivated and excited,” Anderson said. “They should think of school the same way they think of sports. The class — that’s your game. Testing — that’s your championship.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.