New Cabot Freshman Academy principal Ahna Davis knows the spirit of former principal Tanya Spillane will live on at the school.
Spillane, the first principal when the school opened for the 2013-14 school year, died April 8 after a long battle with cancer.
“We knew the day would come at some point,” Davis said of Spillane’s death. “We just didn’t know when with her. When I interviewed for this job, she was on my mind the entire time.
“You can’t replicate [Tanya Spillane]. There’s no way. She just had this passion and this personality that were infectious. She was Tanya Spillane, and she had a good aura to her.”
Davis, who got her start as a teacher in coaching at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, teaching three years there before coming to Cabot, said she learned a lot from Spillane, whom she worked with for the first four years that the Freshman Academy was open.
“I took a lot from her, and she would have said she took a lot from me,” Davis said. “She was moving into the secondary-education work, where she had no knowledge of anything. I learned from her a lot more people sills, how to handle people, how to handle kids and how to have fun. That was the big thing. I think what makes this school so great is that we have fun.”
After Spillane died, Davis said, there was a time of sadness at the school, even though the students didn’t have a lot of interaction with Spillane, since she was out so much.
“There was a [period of time], probably the entire month of April, when people were still trying to figure out what was next,” Davis said. “I’m very appreciative of Mr. Floyd (assistant principal Kevin Floyd). We rallied and kept pushing, just like [Spillane] would want us to go and push.
“This past year was tough for her because she was in and out so much. The students didn’t get to see her or meet her as much as the prior groups, but [her death] still affected them. There was quite a bit of sadness for the kids, probably two or three weeks. For [the faculty], it’s still there, and it’s going to take time to work through it.”
Davis said she and Floyd worked side by side to finish the year.
“I would take over various aspects, and he would do various aspects,” she said. “We co-led it. He and I get along great. There was no animosity with either one of us taking over. We just ran it like [Spillane] would have wanted us to run it. She gave us a lot of leeway anyway. Even when she was here, we had our own programs that we ran. Even when she was still alive and she wasn’t in the office, we’d keep in touch with her and make sure she was OK with the decisions that we made. She was still our principal.”
Davis is a 1995 graduate of Bryant High School, where she played basketball for current Cabot Lady Panthers coach Carla Crowder. Davis attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and graduated with a double major in history and kinesiology.
After graduation, she taught at Episcopal, coaching girls basketball, volleyball and softball.
“Coach Crowder had a big influence on me becoming a coach,” Davis said. “I loved the game. The reason I got into teaching was to coach. I love the game of basketball. I loved every aspect of it. I loved the strategy of it. [Crowder] gave me the opportunity when I was in college to come back and coach seventh-grade teams and be a part of her team. It was just in my blood to coach.”
Davis moved to Cabot and was the girls basketball coach at Cabot Junior High School South for one year — the 2004-05 school year. She was also assistant softball coach for Becky Steward.
Despite being a coach, Davis was one of those who thought of herself as a regular teacher.
“I never wanted to teach PE or health,” she said. “I always wanted to teach in the classroom — social studies, history. It was kind of my niche. I wanted to do a core-subject-in-the-classroom type of teaching.”
“I was pretty good at teaching and pretty good at coaching. It was natural to me. It was something I always wanted to do. When I got out of high school, you thought you needed to do something big, like go to medical school or pharmacy school or become a lawyer.
“Everything kind of gravitated back to teaching and coaching and being a part of kids’ lives. This is how I ended up here.”
After one year at Cabot South, Davis moved to the high school, working for current Cabot superintendent Tony Thurman, who was the high school principal. She started coaching tennis and still helped with softball.
“Dr. Thurman asked me if I wanted to move to the high school, and I’d have to give up basketball,” Davis said. “But I always wanted to teach at the high school. So you can say that I put teaching above my passion, which was basketball. At that point, I focused on coaching tennis and softball.”
Davis said working with Steward on the softball staff was a great learning experience.
“I just love her because she is so good working with kids,” Davis said. “I learned so much about coaching and interacting with kids from her. It was a good balance. Basketball was something that I was good at and understood it. I could coach it well. I learned about relationships from Coach Stew. That was the part I loved with that.”
Davis taught senior-level world history at the high school. She was certified to teach any social studies class.
While at the high school, Davis said, she was given opportunities to move into different roles teaching teachers.
“I had a good understanding of curriculum,” she said. “I just started moving into the roles. The more I participated in it, the more I loved it.
“It kind of thrust me into a leadership role of being with teachers. At the same time, I wasn’t a leader, but it gave me a little bit of a taste of it.”
In 2009, under principal Zanya Clarkson, Davis became an academic coach.
“I moved out of the classroom and became basically her curriculum guru,” Davis said. “I did everything academic. I got a taste of being an administrator, and I loved it.”
Davis got her administrator’s certification from Arkansas State University-Jonesboro and was hired as an assistant principal at Cabot Junior High School North in 2012, working for Roger Tonnessen. Then Davis moved to South, working for John West for a year before getting hired as an assistant for the opening Cabot Freshman Academy.
“When we opened, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Davis said. “We thought we’d have rivals from North and South. We could have fights every day. But Ms. Spillane and Mr. Floyd and I, we had a vision, and the vision was to make sure that every kid who walked into this building felt loved, felt appreciated and had the ability to do their best.”
The school’s motto is “Graduation starts here.”
“We didn’t have to come in and fix a culture. … We didn’t have to come in and fix things that were askew,” Davis said. “We could put it the way we wanted at the very beginning, which is what we did. It wasn’t easy. There were things we had to change.”
When the Freshman Academy opened, it was the first time that the entire ninth-grade class had been together since the junior high split for the 1998-99 school year. Prior to that, the ninth grade was housed at Cabot High School.
“The kids were the easy part,” Davis said. “They were new here, too. What might have been the difficult part would be bringing the teachers over and letting them latch on to our vision, which actually happened easily. We were leery at first because most of them had been at their buildings teaching ninth grade, some of them for decades.
“That was challenging. It was quickly overcome because we had so many teachers who were excited to be here and wanted to be a part of it. We just kept on rolling with it.”
Davis said the transition to the freshman academy went smoother than expected.
“We wanted to make sure the kids have opportunities and are taken care of,” she said.
Davis was hired June 4 to be the new principal.
“Ms. Davis has been successful in every role she’s had in our district,” Thurman said. “Ms. Davis understands the foundation behind the Freshman Academy vision and will work tirelessly to ensure that it continues to evolve and positively prepare students as they move to Cabot High School.
“She knows where we have been and the opportunities we have in the future, and I’m confident that she will do an outstanding job leading the CFA team.”
While Davis has ascended up the ranks at Cabot, she almost took a different career path while teaching at the high school.
“I did go to law school,” she said. “I’d teach during the day, and I went to law school at night. I enjoyed it. It was something that I loved.”
She said she wanted to practice education law, but at the start of her second year she realized she’d miss education if she left.
“I would not do a single thing differently. I’m very fortunate to be where I am. Cabot has been very good to me. I appreciate that.”
Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.