ATKINS — Gravette High School Principal Jay Chalk, formerly of Clinton, has been hired as superintendent of the Atkins School District.
“I love Atkins; I love Clinton; I love that size of school,” Chalk said. “That size school, community — that’s me.”
He will replace Atkins Superintendent Joe Fisher, who was hired for the top position in the Clinton School District. Chalk said he talked to the Clinton School Board about the job in his hometown, “but I ended the conversation because I got offered the Atkins job the next night.”
This will be Chalk’s first superintendency. The achievement is even more meaningful because he is the first college graduate in his family.
“My dad was my junior high janitor, but I had a hardworking family, and I was the first one of 72 aunts, uncles and cousins to graduate college,” he said. His mother worked the third shift at an electrical-cord factory in Clinton.
Chalk, 50, said he knew early on that he wanted a career in education, specifically coaching.
“I never had any doubts,” he said. “I always played every sport and was involved in athletics, and besides my dad — and I know it’s cliche — my teachers and coaches were the people I looked up to.”
And, yes, Chalk has had comments about his last name being appropriate for an educator.
“But kids these days don’t know what chalk is,” he said.
After graduation from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he decided to go where football rules.
“I took off to Texas to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where I did not know anybody, but luckily, I got a job,” he said.
He started teaching at a small private school for children with learning disabilities.
“I loved it there,” he said.
Chalk said he found a football coaching position in a suburb of Fort Worth … and worked his way up the coaching ladder. He became a 7A varsity assistant coach, football and baseball, which was a “pretty intense” job, he said.
He also met his wife, Jennifer, in Texas. She was finishing her degree at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a fourth-grade teacher in Gravette.
They came back to Arkansas for him to take coaching positions in Dumas, then Paris, when he also earned his master’s degree online from Harding University in Searcy. He then went back to Saginaw, Texas, to become administrator of a new high school. He is also pursuing a doctorate.
When his father died, Chalk and his family moved back to Arkansas to Omaha, near Branson, Missouri. His mother, Barbara Chalk, lives in Denard.
Chalk said the Gravette High School position was attractive because “I knew what a gold mine it was,” referring to the facilities, wealth of the district and test scores.
“I knew I could come in and tweak a few things with the support of the staff, and the test scores would go through the roof, and they did,” he said.
Another of his accomplishments was starting a vocational center at Gravette High School.
“When I came here, I had my lead counselor. I asked her one day to run me a report because I was curious about the graduating seniors, what they did. … Did they go to the U of A, community college, just go work?” Chalk said.
“I was shocked at what I think we averaged — she gave me a five-year period — 47 percent did not attend any postsecondary, nothing,” he said.
“We’re putting half our kids out there with a great postsecondary diploma,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean diddly-squat in today’s world.”
Chalk said he contacted the state Department of Education for help with funding vocational courses, “but we kept hitting a brick wall.”
Undeterred, he contacted the local junior college and found help, and he said the Gravette superintendent and school board supported his plan.
“I just started scrapping together programs,” he said. Those included a patient-care-assistant certification and HVAC. Chalk said students could get concurrent credit through the programs so they could get their associate degrees, if they wanted to.
The programs made them “immediately employable,”
That’s a big reason the Atkins School Board picked Chalk from among more than 40 applicants, board president Shane Crawford said.
“We graduate between 65 and 75 students normally every year, and about 25 of those are going to go to college, and at Gravette, he had a lot of job-ready programs that he had put in place coming out of Gravette High School,” Crawford said. “He worked with a lot of local industry there. He had his seniors prepared to go into the job market as soon as they got out, and that was what we were looking for.”
Chalk said he already had a good impression of Atkins.
“I knew growing up at Clinton, I always looked up to Atkins. I thought it was a great place,” Chalk said. “They killed us in athletics.”
He’d been through the community and knew about the pickle plant and how important it was at that time to the community.
“It was just a neat community whenever we’d drive through there,” he said.
Chalk said being in Atkins puts him an hour away from his mother and halfway between his daughters. Jaye, 20, is a premed student at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge; daughter Jaki is a senior at Gravette High School and will attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; and son Jobe is finishing the seventh grade.
Also, Chalk’s brother and sister-in-law, John Chalk and Cindy Chalk, a teacher at Ida Burns Elementary School, live in Conway.
“I really felt like I was ready to go about five years ago to be a superintendent. I’d been a
principal for, I guess, eight years and was ready,” Jay Chalk said.
However, he promised Jaye that he wouldn’t move while she was in high school. Chalk also said he gave the Gravette School Board “at least a six-year commitment.”
Chalk said he’s definitely ready for the move now.
He said about his goals: “To raise student achievement is always the main one, and the test scores really need to come up. I think their enrollment has been declining a little; it’s nothing real severe.”
Chalk said he will find out if more opportunities for students, perhaps vocational classes, will encourage parents to want their children to earn a degree at Atkins.
His annual salary will be $110,000.
Chalk said the Atkins School Board asked him, “Are you going to come here looking to elevate yourself and move up as a superintendent?”
“I told them I would have stayed in Fort Worth if I was,” Chalk said. “I enjoyed the years we were in Fort Worth, but to me, it was just too big. It’s not personal.’ [Atkins] just fits me best.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.