Jason Hay said the hardest part of trying to open the brand-new Bryant Junior High School was the balancing act he had to commit to with being the middle school principal and the principal for the junior high.
“I was very fortunate to get a hand in a little bit of everything,” Hay said. “The technology, the design, and the furniture — it was pretty much a good opportunity from the ground level up.
“Very few people get a chance to open a new building, much less have that much input. I am very blessed to have that opportunity.”
The new junior high school is home to approximately 1,450 eighth- and ninth-graders and is 252,000 square feet and cost $47.6 million. It has two gyms, two black-box auditoriums, a band and choir room, and 79 classrooms. The school has 29 specialty rooms, including business labs, family consumer science labs and engineering labs.
“When I got hired on as the junior high principal, we had to spread the load out,” Hay said. “My [assistant principals], especially Clint Chadwick, who took my place at the middle school — we all had to juggle different jobs.
“He took some of my duties while I was over here and vice versa. We had a lot of people helping. Chad worked a lot of hours to free me up to come over and work on this at times. All of our assistant principals, and some that were at the high school — we all had weight to pull from different areas.”
Devin Sherrill, the communications director for the Bryant School District, said the district has never opened a building this size. The new junior high is at 301 Hill Farm Road.
“Usually, it is one building, maybe a new two-section,” Hay said, “but to truly get a chance from the ground up, from nothing … this is one building. No one has to go outside and get wet [if it rains].
“I consider it a lot more secure than multiple buildings. It is well laid out, no wasted space. The classrooms, even though the school is large, are easy to get to because of the way it is laid out.”
Hay is originally from Conway, having graduated from Conway High School in 1994. He played football at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway before graduating in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in special education. He has been the principal at the middle school since 2017. He is married to Kelly, and they have two sons, Jackson, a ninth-grader at the junior high, and Spencer, a seventh-grader.
“Jason Hay is one of the hardest-working people I know (if not the hardest-working),” Bryant School District Superintendent Karen Walters said. “He wants what is best for his students. It is amazing to see grown men come up to him at school events and say, ‘Coach Hay,’ and give him a huge hug.
“It says a lot about the relationships he has built with students over the years. Mr. Hay is a highly effective administrator. Our students, parents and the district are fortunate to have him.”
Hay has been with the school district for almost 20 years, starting in 2000 as an assistant football coach at the junior high. He eventually moved his way up to junior high head football coach and served as head coach for the boys soccer program. He left coaching and teaching six years ago to become an administrator.
“I remember we went to the state semifinals in soccer [in 2013], and we got beat in double overtime,” Hay said. “The Monday after that, the assistant principal job for Hurricane Creek Elementary was posted, and I saw it is as a sign to get out.
“I felt like I had done all I could in coaching, and it was time to take on a different role. I knew if I applied and got it, then it was my time to get out.”
Hay said he is very fortunate that Principal Tammie Reitenger took a chance on him to be an assistant principal.
“I spent all those years going straight from football to soccer — it is never-ending, and it is tough on your family,” Hay said, “but I have probably worked more hours the past six months than I have my entire life, but it has been worth it.”
He said one of the reasons he wanted to come over to the new junior high was because having the opportunity to open a brand-new school from nothing was too big to pass up.
“If you have the chance to do that, I don’t think you can turn that down,” Hay said. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
He said now that school has started, things are beginning to settle down, but “there are a whole lot of things we are trying to tweak and refine because we always want to make things better.
“Juggling two schools was probably harder [than the first week of school] because I pride myself on working hard for kids and teachers, and I felt like I was being pulled in a bunch of different directions, and that weighed on me. I couldn’t be there to help my people like I needed to be.”
He said the students have been pretty resilient and have adapted quickly to the new building.
“It’s more the adults — we are the ones who have a harder time with change,” he said. “I was really pleased, though. I thought last week went really well. For a brand-new building, I thought it was great.”
Sherrill said the district hosted a couple of community events to get parents and students to see the building and get familiar with the layout.
“Before I could get into my building, I used my car as an office, and I would see people just circling the building,” Hay said. “I think the community has given the kids something they deserve and are very appreciative of, for sure.”
Even though the school is bigger, “we have made the world smaller for these guys,” Hay said.
“The ninth-graders have been on the high school campus, and there is a four-year difference between ninth and 12th grades,” Hay said. “We take those guys off and small it up a bit, and it allows our ninth-graders to take more of a leadership role that they wouldn’t have taken until junior or senior year.”
In years prior, the middle schools would have six lunches, where at the new junior high, there will only be two — one for each grade.
“Not being split up has made a big difference,” Hay said. “The kids have really taken to it. We have had a good start.”
Hay said the most challenging part of the new school is trying to merge teachers from three campuses.
“You have to really work on the culture of the building, taking three different groups of teachers and meshing them into a family,” he said. “We started working early in March, … going over what our goals are going to be and what our vision is for the building and how we want to do things.”
He said while that is always a concern for any school, it is even more so when it is brand new because “you have nothing to start with.”
“If we can build a good foundation, we are going to be set for years to come,” Hay said, “so we have tried to slow everything down and simplify it and try to do things right, right off the bat.”
Hay said the school’s staff members have worked on making the junior high feel like home and “getting used to being around each other.”
“Again, we go from three campuses, and taking it into one, that takes some work. It doesn’t happen by accident,” Hay said. “You have to be really focused. We want to be really intentional on building the culture of this school and setting the procedures from day 1 so the building runs smoothly.
“We are here to take care of the kids and take care of each other. You do that, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or email@example.com.