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New Harding Academy superintendent brings transparency, support to role

by Sam Pierce | May 16, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
James Gurchiek was recently named the new superintendent for Harding Academy in Searcy. He replaces James Simmons, who announced his retirement earlier this year. Gurchiek has more than 25 years of experience working with the Searcy Public Schools.

When James Gurchiek was in second grade in Indiana, he had an experience that turned him off from ever wanting to read again.

“Reflecting back, my story may not be 100 percent accurate, but I had a teacher who wanted us to read a book and tell her about it, by asking us a series of questions,” Gurchiek said. “She asked me questions, valid questions, but I didn’t know who the author or the illustrator was, so she didn’t think I had read the story.

“She told me to go back and read it again, but because it wasn’t so much a requirement, I just thought to myself, ‘Why bother? I’m not going to do that.’”

He said because of that lone experience, throughout school, he struggled with reading for enjoyment, which also affected his reading to learn.

“I did not enjoy reading,” Gurchiek said, “and it was more for a grade then, rather than being taught the joy of reading.”

Gurchiek, who was recently named the new superintendent for Harding Academy in Searcy, now hopes to prevent students from having an experience like his, and he said his goal is to instill a love for reading in the academy’s students, beginning at a young age.

“The search committee and I have been very serious in our efforts to select the best people to lead Harding Academy,” Harding University President David Burks said. “We prayed that God would answer our prayers, and I believe he has done just that.

“Mr. Gurchiek has more than 25 years of experience working with the Searcy Public Schools. He has lived in the community for many years, and his children graduated from Harding Academy.”

Burks said he is confident that Gurchiek will bring a Christ-centered approached to leadership and is very pleased that Gurchiek has accepted the position.

“I am excited about the job, and I am ready for the challenge,” Gurchiek said. “I am very honored to accept the position, and I am ready to get started.”

Gurchiek has been the principal at McRae Elementary School in Searcy for 19 years and has 36 years’ experience in education, after starting in 1986 at a school in Nashville, Tennessee.

Joni Free served as Gurchiek’s assistant principal for nine years at McRae.

“He is one of the most caring and focused leaders that I have worked for. He was always there for his students and staff, and he leads with strong Christian values,” Free said.

“He supports his staff through struggles and celebrations, and anyone who works with him is blessed. I wish him all the luck,” she said.

“[Gurchiek] was always up for the challenge,” Free said. “Whatever changes that needed to be made, he made them in a positive way.

“He is always kid-focused, and he is the best thing for our students. He communicates well with parents and keeps them up to date, and he encourages the staff to do the same.”

Free recently left the Searcy School District to take a job as a seventh-grade math teacher in Monticello so she could be closer to family and help take care of her dad.

Of his time at McRae, Gurchiek said one of the things he was the proudest of was the family atmosphere that he created with the teachers and the connections that were made.

“We also really focused on the needs of the students, whether that was parental support, intervention or tutoring, or just meeting the basic needs of kids.”

He said that a couple of years ago, a student’s house burned down, and the parents had to come to school and let the staff know.

“We immediately got together to get their basic needs together, such as cleaning supplies, food, clothes — because they lost everything,” he said. “The camaraderie that we developed over the years allows us to go beyond the classroom and the school, and to help meet the needs of students. … Because of the bond and trust that we have established [inside the classroom], we can go a lot further in helping these kids.”

Gurchiek is originally from Indiana. He graduated from high school there in 1980 and spent the next two years working at home on the family’s farm. It wasn’t until his younger sister, Donna, toured and enrolled at Harding University did Gurchiek enroll as well, thanks to his mother.

“I was nervous at first because I had been out of school for two years,” he said. “I chose to major in education because I always liked working with kids.”

Gurchiek said he really struggled that first year, simply because he didn’t have good study habits. He said that by his junior year, he was about to fail classes. He said his future wife, Cindy, got him going and helped him develop study habits and “helped me really understand what I needed to do for exams and research papers.” He said that by the spring semester of his junior year, he had made the dean’s list.

“She really helped me,” he said of Cindy. “She loves to read and is now a third-grade teacher at Harding Academy.

“I want to show what education can do for students who struggle and may not have that support and how we can put things in place to give them the help they need.”

Patrick Brown is a teacher for the Riverview School District, based in Searcy, and attends College Church of Christ in Searcy with Gurchiek.

“James is very professional and very thorough,” Brown said. “He’s very attentive to everyone’s needs, and he takes the job pretty seriously.

“He has been a principal as long as I have known him, and I know a lot of teachers were not happy that he was leaving McRae.”

Brown said the betterment of the Searcy community is important to Gurchiek.

“He is very transparent to the community and his staff,” Free added. “He is very open to communicate what is going on in his school, and he likes to have fun.

“He is a very motivational type of person. Whether it is dressing up in a funny outfit or acting out a skit, he will do whatever it takes to get kids excited about school.”

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

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