For the last 16 years, George Yarbrough has been working as a substitute teacher for Kelly Services, a company used by Conway Schools and other districts to contract daily substitutes for teachers and staff.
These days, he spends most of his time at Theodore Jones Elementary School, where he is beloved by the staff and students.
The kids refer to him as "Mr. Ron," and he is no doubt their favorite.
They gathered together Friday afternoon for a school-wide assembly where a secret was revealed.
"Mr. Ron" had received a special honor. After being nominated by the schools' students and staff, he was chosen as Arkansas' Substitute Teacher of the Year.
"He is not just the Sub of the Year for our school...or our district...or for the City of Conway," Principal Tammy Woosley told the students, "He's the Sub of the Year for the whole state of Arkansas."
The room erupted in applause as "Mr. Ron" came to the front in disbelief.
Completely surprised by the award, Yarbrough told the crowd he was humbled by the honor and loves coming to school every day.
"The teachers here make me feel right at home, like I belong here," he said, looking around the room at the students, "and I love getting to be a part of all of your lives. This school is the most special place and right where I want to be."
Yarbrough says his ultimate goal is to set the world record as the oldest substitute teacher.
It was almost twenty years ago when Conway got their first Resource Officers in our schools. The concept was fairly new at the time, but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that it was a great thing for our staff and our students. We started with just two officers- one at the high school and one at the junior high. Having a police officer on hand for emergencies was very helpful. The officers also built relationships with the kids and the teachers. Soon two officers grew to three…then five, when we had at least one at each of our secondary schools.
Today, we have eight School Resource Officers in our 16 schools. This team of SRO’s are highly recognizable and one of our district’s greatest assets. I was excited to get to spend the day with the newest member of the team, Officer Larry Lute, to see what being a SRO is really like.
Officer Lute has almost 20 years of experience as a police officer, and lots of stories from his time on the streets. He has a passion to help young people and is thankful to now have this role and this chance to make an impact each day.
We started off our day at Simon Middle School, where he spends much of his time. Overall, there were many things about a SRO’s job that didn’t surprise me, like security, and a few things that did.
Officer Lute spends a lot of his time watching the school’s security cameras and reviewing footage from them. He told me what a good tool the cameras have been in helping the officers and administrators. Obviously, they can’t be everywhere at once, so if an incident occurs the cameras can sometimes be the best “witnesses.”
Our SRO’s join our Principals in doing morning duty (Officer Lute does bus duty each morning at Simon) and recess/lunch duty as well. They are a valuable extra set of eyes and ears for the hundreds of students as they enter and exit the building. But more than that, they are an extra person to greet the students and interact with them. I loved watching Officer Lute talk with the students. They discussed things like hunting and sports. Many of their eyes lit up when they saw him. They would wave or give him a fist bump or high five. He would ask them how their day was going or how things were going at home, how they were doing in a certain class, congratulate a student on making the basketball team, remind a student to “act right,” and more. Middle School is such a pivotal time for students, so it’s encouraging to see that he is making an impact.
One of the things that impressed (and surprised) me the most was watching Officer Lute interact with the special education students at his school. He has a very significant relationship with these kids and their teachers. He visits them in their classes each day, and knows each of them personally. He knows their interests and challenges. He knows how to help them. No, he is not a classroom teacher, but he is part of the “village” that makes their school experience a successful one. During my “Day in the Life” we greeted one of these students while he was working in his classroom. About a half hour later we were walking back down the hall and this student was in the hallway with one of the teachers; he was having a hard time in the classroom. He seemed very agitated and upset as he described to Officer Lute how he was feeling about the test he was supposed to take, because he was absent when he was supposed to learn the material.
“Do you have your vest? Where’s your vest?” Officer Lute asked. I saw the teacher nod in agreement, then they went to the student’s locker to try to find the vest. Minutes later they were putting him into a weighted vest. I have never seen this before, but it is a vest that you wear with pockets for adding different weights. This garment has been used with the student before (at Officer Lute’s suggestion) to help him calm down and feel safer in stressful situations. Something about the heaviness of the weights add an element of pressure to the nervous system and allow the body to relax against it. Police officers have also used these in the field. The student took a few more minutes to calm down and was then able to re-enter the classroom to start working on his exam.
The rapport Officer Lute had with this student and countless others during this day was undeniable. I could see how much he cared for the students. I could tell that his job doesn’t end when the school bell rings at the end of the day. He and the other SRO’s work high school ball games and other events for the safety and security of our students. They work to make themselves visible in our community, to be where our kids are.
Another part of the jobs of our SRO’s is to be ambassadors. When he’s not at Simon Middle School, Officer Lute is assigned to Theodore Jones and Florence Mattison Elementary Schools. Going to the elementary schools with him was like being with a rock star or other celebrity. When he walks down the hall, ALL the kids call his name and give him a high five! He loves to read to the elementary classes or do other lessons about internet safety or stranger danger. There is no shortage of topics to talk about with the students. He says he gets really interesting questions from the kids, many of whom see way too much at way too young of an age. He says unfortunately, some of them have grown up with a negative image or negative experiences with police officers. The School Resource Officers want to change that.
That’s why they eat lunch with the students, and do programs like “Rise and Shine,” where the SRO’s start the day at an elementary school playing music, singing, and dancing as they open car doors and greet students and parents as they arrive at school in the mornings. The program has gained national attention on social media and continues to draw praises from kids, parents, and staff here in our district.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the biggest thing all the SRO’s have in common is their heart. They all care for these students fiercely, just like our teachers do. They put in countless hours building relationships, trying to break through barriers and forge emotional connections with our kids. They hope these connections will matter someday. And as we all know…they already do.
When I was growing up, getting sent to the Principal’s Office meant you were in big trouble. The Principal, at least in most students’ minds, was a stern man or woman who sat in a big chair behind an even bigger desk who yelled and passed out punishments. You did not want to go see the Principal. Maybe this was perception, or maybe it was true in some cases, but it was the perception nonetheless.
Last week I spent a “Day in the Life” at Conway Junior High with their newest Assistant Principal, Preston Echols. Mr. Echols is one of 4 Assistant Principals on the CJHS Campus. I am happy to report that this old school perspective could not be further from the truth for Mr. Echols. Positive, energetic, and completely approachable, Mr. Echols doesn’t spend much time behind his desk. (which is not very big!) What he does is constantly and creatively build relationships with students in this self-described “best job he’s ever had.”
We started off the day doing morning duty on Duncan street. If you haven’t experienced morning traffic in front of one of our schools, you might not know what I am talking about when I say, he risks his life each morning to keep our students safe! There are lots of parents, as well as bus drivers, all converging on one street at the same time trying to get kids to school on time. Mr. Echols, along with our School Resource Officers, does a great job directing the traffic. He also greets the parents and students with a smile, wave, high five, etc. Every single morning, he is out on the street doing this. I love the consistency he shows in the lives of these students.
Mr. Echols and all the other Assistant Principals also do lunch duty for all THREE lunches at the Junior High and after school bus duty outside. They stand in the hallways between classes talking to students and teachers. This provides a “skeleton” for their day, I suppose. But it’s what they do in between, that is most significant. It’s hard to even summarize all that they do but I wanted to try.
They are coaches. Each Assistant Principal evaluates a group of teachers for their Teacher Evaluation each year. I tagged along with Mr. Echols as he did several informal “walk throughs” with his teachers, completing an informal evaluation form with feedback for them. He praised them for good things he saw they were doing in their classrooms, emailing them his notes.
They are investigators. When an incident happens involving students, they have to figure out what actually happened. They have to track down everyone involved and resolve it. This takes time and patience and attention to detail.
They are problem solvers. The Assistant Principal is often the “go to” person for teachers if they need to resolve an issue with a student or parent. They have to be creative in finding solutions where everyone can feel satisfied with the resolution.
They are mediators. In a targeted effort called #weareone, Conway Junior High has decreased the number of physical altercations on their campus by nearly 40 percent in the last year. A huge component of this program is work on the part of the Assistant Principals to have relationships with the students and build open lines of communication to talk things out before they escalate to fighting.
They are encouragers. Being in junior high is tough. Any parent will tell you that this age is a very hard time for these students. The Assistant Principals talk with students about all kinds of issues. They encourage them to keep their grades up. They help them navigate social situations. They talk about making good choices- in and out of school.
They handle discipline. Because students do still get sent to the Principal’s Office. We saw several in my “Day in the Life.” But perhaps more importantly students get called into the Principal’s office. Note the distinction. Sometimes a student is sent there by a teacher because he/she has done something wrong, and that needs to be addressed by the administrator. But sometimes, a teacher, staff member or even a parent asks the administrator to talk with a student before anything happens. This conversation can change a life. And it does.
In one conference, a mother got emotional, even wiping away tears, describing how the school (and the administrative staff) was treating her daughter after an incident.
“I just can’t believe how much you guys care for my daughter and all these things you are doing for her. It really means so much that you would do these things. I know you truly care for her.”
Every time Mr. Echols saw a student in a discipline matter, he called the parent. Many times, he allowed the student to explain to them what had happened. He and the other Assistant Principals are working toward a bigger goal than just simple punishments. They are working on building up young men and women who will be successful productive citizens. They want to partner with parents. It’s amazing what happens when the school and parents get on the same page.
They are advocates. If I had to describe the role of an Assistant Principal in one word, that’s what I would say. They spend their day advocating for others. They advocate for the school when people don’t understand why an assignment is given or a decision is made. They advocate for a teacher when parents jump to conclusions or a student makes a bad choice in the classroom. They advocate for parents when they can’t get a straight answer from their kids, or they need consistency or “back up” while their kids are at school.
But perhaps most importantly, they advocate for the students with parents, their peers, their teachers, and more. The job of an Assistant Principal, like all school personnel, is to put students first. And they do. During our day, I watched Mr. Echols as he was thrust into situations I can only describe as heartbreaking. Students who made poor choices in an instant that have consequences that could last their entire lifetime. Parents who need to be involved with their child that cannot be bothered to listen to what is going on. At different times during the day the Assistant Principal can take on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, counselor, and more.
By 4:00 p.m. I was overwhelmed with all that Mr. Echols had dealt with in just one day, especially the situations where there is only so much that any one person can do or control in regards to the choices of others. Yet he still had a smile on his face and a passion in his heart to keep fighting for these students. This “Day in the Life” opened my eyes to what kind of a “fight” our Assistant Principals and Principals district-wide really are facing each day as they advocate for our students. It broke my heart to see the odds that are often stacked against our kids in their lives. But our administrators aren’t letting anyone go down without a fight. Their pursuit of this fight is what their days as Assistant Principals are really all about.
It’s 6:00 a.m. Friday morning, May 26th. The day after the last day of school. Students all over the district are fast asleep. Parents all over the district are thankful. Teachers all over the district are breathing a sigh of relief. We made it. The school year is finished. Summer is here at last.
But at Marguerite Vann Elementary School, all is not quiet. It looks like an invasion of sorts is occurring. The hallways and parking lots that went dead silent at 4:01 yesterday afternoon are suddenly filled with cars, footsteps and the sounds of jackhammers, crowbars, and drills. By 6:30 a.m., the entire maintenance and custodial staff of Conway Public Schools has begun the process of taking everything out of the building- boxes, furniture, cabinets, floors- you name it, it has to go. This school will be entirely remodeled from top to bottom, inside and out, before the students come back on August 14th, and there is not a minute to waste.
I knew working on the Vann Elementary Remodel Project would be a good time to do a “Day in the Life of Maintenance.” And it was. There is no way I will be able to adequately describe in words what these people do in such a short amount of time…and how dramatic it is to watch what was a fully-functioning classroom just a few short days before, become a completely-gutted empty room/construction site right before your eyes.
It takes all 85 employees on our Custodial Team, plus our 26-man maintenance crew to get the building emptied and ready to begin work on the school remodel. They gather early in the morning, each bringing a dolly with them. Then they split up into teams and start moving boxes out of classrooms, a section of the building at a time. The teachers at Vann box and label everything from their classrooms so it can be loaded up and placed into storage pods over the summer. The custodians made countless trips in and out of the building, staying in lines and working room by room to make sure teachers’ stuff could stay organized and get where it needed to go. I was impressed with their attention to detail and their teamwork.
It took more than two hours to get all the boxes out of the building. While the boxes were being loaded, maintenance crews were tearing out old cabinetry and clearing things off the walls so paint and floor crews could come in for the next steps. This work was HARD and it was LOUD. They use mallet hammers and crowbars (and honestly, their bare hands lots of times!) to pry coat racks, white boards, soap/paper towel dispensers, bulletin boards, and more off the walls. Many of these had been there since 1986 when the school was built. The cabinets and sinks all had to be “cut out” of the classrooms, because the school will get brand new ones. It was really cool to watch them come out. Some of them had handwriting on the back. They were numbered and said “Conway Elementary School.” I bet back when Vann was built, there weren’t so many that you had to specify which one! Dust was flying everywhere. Old televisions (Some were really old!) came out…we found things on the top of the tall cabinets that had definitely been there for more than 30 years! Some of the cabinets came apart easily and some gave more of a struggle. The noise was almost deafening as what was the basic structure of classrooms gave way to make room for new improvements.
After the boxes were all moved out, the staff took a quick break and then started on the furniture. Every desk, chair, and table had to be moved out of every room. There are a lot of desks and tables in an elementary school! It was quite a sight when they started piling up together in the same place! I thought about the memories of all the students who had worked on those desks. It’s also exciting to think about this year’s students coming in and seeing the new furniture they will have.
The custodians worked so hard moving everything. Again, it was a slow but steady process. It’s amazing to me how large a team we have when every school comes together. I liked seeing folks that I knew from all the different schools in one place. These people are such hard workers. Before we knew it, all the furniture was out and maintenance crews could begin clearing the cabinet remnants, scrap metal and trash from the rooms. There were three massive dumpsters brought in to the back parking lot for this purpose. It didn’t take very long for them to get full enough to need to be mashed down to hold more.
The men worked room by room, loading the wood pieces onto flat dollies and carts and taking them outside to be loaded into the dumpsters. They even let me load up a few loads and “drive” the dolly, which was a LOT harder than it looks. Any stories you hear about my driving are highly exaggerated. Although we are very lucky they are painting all the walls, because I did crash into a few.
Clearing every room took a very long time. Have I mentioned that these guys are hard workers? They are. Many of them do not take breaks, nor do they get any recognition for what they do behind the scenes. We were working on Friday and they planned to come in the next day (Saturday) which was a holiday weekend, in order to get the work done and keep the project on schedule. Their work is so physically tiring, but they don’t stop until the job is done and done well. Their “whatever it takes” isn’t the same as what our teachers do, and much of the time it is unseen, yet we could not have school without them. Maybe visible projects like the Vann remodel will remind us of their important work.