“This year has been like 20 years in one,” Harding Academy Superintendent James Simmons said in response to being asked about when he thought about retiring from the school.
Harding University recently announced the decision to retire by Simmons, who also serves as Harding Academy’s vice president and athletic director, at the end of the school year and said a search committee would be formed to seek his replacement. Simmons has served 12 years as the academy’s superintendent.
“My wife [Janet] and I started talking about it back in the December-January time frame and then decided it is time to do something different,” Simmons said concerning retiring, “so I finally just decided after weighing all the options, seeing what the future could look like there financially and all that kind of stuff you got to do when you reach this point. I found out that I could go to the house with all my monies totaled up and be in pretty good shape, so that is what we decided to do.”
Simmons made it a point to say how much he appreciates his wife always being at his side to support him. “I am excited about what the future can hold, spending more time with my wife, my grandkids, my kids ... .”
He also has some special plans concerning canine therapy.
“A few years ago, we had a gentleman come speak at our chapel and he spoke about this dog he was raising named Grace,” Simmons said. “So while I was sitting there, I said, ‘Hey, I can do this. One of these days when I retire, get me a dog not just to raise, but a dog to train to be a therapy dog.’ So I am going to get me a dog – and it takes a while to get them all of the certifications to that point – but I want to get me a dog that can be certified to take into hospitals, schools and all that kind of stuff, so that is what my goal is right now.
“... My wife and I are going to get this puppy and tag team on that, and this little puppy will eventually grow into an adult dog and we will have that to enjoy. I am going to get my grands to be a part of this process. We will name our new dog Hope.”
Simmons and his wife have two grandkids with a third one on the way in September.
He said he and his wife are looking for a new home in the Greers Ferry, Heber Springs or Fairfield Bay area, where they plan to train the therapy dog after they find the dog they want.
“We will be bringing Hope,” Simmons said. “Lots of people in this world just don’t have much hope.”
Simmons spoke about his memories from his time at Harding Academy, including his first day on the job. He said then-Harding Chancellor Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr. spoke on the past and then-Harding President Dr. David Burks spoke on “challenging the present,” “and I spoke following those two awesome guys on creating the future.”
“That was a pretty exciting day,” he said.
Simmons said he also has worn a tuxedo on each first day of school “for now about 35 years.”
“It is just a little fun thing to do to let the kids know that we want to welcome them and invite them to the schools, so those are always some positive memories and experiences to welcome those first days,” he said.
Simmons recalled over the years that student association groups also have done different things to welcome kids back to school.
“The kids at Harding Academy actually got up on the rooftop and they were sitting up there throwing off suckers and stuff to the kids, candies as the kids were coming in the door,” he said. “The kids here are super great kids, creative and very determined. It has been great to work with some wonderful kids and many, many great faculty and staff, many good parents, so it has been a pleasurable experience for the most part.”
While his tuxedo routine has carried on throughout his time as an administrator, an area that has seen definite change has been technology.
He said within about the fourth or fifth year that he got to Harding Academy, an attempt was made to phase in one to one devices.
“We started out years ago with what we thought was going to be cutting edge stuff; they now call them iPads,” Simmons said. “Every place has devices and things nowadays. The public schools have all kinds of federal monies coming in to fill their coffers for that, but it is another expense for our parents here at Harding Academy in addition to their tuition to try to afford some of those things, so we have phased in Chromebooks and we start with them in third grade and kindergarten; first and second grades are still iPads.
“We are adding a new level, a new grade every year. The ones that they had come down to the next level down. We are all the way down to third grade and all the high school kids have other versions.”
Simmons said in his second year at Harding Academy, the school hired a robotics teacher, Brian Jones, who has brought the school national acclaim.
“Brian has been absolutely great. We started from nothing to being one of the teams that is nationally recognized, Team Breakaway,” he said. “They canceled all the competitions this year because of COVID. We can’t do a large gathering of any kind. You would have several thousand people at those competitions.
“We qualified nine out of 10 years to go to the national competition. It was in Houston, Texas, the last few years and prior to that it was in St. Louis, Mo.”
Simmons spoke more specifically about the challenges caused by COVID-19, saying he saw something the other day with the question: “Where were you when they came along with the message about schools closing for the rest of the year?” He said when he was a kid the question was, “Where were you when John F. Kennedy got killed?,” but now the question is “Where were you when the pandemic started? Where were you when you started hearing about COVID cases?”
“I don’t think anybody in the United States of America had ever had this in any kind of professional training in schools, schools of education or schools of medical ... whatever you went to school for to be a professional, you were not fully prepared for a pandemic or COVID-19 specifically,” Simmons said. “It is all things that our faculty and staff and our kids and parents have had to pivot to try to make happen. I would say the determination that our kids have had, our parents have had and our faculty and staff have definitely had to try to still be able to have face-to-face school has been phenomenal.
Simmons shared that he read an article recently that said “over 50 percent of the nation’s children have not been in school for over one year; they had not attended school at all.”
“During that time, we were closed when they said you have no choice to be open last year,” he said. “This year, we were one of the first schools in the start of Arkansas that opened on August the 7th ... .
“It was rough to start right out of the chute, from the get-go, when they fired the gun on our second day of school we have seven or eight positives [COVID-19 cases] and had a bunch of students that had to be quarantined from close contacts with those people. So the first probably month and a half, two months of school was horrendous every day.”
He said “four to six hours a day” had to be spent “dealing with that issue and all of the contact tracing that was part of that, notifications to the Department of Health.”
“We had to do every case that occurred, either quarantined or positive, we had to notify the Department of Heath within 24 hours, so my secretary and I served as the point of contact for our school,” Simmons said. “There were many days when projects I had on my list to do, I couldn’t even touch them because this became the predominant thing to get done because of regulations and guidelines, stipulations we had from the Arkansas Department of Health. It was a royal nightmare.”
He said the enrollment at Harding Academy, now at 565, “was impacted significantly” by COVID-19.
“We are adding more students almost on a daily basis for next year ,so I am hoping we can get back to where we were seven years ago. At that point in time, we had 699 students,” Simmons said. “It has been a challenge this year. Public schools this year have even fewer students in them then they have had before almost all over the United States because kids are just out there somewhere and they are not attending school.
“We have a bunch of kids that went to public school and or went to home school or moved out of the area. We are still doing online and in person. This semester, we only have 19 full-time online. The main thing is we have a phenomenal group of people, faculty and staff that have been super cooperative to do whatever we needed to do to try to continue with great educational experiences for kids, so my experience here has been heavily influenced with that.”
Kids generally rise to the level of expectation, according to Simmons. “If the expectation is low, that’s what you get.”
“So I challenged the faculty when I got here,” he said. “I showed them a video about an eagle pushing her young baby out of the nest when it was ready to fly. She just didn’t leave it in the nest to stay up there to keep her company. When that baby got ready to fly, she knew that she could get out there and fly. She didn’t do that to kill one. She did that to say, ‘You are ready for the challenge, you are ready to soar.’
“We looked at what that looks like for us as educators. How can we more do that challenging activity with our students.”
He said in his first two years, the highest ACT score in the history of the school had been 23.2. He said over 25 is now the academy’s average.
“That is one of the top-performing schools in the state of Arkansas,” Simmons said. “They have accepted a challenge. They wanted it. Our kids get away from us and we ask them, ‘What else could we have done to get you ready?’ I don’t want to hear them say, ‘It was a blow off. It was cheesy. I could have done that.’
“I wish someone would have challenged me more.’ I credit the faculty and staff with that enormous amount of achievement gain over those years and then sustaining that over a period of five years where it was over 25. That is not easy to do. They gave the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen.”