Leaders to Follow: Supt. Kimberly Thomas

Kimberly Thomas, Superintendent of Strong-Huttig School District, has dedicated the last 25 years to serving K-12 learners in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. We recently sat down with Mrs. Thomas to learn what it was about this passion, turned life’s work, that kept her driven and innovating towards the future, despite the challenges she’s faced.

True to form, the comments shared during our discussion could serve as a motivator to each of us in the field, as they inspire each of us in the field of education to press onward for the sake of our community’s – and nation’s – children. 

Hometown Girl, Turned Hometown Superintendent

Superintendent Thomas’s journey within the Strong-Huttig School District began quite early as a 4th-grade student of Garner Strong Elementary.

“I had the privilege of attending Strong-Huttig Schools as a student myself, having attended from the 4th grade onward,” Mrs. Thomas told us. “To this day, I still credit my first professional accomplishment to graduating from Strong-Huttig Schools. I’m a proud Bulldog through and through.”

During her years as a young student, Mrs. Thomas told us she first got the idea of becoming a teacher. That spark encouraged her to pursue a degree in Elementary Education from Grambling State University in Louisiana, then to pursue her Masters from Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia. And it’s no wonder Mrs. Thomas chose to seek higher education opportunities within these Mississippi River-adjacent states, as this region is simply where her heart is.

Upon completing her degrees and teaching certification, Mrs. Thomas served as a 5th Grade teacher in Marion, Louisiana. However, it wasn’t long until she returned to Strong-Huttig to claim a classroom for herself.

Since that time, she has had the opportunity to serve in various grade levels and faucets – including counseling roles – until she became a school administrator. In 2019, the opportunity to expand her impact even more presented itself in the role of Superintendent. Mrs. Thomas willingly stepped up to the challenge.

Little did she know that that school year would present an unprecedented challenge to superintendents worldwide: the COVID-19 Pandemic was coming.

Overcoming a Worldwide Pandemic

“When I became Superintendent of Strong-Huttig Schools during the 2019-2020 school year, none of us had any idea what the year had in store for us,” Mrs. Thomas said with a chuckle. “Taking on a new role is always a learning curve, but doing so in the face of a pandemic that would dramatically alter how we delivered curriculum – that was a real challenge.”

Fortunately, Mrs. Thomas had an excellent team around her, and together, they overcame the challenges the Coronavirus sent their way.

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to always surround yourself with a team of people you can lean on for insights and empower them to share their knowledge,” Mrs. Thomas said. “As Superintendent, I apply that wisdom daily, but I leaned into it heavily during my first year on the job. Educators nationwide were facing an unprecedented challenge, which was no different here in Strong-Huttig. What helped us make it through was the team-oriented, problem-solving-focused mentality that we all shared. It united our team during that difficult season and allowed everyone to display areas where their expertise and leadership qualities helped them shine.” 

Onward & Upward for Strong-Huttig

With the deepest woes of the Pandemic behind us, Superintendent Thomas turned her attention to the future and began tackling a new series of objectives that would enrich student experiences within the district.

First, the district launched its Star Academy Program.

“We’re seeing incredible, measurable student outcomes,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Teachers and students alike are embracing the program and thriving. Students love the hands-on curriculum and having a voice and choice in what they’re learning. We’re hoping to expand the program into the high school if possible in the future.”

But the district isn’t only extending new opportunities to their 7th and 8th-grade students alone – expanded career readiness programming is being offered to Strong-Huttig high school students as well this year.

“Our district is very excited to have rolled out two new programs this school year: the first being a pre-educator track for students interested in pursuing a career in the field of education,” said Mrs. Thomas. “We’ve also launched a new college and career-readiness program this year, which allows students to explore a broad range of career opportunities and develop the skills and even select certifications required to step into the next step of their life’s journey with more confidence.

Superintendent Thomas noted that the new opportunities being offered at Strong-Huttig aren’t solely focused on “all work, no play” – quite the contrary.

“Extracurriculars are an important part of students’ growth and development,” Mrs. Thomas explained. “That’s why we have been working to increase the extracurricular opportunities available to all students. One example is one of our newest offerings: eight-man football. Fewer districts in the state participate in 8-man teams, but we thought we would give it a try. Fortunately, it was well worth the effort of stepping out and trying something new, as students love it, and during the 2020-2021 school year, we won the state championship!”

Education: An Effort Well-Worth the Next Generation’s Pursuit

When discussing Superintendent Thomas’ passion for education, she made it clear that her work in the field of education wasn’t by coincidence: she believes she was made to pursue a career in education and hopes to encourage others to give the career path the consideration it deserves.

“There are few career paths that offer the breadth and depth of positive impact that education does,” said Superintendent Thomas. “That’s why I try to encourage students to consider the career path. If you want to make an impact in the lives of others – students and entire communities – then education could be the career for you. I’m so grateful to have identified and pursued this path early on: it’s brought me so much joy and fulfillment.”

Superintendent Thomas recalled to us the impact that educators have made on her personal growth and development over the years.

“Every teacher that I ever had helped me become who I am today and equip me for the role I in which I now serve,” reminisced Mrs. Thomas. “I’m so grateful for every teacher who invested in my development as a student and as a leader. Their contribution to who I am today and the insights they shared helped encourage me to keep moving forward.” 

Today, Superintendent Thomas strives to do the same for those around her – be it administrators, staff, or students.

“As a superintendent, you’re a leader that’s constantly being observed by others,” said Mrs. Thomas. “That’s why it is so important to carry yourself in a way that encourages others to lead with passion, be adaptable, and consider how their decisions affect those around them. In my role, I often serve as the ‘deliverer of change.’ Sometimes, the changes I present can be difficult for others to accept. With this in mind, I have to always to go the extra mile to encourage those around me and help them build confidence in their own abilities to implement new objectives. It’s a constant rotation of monitoring, adjusting, and encouraging your peers, but that’s the role a true leader must fulfill if they want to not only be successful themselves but to bring success to their district and community as a whole.”

Why Superintendent Thomas is a Leader to Follow

The NOLA Education Team was inspired by Superintendent Thomas’ story of dedication to the field of education and her commitment to bettering the district and community she loves. As a first-time Superintendent, Mrs. Thomas had her work cut out for her – acclimating to a new leadership position while grappling with one of the most precarious educational challenges to have faced leaders in the past century: the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully Superintendent Thomas dug deep to develop solutions that would help the district overcome that difficult season and thrive in the years to follow.

Thank you, Superintendent Thomas, for your commitment to the next generation and how you encourage and empower those around you to pursue their best!

Leaders to Watch: Dr. Jonathan Crossley

Dr. Jonathan Crossley, Superintendent of Hope (Arkansas) Public Schools, is passionate about creating equitable pathways to success for the next generation. Elevating the student experience and breaking down barriers that hinder students from thriving in the classroom – and college or the workforce beyond graduation – drives Dr. Crossley and the district he leads forward.

This motivation is not one that Dr. Crossley came upon by chance: in fact, it’s quite the contrary.

A Leader Forged in a Small Town

Growing up, Jonathan had excellent teachers, chief among them: his parents. From early on, his father instilled the importance of work ethic into Jonathan, while his mother demonstrated a love for people that shaped the way he views and serves others even today. The integrity and leadership they embodied deeply impacted Crossley’s development and future successes.

As a young student, Crossley was bright and hardworking; however, he never envisioned a life beyond his hometown. Then, in the 10th grade, Mr. Billy Pennington began encouraging Crossley to consider the impact he could make in the greater world around him. That’s when the wheels really began “turning” for Jonathan, who started envisioning a brighter future for himself and those around him.

Upon graduation from high school, Crossley considered pursuing a career in law and earned a Bachelor of Political Science degree from the University of South Carolina. His family beamed on graduation day as Crossley was the first among them to earn a four-year degree. (Little did they know, it would be his first of many.)

Following graduation, it became clear to Crossley that his calling was to help shape the minds and lives of young learners, so he transitioned to the field of education and began teaching and coaching in rural Palestine, AR. During Crossley’s time at Palestine-Wheatley School District, Crossley became deeply invested in student literacy, serving as not only the 11th and 12th grade English and Oral Communication teacher but also the literacy coach for grades 6-12. As a result of his efforts, the district’s literacy rates went from 36% to 92%, an impressive accomplishment that marked the most dramatic literacy improvement across the state of Arkansas.

The same year, Crossley was awarded the Arkansas Teacher of the Year honor (2014). As that year’s honored recipient, he was also able to serve on the Arkansas School Board. He then went on to complete his Master of Education and an Ed.S and Ed.D from Arkansas Tech shortly thereafter.

In 2015, Dr. Crossley began his career in Administration: first as a Principal in Little Rock (AR) and then as Assistant Superintendent in Pine Bluff (AR). In 2021, Dr. Crossley was chosen to lead Hope (AR) Public Schools, and he has made short work of launching innovative initiatives that will further students’ educational trajectory within the district.

New Hope for Hope Public Schools

When you walk into Hope Public Schools today, you’ll probably feel an air of excitement and expectation: norms within the district are changing, and Dr. Crossley? He’s leading the charge.

“Students deserve robust, high-quality services and education,” Dr. Crossley said when he sat down with us recently. “That requires Superintendents – and anyone in a leadership or teaching capacity – to think creatively and seek opportunities to innovate so they can help students transcend barriers.”

Three of these opportunities were recently rolled out in the school district, and a measurable impact is already being made. The first initiative is the Bobcats Work program, which allows high school students to participate in paid internships that yield invaluable experience and credentialing toward future jobs. The second is the Hope Education Foundation, which will serve as a scholarship vessel to help Hope graduates pursue higher education and already has over $250,000 in scholarship pledges within its first year. The third major initiative to launch in the last year was the Star Academy program. This comprehensive, hands-on acceleration program helps reengage students in the classroom and catch up while infusing vital success skills into each day’s lessons.

“As educators, it is our job and life’s work to help students not only graduate but envision successful lives for themselves post-graduation,” Dr. Crossley said. “Our team is passionate about helping students ramp up for and live successful lives, which is why we’re always looking for ways to help students leverage their learning into character and career-building experiences.”

A “Game Changer” For Hope Students & The Entire District

In 2022, Dr. Crossley and his team decided to pursue an unconventional method to capture additional resources for their students: seeking to capture funding via the US Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant. The arduous qualification process (which included a nearly 350-page application) is no simple task, and it’s also highly competitive, with scores of schools across the nation applying each year.

Thankfully, the Hope Schools team’s efforts paid off: in the summer of 2022, it was announced that Hope Public Schools was one of the 19 applicants whose proposals would be funded. And Hope’s innovative proposal? It was amongst the most highly-funded awards bestowed this period, with a grand total of $14,999,987 pledged to the district over the next five years.

“The funds being made available via the Magnet Grant will be a game-changer for Hope students and the District as a whole,” said Dr. Crossley. “The initiative, which we’ve donned the HPS Pathways to Hope project, will allow all students to have STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) and public service-focused learning environments, as well as specialized campuses that include focuses such as STEAM, the Arts, STEM, Public Service, and Media Literacy.”

Once implemented, the initiative (which includes additional focuses as well) should significantly raise levels of achievement for all students and reduce the isolation and challenges minority students may face during their academic careers. And the end goal of these enhancements? Ensuring that each Hope graduate has the opportunities they deserve to arrive to college or the workforce prepared to thrive.

“I hope that this grant not only alters students’ educational trajectories but that it demonstrates that thinking outside the box can do not just for ourselves, but for those around us,” Dr. Crossley said.

Why Dr. Crossley is a Leader to Follow

Dr. Crossley has only been in the field of education for 13 years; however, the impact he has made across the districts he has served will stand the test of time. He doesn’t shy away from digging deep into challenges. He works diligently and dynamically to develop solutions that uplift students, staff, and community – even when it is difficult – and keeps his eyes on the horizon.

“An adage I try to remind myself of often is that true excellence is rarely understood because the cost to reach it is so often hidden,” Dr. Crossley said. “People rarely see the struggle and toil required of leadership as they strive to reach new heights for those they lead. But that doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worthwhile: Keep pushing forward. Your efforts will pay off in the end.”