By Terrica Hendrix
MINERAL SPRINGS – Thelma Forte, who was recently hired as the new Mineral Springs/Saratoga School District superintendent, comes from a long line of educators. In fact, Forte‘s years in education combined with the years her parents, aunt, and her sisters have in the field equal 205.
“My personal reason for applying was I can identify with MSSD,” Forte began. “I am a native of DeValls Bluff and Tuckerman. Both of these towns are small rural towns, and their schools are the heart of the community. I had a desire to become the new superintendent because I wanted to take a good school district, and lead them on the journey of becoming a great school district. I interviewed parents randomly, and I discovered they are so proud of their school. I wanted to become a part of this culture.”
She was born in Clarksville while her parents were students at College of the Ozarks (now known as University of the Ozarks).
“My mom’s sister, Aunt Nancy, completed her student teaching, and she babysat me to make sure my parents finished their college degrees. My grandfather, J. L. Person, worked on the railroad. He was a foreman and he had a bunk bed in the caboose of the train. Every weekend he would ride the train from Clarksville to Tuckerman. I would ride back with him in the caboose of the train. I still have that bed frame, and it is one of my most prized possessions. Both of my grandparents were God-fearing men, and they had a sixth grade education. My grandmothers had a sixth grade education, but they were skillful seamstresses.“
Her grandmothers taught her the value of cultivating a person’s gifts, honesty and hard work. Her family always stressed the importance of getting an education, Forte remembered.
“My mother has six siblings, and all seven of my grandfather’s children went to college.” Her uncle won a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and played professional basketball for the Boston Celtics. He won a national championship in 1968. “My dad has two siblings, and he was the first person in his family to attend and complete college.”
Her father had an opportunity to play professional basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers or play football for the Dallas Cowboys after he completed his senior year at College of the Ozarks. She said her father was “a simple man who loved God, his family, and the education profession.” He did not accept any of the pro offers; instead, he became a coach at DeValls Bluff.
“We have had an opportunity to live in various places in the state of Arkansas because my dad was a coach and my mother was a teacher. We have lived in Clarksville, DeValls Bluff, Newport/Tuckerman (our summer home), Ashdown and Texarkana. As an end result, we have friends and professional colleagues in every corner of the state,” she explained.
Forte has two sisters, Lea Metcalf and Skye Metcalf-Do. Lea Metcalf is the federal programs director in the Texarkana Arkansas School District. Skye Do is a kindergarten teacher who also works for TASD. “Everyone in my family has decided to become an educator,” she explained. “My mother retired after 40 years in the educational field. My dad retired after 38 years. Lea has taught for 16 years. Skye has taught for five years. My husband has taught for 27 years; my Aunt Nancy has taught for 45 years, and my Aunt Kaye is retiring this year after 38 years in the educational profession.”
This year, Forte will celebrate her 23rd year in education, “… and as you can see, I am coming from a long line of educators,” she joked.
She and her husband, Tracy, have been married for more than 19 years, and they have one daughter, Mia. She is 10 years old, “and she is the joy of my life.”
Forte graduated from Ashdown High School in 1990 and attended Henderson State University for all three of her degrees, which include the following:
Bachelor of Science in Education 1994;
Masters in Educational Leadership 2001;
Educational Specialist and Superintendent’s Degree, 2007.
She credits her family and Murphy Cauthron for influencing and encouraging her to become a teacher. “I watched them transform the lives of students, and I decided I had to become a teacher to make a difference. I cannot remember a time when I was not around football fields, basketball courts, track meets, and yes, I do remember the old duplicating machines that turned your fingers purple.”
Forte is currently serving her eighth year as the principal at Union DaVinci Magnet School in Texarkana. Before that, she was a teacher for 10 years and a high school assistant principal for four years. She also taught at Dunbar Elementary School in the Texarkana, Texas, School District for one year.
She said her current staff helped her make the decision to apply for the MSSD superintendent position. “My staff and I created goals and plans for my current school. We all agreed they would be ready for me to take a new position when the list was completed, and the only way they would agree to a new position was if I was seeking a position as the superintendent of a school district. The list consisted of raising test scores, improving our image, developing relationships with the community, creating partnerships with our stake-holders, becoming a model school for Renaissance Learning, winning national awards, and for Union to become a Designated Master Principal School and for me to become a Designated Master Principal.”
Forte completed the National Board Certification in 2004. Her current school has won two national awards in the last four years. “I am a designated Master Principal, the only African- American to achieve this milestone in the history of this program. I am an Extraordinary Educator for Renaissance Learning. I have presented workshops on topics such as poverty, improving student achievement, creating a positive culture and climate, servant leadership, and data-based decision making. Some of the workshops were in Arkansas, while other workshops were in Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas and New York.”
She describes herself as a servant leader, and “I understand the importance of assisting teachers through job-embedded professional development and immediate feedback, while creating a culture of high expectations for students. My current school has a poverty rate above 90 percent. We are a high poverty school, and this means I have to help my parents secure resources, and I have to provide additional educational resources to make sure their children are supported academically. My parents are comfortable with me, because they know we share one common goal: We are working together to make sure their child reaches his/her fullest potential. We have learned how to engage and involve our parents, and this is the key to success for any student. Finally, I work hard. My staff will tell you I never sleep. I never ask anyone to do anything that I am not willing to do. I am in the trenches working, helping, coaching, encouraging, and praising all who are involved to create a culture of honesty, trust, hard work and determination. We work together, and we celebrate the successes we have together,” she added.
She is highly involved with her students. “We have several students who are involved in community service projects. Many of my students are members of electives and they perform after school and on the weekend. When I have struggling learners, I will go into a classroom and team teach with a teacher to provide support for the students who are struggling. Many of my students share their work with GOOGLE classroom to receive immediate feedback. Sometimes you cannot get into my office during lunch because the students will bring their Chrome Books and we will have a working lunch. I know all of my students. I can tell you where they live, if they have pets, where their grandparents live, and I review data to help teachers monitor students’ progress.”
She continued, “I am so excited about a chance to share my gifts and talents with a new school district. I have had an opportunity to meet the students, parents, and staff members, and they are excited about learning and pushing the bar of excellence. As a leader, you cannot ask for a more fertile ground for change and excellence. This is going to be a tremendous journey for all involved! I am very thankful MSSD found me worthy to be their new leader. This is an honor, and it is a great privilege. We are going to do great things.”