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New SPCS Superintendent leads with faith

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MURFREESBORO — The new South Pike County Schools superintendent Brad Sullivan said that he is looking forward to a successful school year.

The seasoned educator, with 29 years under his belt, has served in many capacities over that span, including teacher, coach, assistant principal, curriculum administrator, principal and district administrator.

He said that a visit last year, while in the capacity Educational Renewal Zone Director with Henderson State University, was a part of what made him eventually choose to apply for the opening role of superintendent.

“I was here and gave kind of a motivational talk — so I got to visit with [Roger] Featherston and the staff. I really liked it and was drawn to the people.”

Fast forwarding to around Christmas of last year, he noted that he found out Featherston was retiring,

“I talked to him about the position, and he made me even more interested,” he said, noting that garnering a role as superintendent was always in the offing, since becoming certified to do so around 15 years ago. “I’ve always had that in the back of my mind, it was just waiting for the right opportunity, because it’s important to find a good fit, and after talking to Featherston and the [school] board, I felt strongly that it was.”

Since actually assuming the role in the past few months, Sullivan said he still feels the same.

“My opinion has not changed … I have met some faculty and staff that are passionate about our students and our school district, and making a difference in the lives of our students — that excites me,” agreeing that those qualities in a staff makes his job much easier.

He feels he will have the proverbial “big shoes to fill” following the departure of former superintendent Feathertson.

“I hope just to continue the positive direction that his leadership has provided for this district — he’s hard to replace.”

Sullivan noted there was some symmetry to his obtaining the position at South Pike County Schools, as he began his educational career at Murfreesboro Elementary in the spring of 1990 as a extended substitute teacher for the fourth grade.

“There was a teacher that was out, and it was my first exposure in my career an educator, and it’s kind of ironic that at the end of my career, I’m back at the same place. But, it’s good,” he said with a laugh. “I have no regrets and would do it all over again.”

He said that he was informed about the long term substitute job by his wife, Jill, who at the time was a speech therapist for the school district for two years.

“So, she held fond memories of her time in Murfreesboro as well, so it was good for both of us to be here years ago.”

While stating there was a lot of planning and work that has already gone into the upcoming school year, he also felt a sense of excitement amongst himself and the staff as judged by the number of conversations he has had with the district’s staff.

“I’ve seen the staff giving up their own time to get ready for the year over the summer, and I can tell by the staff that has been up here working off contract that we have a staff that cares.” 

He said that he has studied the standardized test scores since taking over and notes that the district is doing well versus other area and state schools.

“We’re showing growth in a lot of areas, and that shows we are going in the right direction.”

To continue that growth, Sullivan said ultimately it is a team approach in order to foster an environment that is conducive to better education.

“I am a part of the faculty, and I am working together with them for student success, but we can’t work in isolation, we have to work together — it’s important. I want to celebrate successes, but I also want to address the areas that we can get better in. We have to look at all data — and that’s not just test scores. We will look at where we are at, where we have been, and make a plan to go where we want to go. I want to build that team that can work together through a student’s 13 years of school to ensure that student’s success.”

Sullivan states definitively that test scores not be the only judgement on the school district’s success, that “making students that are productive members of our community and the world” was also critical.

He said there were many factors into education that would never be measured by a standardized test — including life skills, attendance, work ethic, and being on time.

“These are all important to any ultimate success,” he said. “In my career, a lot of motivation for me is to see students that have been successful, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a college degree. It’s that they are contributing to society and making a difference, are good parents, good spouses, good community members — that is success.”

Going forward, Sullivan feels confident that new staff for the 2019-2020 school year will make the district better, in addition to the current staff already in place.

“The additions to our team will make the team better, ultimately helping the students. As I look at what we have here, in my experience working at Henderson [State University] with a lot of public schools and otherwise in my working career, there is a lot to be proud of here. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and there is a lot of good here. I want to help us get better, because our kids deserve that.”

He also feels the schools are in a unique situation with their technological use, and that the school success has become noticeable elsewhere.

“There’s not many schools that are 1:1 iPad — we are an Apple Distinguished School in high school and are looking to get that in the elementary as well. People are noticing around the state — they hear about us. The potential here is incredible, and that’s a good outcome for students.”

Asked what Sullivan would want people to know about him, he said simply that “I care, and that I am approachable and if you have concerns I want to address them.”

Sullivan draws inspiration towards his job from several sources, as evidenced by numerous momentos he has in his office.

The first is a contract his grandfather had from 1932 to teach at Buckville, an area of the state now underwater due to the creation of Lake Ouachita. The contract states that he would be paid $65 per month … if money was available.

“When I tell my grandfather’s story, I always notice how his former students come back to him, and let him know how they were doing. I ran into an old man at a football game a few years back [at Two Rivers School District in Yell County] … he realized my grandfather was his sixth grade teacher, and he just lit up. The thing I always talk to teachers about is ‘what are you going to do to impact your students to where they are talking about you with passion when they are 80 years old?’ That’s where I get a lot of motivation is hearing from my former students and how they have been impacted by their education and experience in school … that makes me get up every morning. I want to convey to our staff that whatever level you are at, you are making a difference and sometimes you don’t see it, but it is there. You think about the future and think about an 80 year old and the impact their third grade teacher made. It does make a difference and it takes us all to work as a team.”

Sullivan fully recognizes that educating students today is not the same as it was in 1932.

“However, the education they gave those students in 1932 was to ensure success for them throughout their generation. The education we have to give our students in 2019 is to give them the foundation and the competence to be successful in their generation.” 

The second is a medallion that Sullivan earned by running the Little Rock marathon.

“The thing about a marathon is the medallion [for finishing the race], and the analogy I like to use is that the medal we are shooting for is student success. We will have to work hard together as a team, and it is a marathon. We have to work and support each other, but in the end, we get to see that medallion, the student success.”

The third is a picture of his family that includes his daughter, Hannah Joy, that died at 17 following a fight with cancer.

“She went to heaven at 17, but she taught me a lot about how to approach my career — she has inspired me to be a better educator. She taught me that every day is important and to do our best.”

Sullivan said that the year before his daughter’s death, she “didn’t miss a beat in school. She was #1 in her class and never made a B. I was her principal, but their teachers knew their story. They knew that one was struggling with cancer and about to go to Heaven, the other, her best friend/sister [Bethany], experienced a loss. They knew her story so they could support her. What is important for us is to know the kids‘ stories and to know what they are facing, and that can change the way we approach things and you can address their needs. My girls teachers addressed their needs, and they were both successful … it’s important to know our kids’ stories.”

He said the situation with his daughter made him a better person and strengthen his faith, which Sullivan said is a big part of his life and drives him as a person.

“We were at Childrens’ Hospital waiting on surgery and she shared with me an experience she had at church at a weekend retreat when the pastor shared with them how God allows storms in your life to bring you closer to Him, and allows others to see Him through your storm. She went on to tell me that she ‘prayed for a storm so that God might use me.’ God knew her days and was preparing her for what was coming, and two weeks later we found out she had a grade 4 glioblastoma. I say all that to say, I don’t want to waste that storm — my perspective on everything changed, as a father, as a husband, and as an educator — I’m better, I will use that storm for good, and I have. I want to live well and honor my daughter, while I’m waiting, because we will be reunited someday.”

In sum, Sullivan said he has become very impressed with the communities of the school district.

“It’s good people and good people make a good school district. It only furthers the fostering of my excitement [to be here], and it is an honor to serve here in this capacity.”