Police & Fire

Thomas begins new role in familiar place

By Chris Babb
For The Arkadelphian

July 1 is the standard day in the state of Arkansas when most new superintendents start their jobs when assuming a new position. July 1 is also right before the biggest summer holiday and in the middle of a big vacation time for school district employees as they take advantage of the last couple of weeks before preparations ramp up for the start of school in August.

New Arkadelphia Superintendent Nikki Thomas is one of those who finds herself in that position, now just two weeks into her tenure as the top administrator in the Arkadelphia Public School District with just about four weeks left until the 2022-23 school year begins. This is the second superintendent job Thomas has held as she served in the same role for the last two school years with the Gurdon School District.

But Thomas does have some advantages that she thinks will help her during this end-of-summer transition. Those who are familiar with the journey Thomas has made to this new position know that her path includes time in Arkadelphia – a significant amount of time. 

Time as an APSD student. Time as an APSD teacher. Time as a curriculum coordinator. Time as an APSD assistant principal and principal. And maybe most importantly, time as a parent of APSD students.

Thomas graduated from Arkadelphia High School in 1990 and has held positions at every building-level in the district. Thomas’ older daughter is an AHS graduate, and Thomas currently has a daughter enrolled at AHS as a sophomore.

Any person who enters a new job has a reason that they pursued that position. For Thomas, it was an easy sell.

“One of the biggest impacts on my decisions was that it was home,” said Thomas. “This has been my dream job. My dream job is not to be a 6A or 7A Superintendent, it’s Arkadelphia. This is home. I was born and raised here. I’m a product of the school. My daughters went to school here. I think we have a lot to offer, and anything I can do to enhance that and help our community is what I want to do.”

Thomas believes the relationships she has with people in many areas of the community will help her as she serves the teachers, students, parents and community.

“Knowing that I already had so many positive relationships from the time I worked here before as a principal at different levels, I just felt like coming back really made sense,” said Thomas. “I feel like I can start right away making sure that we’re connected with our community. I already have relationships in town, but for those that I don’t have a relationship with, I want to reach out and build with those in our community as well.”

Those relationships are important to Thomas, but the relationships she will aim to establish among APSD teachers, students and parents will be key to the overall success of the district.

“I do believe that relationships are number one,” said Thomas. “If students and teachers don’t have positive relationships, then it’s going to be very difficult for a student to learn in that classroom. They’ve got to feel safe. They’ve got to feel appreciated, and that goes both ways. We’re in the second year of implementation of Capturing Kids’ Hearts, which sets forth processes to help build those relationships, and I want to continue that because when you have the relationship that’s when you get kids to do what you need them to do in the classroom.”

Thomas believes that the importance a teacher can have in the life of a student is immeasurable. Even in a time when people can get bogged down in the negatives of any situation, the career she has chosen makes a difference in her community.

“Personally, it’s a calling. It’s something you feel led to do and stick with,” said Thomas. “This job is about the kids. If you get caught up in the ‘business’, it can really wear you out. Even as a principal, when I got bogged down with mandates and paperwork and requirements and forms to submit, I’d get up and walk down the hall to a classroom and talk to some students. Even as a superintendent at Gurdon, I’d walk over to the Primary School where the kids still want to give you a hug. I think in this role, I really see the potential for a broader impact. If I can work with my administrative team and then they can work with their staff and then they work with their students then we’re really building something for the community.”

While the knowledge of the community and district can help in the transition, Thomas knows that there are some potential challenges that also come with that part of her situation.

“Obviously when it’s your hometown and you have children in the school system still and you have teachers or parents who are also your friends, you just have to be very careful about keeping the professional and personal separated,” said Thomas. “But I had to do that as a principal as well, so I kind of know how to navigate those issues. 

“I know I’m not perfect and I’ll make mistakes and I’ll probably upset some people, but at the end of the day the way I’ve always looked at it is that if I’m doing what’s best for kids, I can sleep at night, even if someone is upset with me. I try to make my decisions based on that. I ask myself, ‘Is it legal, is it right, is it best for kids?’”

Even though Thomas considers this role with APSD her dream job, she also knows there is work to do, and she already has a few areas that come to mind when considering what some of her initial goals might be at the beginning of her tenure.

“I think in the first few months it’s important to be highly visible in the district,” Thomas said. “Getting out in the buildings and seeing students, seeing parents at drop-off, seeing teachers, working with my team to see what we need.

“Looking over the course of the year I want to see us continue to grow in our Professional Learning Communities, especially looking at student data to target individual needs. We’ll look at improving student achievement after two years of student loss due to COVID. I know we didn’t have to close school, but there were a lot of students still virtual, students out for quarantines and other reasons, so I see this as a time we can work to close that gap on learning.”

Thomas also knows the importance of focusing on finances and facilities in year one.

“We have the elementary school project coming up that was promised several years ago in a millage campaign, so we want to follow through with that project while at the same time keeping the district financially stable,” Thomas said. “It’s in a pretty good place right now, but with inflation and construction costs rising it’s something we’re going to have to watch. I’m definitely going to keep my hands in that as well, just making sure we’re being responsible to our taxpayers and to our district.”

Thomas also believes that the school district and the community should have a mutually beneficial relationship, and she believes that Arkadelphia is a place that supports its students.

“I know there’s conflict and there are disagreements, but as a whole, the Arkadelphia community – the businesses, organizations and schools – work together so well to try to make sure students and staff have what they need,” said Thomas. “I think there is such an outpouring here of people wanting to help that if you can really capitalize on that, we can offer our students a lot.

“I think having the universities here also is a positive because we get to host a lot of future teachers, and in a time of teacher shortage, I think that gives us an advantage if we capitalize on it. The culture of Arkadelphia feels like family in every school I’ve been in. I think that’s something that I want to build on – to make sure that culture is prevalent throughout the district.”

Thomas hopes that her time in the various roles she has held in the district helps her credibility with various groups.

“If the Primary principal comes to me with an issue or a concern, I’ve been there, so I can use my experience to help them, but I can also understand where they are,” said Thomas. “Whether it’s at the primary or elementary or middle school or even high school, when I’m asking my administrative team for something to be done, I’ve been there. I know what it takes, and I know their limits. I think that will help me not have unrealistic expectations, but have high expectations. I think it helps me know who should be doing what in their roles.”

Thomas hasn’t had a chance yet to even meet with her full administrative team, much less the teachers, but that day will be here soon as the district prepares for the back-to-school meetings that kick off each school year. Thomas’ message to teachers revolves around the importance of their role each day in the lives of children.

“I want our teachers to know that they’re important – they’re the difference makers,” said Thomas. “Everything out there in research says that the teacher is the difference maker. I’m not the difference maker in a classroom. The principal isn’t either. We can set the tone, but the teacher is the one who has the power to really change a child’s life. I don’t want them to lose sight of how important they are. 

“I know they can feel under-appreciated, but sometimes you have to go back to your ‘Why?’ – Why do I do this?’ – and then refocus. I want us to operate as a learning organization, learning and growing together, and I’m a part of that, too. I want them to know that they’ll be supported in everything that helps kids.”

Thomas also looks forward to working with parents and wants to build a professional partnership between the school district and parents of students. The district will be evaluating safety procedures and security systems, but Thomas was glad to note that a third school resource officer was being added to the district as one improved safety measure.

Goals, finances and facilities aside, Thomas sees the role of the school district as an important one in its community.

“I see needs that some of our students have that aren’t met outside of school, and that’s where the school has to step in,” said Thomas. “We’re not their parents and we’re not babysitters, but at the same time, we have an opportunity to make a positive impact on a student when nothing else in their life may be positive outside that school day. So let’s make the most of it. There are a lot of needs and I just think of it as ‘If not me, then who?’”