Exceptional Women in Education
Education is one of the earliest fields where women took leadership roles. We asked the Fort Smith Public School system for a look at its women leaders today.
Five Women, Seven Ideas on Success
It was a lovely, bright green dress.
However, there is this unspoken rule.
Women who are administrators are supposed to wear black or navy suits to the first meeting of the school year. But no one remembered to tell Ginni McDonald.
You can imagine. She walks in – right on time – because she doesn’t know that “rule” either. Reflexively, heads turn, eyes widen and there is that millisecond when she realizes she has varied from the norm. In the same moment, every other woman in the room is deciding on a supportive wink, a compliment or a smile and a nod.
This was one of several stories that five women, representing many talented women leaders, recalled with laughter and enthusiasm during a conversation about experiences and responsibilities as educational leaders in the Fort Smith Public Schools. They also reflected on the connections and intersections of the work they do on behalf of thousands of students each year, as well as what they believe are the most important factors that define their collective success.
Love What You Do
“Dr. Mary Ann Johns leads and inspires with grace, integrity, humbleness and a sense of calm,” is how Sherri Penix described Dr. Johns, who – with more than 50 years in education – is the senior staff member in Fort Smith Public Schools. She has been the facilitator of best practices in elementary education and confidant to elementary principals for more than half of those years.
Mary Ann came to the district as a special education coordinator with seven years of teaching experience. She served in that role for nine years. When she had the opportunity, she decided to apply for what was, at best, a lateral move as the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Instructional Supervisor.
She laughs that her husband, Forrest, just didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about the possibility. But, as the thoughtful and supportive man he was, he wouldn’t come right out and say he thought she was better off right where she was.
Mary Ann said to him, “OK, let’s do this then. Write down on a piece of paper what you think is best, and we will seal it in this envelope and open it in a year.” He did.
She got the GATE job and worked in that capacity for three years until, in 1991, she was selected to lead all elementary principals as the Director of Elementary Education. She has become one of the most well-respected administrators in what will be 28 years at the end of this school year.
She said it certainly hasn’t always been easy, but it is a job she has always loved.
Her colleagues around the table, and many others, depend on Mary Ann to be the calm and consistent leader that she is. She also is a marvelous example in her willingness to be a life-long learner.
Educational practices are as fluid as cultural norms. Mary Ann models what it means to accept the challenge of change and find the best that change can offer students. Ginni teasingly reminds her of an absolute truth. Elementary education and Mary Ann are where everything begins. Peggy Walter notes with a smile that she decided a long time ago that Mary Ann Johns is “who I want to be when I grow up.”
Remember Forrest’s sealed vote? He and Mary Ann opened the envelope a year later and he acknowledged her choice was the best choice.
Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.” – Lou Holtz
Dr. Ginni McDonald became the district’s first female secondary school principal in 2012 at Northside High School. The Fort Smith Public School District was formally incorporated in 1875. After 137-plus years, the time was likely right.
Ginni first taught Special Education classes and was promoted to Special Education Coordinator, and then as an administrator in Greenwood Public Schools. About 12 years ago, she made the move to Fort Smith as an assistant principal at Kimmons Junior High School, then Northside.
She was promoted to principal, where she served for five years before her selection as the school district’s Director of Secondary Education two years ago. No-nonsense, fast-paced and persistent characterize her leadership style. She has high expectations for herself and for those around her.
One day, a fight broke out in the hallway outside her office. Before she realized what she was doing, she had disarmed the aggressor and unceremoniously stopped the fight. She would think twice about doing that again, but her quick, confident action set a tone in the building.
At Northside, she met with every student to discuss their plans for the future. One student told her she looked like a tiger in the hallways, but was “really nice” in these meetings.
When she began her first teaching assignment, her principal, Dorothy Pasdera (now Weisenfels), called her in and told her it was important that she get to know all the teachers in her building. After 22 years, she sees it as an important point of influence. “She embodied love, firmness and high expectations,” Ginni said. The first mail she received as principal was a note of congratulations from Ms. Weisenfels.
"Every Little Thing Counts”
Designated as an Arkansas Master Principal in 2018 and now closing in on her doctoral degree in educational leadership, Southside High School principal Lisa Miller is the newest principal in the district. She is only the third person in the school’s 56-year history to lead the high school.
Her trajectory is a little different than most educators tapped as instructional leaders. She began her career as a CPA and also served as the controller at a bank. She left banking and accounting when her third child was born, with a resolute desire to teach. What she really wanted was to teach elementary school students how to read.
At that time, former Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brenda Sellers told her there weren’t any elementary positions for teachers who had non-traditional licensure. If she was willing to take a job in one of the secondary schools, she could someday move to elementary.
So, at 37, Lisa started at Kimmons Junior High School teaching Earth Science, Life Science and Social Studies/American History. She loved it and as she became more comfortable in the classroom, she realized secondary school students were not nearly as intimidating as she once thought.
She decided math was really the subject she wanted to teach. She taught math at Ramsey Junior High for seven years before changing to adminstration as principal at Coleman Junior High School in Van Buren. “I didn’t want to leave Fort Smith so much as I could not pass up the opportunity to be a principal,” she said.
Lisa was selected to lead the new ninth-grade center, where she worked from 2012-13 until her selection as the Southside principal last year.
She said for her, there hasn’t necessarily been one thing, person, group or circumstance she can point to as key to her success.
“Every day, I change and evolve as a leader based on the inputs of the group that I am around,” she noted.
“Flourish Where You Are Planted”
Sherri Penix is honored and excited to become the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Campus Support on July 1. She is the first African-American to serve in executive leadership in Fort Smith Public Schools. She is a 33-year educator who has simply been willing to go wherever God planted her. She gives credit to several for nudging and nourishing her along the way, including Yvonne Keaton Martin, Dr. Brenda Sellers, Dr. Annette Henderson and Velmar Green.
She began her career as a second-grade teacher in Magnolia, Ark. She taught for three years before earning the credential and licensing as an elementary school counselor. In 1991, she and her family moved to Fort Smith where she was an elementary counselor until she became an assistant principal at Euper Lane and Cook elementaries. In 1996, she was appointed as an assistant at Spradling Elementary, then as principal. She became the principal at Euper Lane Elementary in 2001 and served for 15 years. She has been the district’s Human Resources Supervisor for three years.
While talking with her youngest son, Kyle, recently, she told him, “If someone told me in 1985, ‘Your choices as a female and a black female coming out of little Crossett, Ark., will lead me to this place,’ I don’t think that I would have believed them. The choices and opportunities were very limited. I knew I wanted to be a teacher – a teacher – I wasn’t planning to be an administrator or even the role I am now.”
Shortly after her appointment as Assistant Superintendent, Peggy Walter sent her a note that Sherri treasures. She said it was a needed affirmation even though “this is not something that I have sought after or driven toward, this is where I need to be right now in this next chapter of my life.” Peggy said quietly, “Sometimes others can see what you cannot.”
“This Is Too Big A Job To Do It Alone.”
39-year veteran educator and Arkansas Master Principal Peggy Walter is the senior FSPS building administrator. She became principal at Fairview, one of the largest elementary schools in the district, in 1997. Peggy taught reading in Alma before Gaye Presley hired her at Spradling. She taught a first/second-grades split class that year, and then taught Title 1 until she was appointed as an assistant principal at Fairview and Woods. She was assigned as a full-time assistant principal at Tilles before moving back to Fairview as the school’s instructional leader.
The year she became principal, the district closed the Belle Point building as an elementary school. Peggy was charged with facilitating the best transition possible for the staff and students. All would be transferring from Belle Point to Fairview. Peggy and her team planned transition activities and tours, and the Belle Point learning community was incorporated into their new environment with welcome and celebration. Mary Ann Johns said, “She did a masterful job.” This same welcoming environment persists at Fairview today.
Peggy says, “I am who I am because of the people I surround myself with. They are positive people. We do not have time for negative. I want to surround myself with people who are better than I am. I want to be with people who know data better than I do, and people who know buildings better than I do. As a leader, you want to build capacity in your building. It is too hard to be a building principal by yourself.”
Lisa Miller offered a little insight to the inner working of Fairview from a parent’s perspective. Her third child, the one who she stayed home with, was also the first to go to public school. Lisa was anxious about this transition, so she made an appointment to visit with Peggy and tour Fairview. She said this of Peggy’s leadership, “As a parent, I felt so confident and a sense of relief that I knew Noah was always going to be well taken care of, not just academically, but emotionally and socially.”
Adversity Refines, Relationships are Key
All of these women have experienced their share of adversity. Some divorce, some death, some in learning how to negotiate the challenges of raising grandchildren. Without hesitation, all conclude that the challenges they have faced have refined who they are as leaders. They are more empathetic. They understand they do not know the stories that shape students, staff and parents. They are aware, as leaders, they have an opportunity to choose to build a positive environment.
Peggy Walter greets every student every day. She has been doing this for the past 23 years because she also believes every little thing counts. And, just as she has watched leaders like Mary Ann, Peggy has realized people are watching her. So, she is modeling “positive” on purpose.
When Sherri said, “We can fix academics. Kids need to know that they are loved, wanted and that you care,” there was a chorus of affirmation.
Lisa said, “Every critical situation changes you. It has to change you for the better.” About six years ago, she made a conscious effort to reevaluate her philosophy on leadership. Her learning community lost a student to suicide.
“The student was high achieving, top of the class, still, she was battling something that none of us saw. It changed the way that I look at every child,” she said. “I started greeting them in the morning. I want to be a contact point for kids, and the social and emotional support that they may need. I want to be a positive force for the teachers, a positive force for the students and a positive force for the parents.” She notes she believes that when leaders start with positive, all the rest builds on that.
Lylah, Emmalyn, Millie ... Harper, Jack, Sawyer, Faith, Ian and Jack, Nash, Joshua, Delaney, Norah and Lorelai. All of their grandchildren remind Mary Ann, Peggy, Sherri, Lisa and Ginni that “balance” is among the most important qualities they can model as leaders.
As they were gathering to talk “leadership,” some conversation was naturally about the antics of 3-year-old granddaughters. You know, the ones who are just really finding their voice in this big world.
In Sherri’s case, the conversation exposed how much she enjoys stirring up granddaughter Millie as her oldest son, Sean, gets Millie settled down.
As a team of leaders, they remind one another, too. Ginni notes that Mary Ann reminds her when it’s time to go home. Peggy said she recognized early that the building would run on its own. It was up to her to create a culture of care within that building. The only way she can do this effectively is to care for herself and her family.
Regarding her husband’s recent illness, Lisa said, “I have a lot of accomplishments on my resume, but when I thought that I was going to lose him, none of that mattered.” She said she could not have done this last year without the support of Ginni and Northside Principal Dr. Keri Rathbun, Ramsey Principal Amy Manley and Darby Principal Dr. Katie Kreimer-Hall.
Sherri noted, “We share a lot of common ideas and experiences – treat people the way you want to be treated. Relationships are key. Make sure that you find that balance in life and take care of yourself. Walk out of any circumstance better because of the people you have surrounded yourself with.”
Lisa responded, “I don’t think that it has anything to do with being a woman, necessarily. But, I think that it has everything to do with being human.”
They agreed: No one shows you in a book or class, you learn leadership with experience and interaction with people. It’s not about the title a person holds but it’s about the people we are deep inside. If we value everyone, our students will see that and they will do it, too.
The magazine asked Zena Featherston Marshall to write the keynote of our Exceptional Women issue. “Exceptional” describes her as a person and in her role as Executive Director of Communication and Community Partnerships. Her title is inadequate to describe her responsibilities and contributions to the Fort Smith Public School District. Many in the school district describe her as “the glue who holds everything together.” At work, she supports the important work of Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Doug Brubaker, and serves as a connection to every department and program of the school district and to the Board of Education.
This article appears in the April 2019 Exceptional Women issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.