Her childhood sounds like a plot from a movie -- the kind of movie where an American flag flies outside every front porch door and friendly dogs and adventurous kids roam the streets, confident in their safety. Born in Fort Smith, Bentonville Public Schools' Superintendent Debbie Jones and her family moved to a farm in the small community of Charleston -- population roughly 2,400 -- when she was a child. In addition to working the farm, her father was an educator and football coach, while her mom served as the assistant to the administrator at Mercy Hospital. The middle of three children -- all girls -- Jones was an excellent student who was active in sports.
"My sister and I played on the same basketball team," Jones recalls. Her charming Arkansas accent is thick, her folksiness disarming, but an 80-minute conversation reveals that underneath that approachable demeanor is pure skill, knowledge and determination. "We would get home from every basketball game -- that would be Tuesdays and Fridays -- and we would sit on the fireplace and get a whole 'nother lesson in coaching from my father. And it was late. My sister would argue back, and it would add 30 minutes of conversation, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'Just shut up and listen.'"
Through Others’ Eyes
“She’s very happy. She knows that she has an important job, but it’s tough — it’s such a big district, and covers so many different people, and you have to try and make everybody happy. She loves what she’s doing.” — Mildred Parker
“Her leadership is action-oriented. When we become aware that there is something that needs to change, that we could improve something that would help us better serve our students, she is not one to say, ‘We’ll take care of these other things, then take care of this.’ Her action is immediate — ‘What can we do, and let’s do it now.’ She pushes us in a positive way to do everything we can to support our kids today, not tomorrow.” — Janet Schwanhausser
“She is intentional about not affecting one group over another. She really tries to consider, ‘How is this affecting the kids? Is it the right thing to do for the education of these kids?’ She’s a good communicator — if you sit and talk to her, she can put it on your level really quickly. Considering how many moving parts are in these decisions, she does a great job at it.” — Travis Riggs
Jones' mother, Mildred Parker, says, with three girls playing basketball, her house often felt more like a basketball court than a home.
"You couldn't move around the kitchen, because they were always showing the youngest one how to block," says Parker. "She would try to get to the refrigerator, and they wouldn't let her."
Jones' grandmother, Annie, worked at the only fast-food restaurant in town.
"I would walk down to the Dairy Diner, and she would make me a little cheeseburger and Funyuns and a little Dr Pepper for my after-school snack," says Jones. Jones was such a regular at the tiny joint, she ended up working there herself, taking over her grandmother's position on the grill. "I worked there all the way through high school -- every Saturday and over 40 hours a week in the summer. I made great friends there. It would get so hot back there that I would just drink one Dr Pepper after another.
"It was just sweating and learning a lot of lessons at the Dairy Diner."
In the speech Jones gave when she was running for student council president during her senior year, you can hear a glimmer of the leader that she was to become.
"I remember saying, 'I won't make promises I can't make come true,'" says Jones. "Others were saying, 'We're going to have vending machines in every room,' that kind of thing. And I said, 'I'm not sure I can make that happen. I promise I will work hard for you, but I can't make a promise that I can't make good on.'"
"She was the middle child, so she was always trying to live up to her older sister and also be a role model for her younger," says Parker.
Jones' father suggested she pursue a career in teaching English after noting her skill in helping him edit his Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) handbook. She was a high-achieving, successful high school senior, but she hadn't yet hit upon a career choice that sounded more promising. She followed her high school sweetheart to the University of Arkansas, and the two eventually got married. Jones and her husband, a Walmart employee, moved around the country for the next couple of years. It wasn't until the two were back in Arkansas that Jones began her teaching career.
"I am a small town girl -- it was an eye-opening experience to live in lots of different places," she says. "We lived six places in three years. We found our way back to Arkansas because I thought to myself, 'You're going to get me back to Arkansas, or I'm going to move back by myself.' So we moved back to North Little Rock, where we had our three children."
Jones says she loved teaching English.
"When I consider my favorite pieces of work, every piece, every book, every poem takes me back to people who gave me that book or poem," she says. "When I think back on 'Lord of the Flies', I think of my eighth-grade class that I shared that with. There is so much more to literature -- it's how you share it."
Still, as much as she loved teaching, Jones knew she might aim for something else out there.
"I was driven, and I'm not really sure why that is," she muses. "I can't really put a finger on that. It's not like my parents drove me hard. But I always wanted to do better."
She went back to school to get her master's in administration, while in the process of building her family. "When I was taking my last master's test, I had to sit sideways in my desk because I was about to have Jenna, my middle child."
Her first position in administration was as the assistant principal at Mills University Studies High School in Little Rock. When she was hired to do the same job at Jacksonville Middle School, she says it was probably her toughest placement; she faced gang involvement and daily bomb threats and fights. But, she says, it was rewarding and educational. It was there that Jones begin to see the extreme poverty that some of her students faced.
"My home school counselor Josie and I went to the trailer of this young girl," remembers Jones. "She was brilliant. If you looked back at her test scores from the fourth grade, she was in the 90th percentile. She had been retained in sixth grade, which was my beginning grade, two years before I got there. She never came to school. She had had head lice since the fourth grade. When she sat across from me -- when we could get her to school -- I could see the little wings on the lice. So we went to her house in the summertime before school started. It was a drug neighborhood. Josie said, 'We're not getting out here, are we?' and I said, 'Yes, we're getting out. We'll be fine.'"
Jones says she had to knock for long minutes before anyone would come to the door.
"I said, 'Listen, she's so smart, but she's going to have to come to school. I don't want to fail her for the third time in sixth grade."
Exposure to students with needs that went far beyond the role of the traditional school model would set Jones' educational philosophy to what it is today.
"We are in a time when, whether schools want to accept it or not, we have to provide wrap-around services," she says. "And when I say 'wrap-around services,' I don't care of it's breakfast, I don't care if it's showers, clothes, food if they don't eat on the weekend. You have to do it. You have an obligation -- maybe not a legal obligation, but a moral one -- to take care of those that are not taken care of.
"The conditions some people live in are awful. And for them to come and focus in school -- until they have those basic needs met, their minds cannot work on academics. And so the job of education has become so much more than just academic. If you think you're going into education to teach, and your students will absorb it, and everyone is going to be happy -- that's not our world today. Our teachers are so much more than that now."
Jones continued to advance in her educational roles, including a move to the Pulaski County Special School District to serve as secondary director, to Bryant School District as assistant superintendent and to the Arkansas Department of Education as an assistant commissioner for learning services. In that position, she would have a front row seat to the inner workings of the Arkansas state legislature.
"With my division, there was always a bill on that committee that affected my unit, and so we had to respond to every bill, to say how it impacts us," she says.
When former Bentonville superintendent Michael Poore started looking for an assistant superintendent, he contacted Jones, whom he had known professionally for some time. Jones says she had always wanted to move to Northwest Arkansas and readily accepted the position.
The move came at the end of a difficult period of transition for Jones.
"My husband and I divorced after 23 years," she says. "That's where the real scar in my life is. Those were some hard lessons. He was a good man, and I have beautiful, healthy kids, but divorce is awful on a family. I don't know that you ever really recover from that, but you at least learn from that.
"After three years, though, I remarried and have now been remarried for five years. I couldn't be happier. I think I married my dad, is what I did. My husband is a football coach, and I'll look at what my husband does and think, 'That's my dad.' He's really passionate about kids."
Now a blended family of five, Jones and her husband settled in to life in Northwest Arkansas, which they took to right away. She started her new job in February 2017. In April of that same year, Michael Poore announced he was leaving Northwest Arkansas to assume the position of superintendent for the Little Rock School District -- a move Jones says took her completely by surprise. She assumed the role of interim superintendent and worked to help the school board screen candidates to replace Poore. She says it never occurred to her that she might be that person until the board president approached her at a school board meeting during the interview process.
"It was becoming more and more obvious that the right candidate, with all of the skills and qualities we were looking for, was right here in our backyard," says Travis Riggs, Bentonville School District Board president.
"The other directors and I, yes, we immediately thought of her for the position," says Janet Schwanhausser, Bentonville School District director of finance. "She didn't see herself as being the immediate candidate, and we had to respect that decision. Having been here for such a short time, she didn't feel it would be right for her to apply. What she didn't see is that we had been through the process of hiring a superintendent with Mike Poore, and we were aware going in that the quality candidates might be limited. When that turned out to be true, and that she was the perfect candidate and the right fit for our school district, I think it became more and more clear that it had to be her."
Jones says she thinks her reluctance in applying for the job has roots in a preconceived assumption she made -- that the replacement for Poore would be a man.
"In my mind, they were going to hire a male, and they were going to hire a male from outside the state, because that's what all my previous experiences told me, especially for a district this size," she explains. "It made me realize why women sometimes don't step up. It's not because of a fear of failure, because I don't really fear failure. I've applied for jobs and not gotten them before. It's just that I didn't see that as a possibility because I had not seen it happen in the past. Our mind reacts based upon previous experience.
"But professionally, it was the best decision I've ever made in my life, because of this team. I have a really, really strong team. My leadership style is: You say your piece. Don't say something just to agree with me. That makes a weak team. If you have a different perspective than I do, you need to say it at the table while we're discussing it. I have a really, really strong team, and they say what they think. They differ with me many times, and it changes my mind many times. I've never worked with smarter people."
"She's collaborative in her approach to problem solving," says Riggs. "She recognizes areas she might be weak in and seeks out support in those areas. We can't be perfect in everything we do and recognizing our strengths and where we're not strong is a very important aspect of a leader."
Jones says a job of this magnitude inevitably spills into her personal life, outside of office hours -- but true to her sunny outlook on life -- a colleague once called her "Pollyanna," a name she wore like a badge of honor -- she has turned even this facet of the position into a positive.
"I approach it as -- that's our social life," she says with a smile. "My husband and my date nights are going to basketball or football games, going to the theater or hearing orchestra music."
Jones says it's important to her to show her support to faculty, staff and students.
"Look at what they give," she says of the faculty and staff. "If you looked at their wages per hour, they're underpaid, because they give so much of their time outside the contract. Their stipend doesn't even begin to cover it. I think it's important for me to see their product, their work, and they need to see me there. That's important. That's critical."
"Debbie wants to study things," says Schwanhausser. "She wants first-hand knowledge, and when she goes to these events, she's gaining first-hand knowledge of the product, of the service, that we provide to the students. She will settle for nothing less. She doesn't want to hear from someone else. That's why she so quickly got to know our students and staff, because she's there to see things first-hand."
Jones has served as superintendent for less than a year, but she's got a good grasp on some of the larger issues the district faces. One of the largest is the poverty many of the district's families are living in.
"Many people think Bentonville's streets are paved with gold," notes Jones. "But when you still have 25 percent of your kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and you have 17,000 kids, that's a lot of poor kids. And they have desperate situations. The beauty is that here, we have great nonprofits. If a teacher discovers that a student doesn't have a backpack or doesn't have shoes, we can get them those items today. It's a responsive community. I haven't had those resources everywhere."
Tapping the academic potential of students living in poverty is high on Jones' to-do list. Study after study has shown that poverty can have a profound negative effect on a child's academic success. Jones and her team are working on helping students whose test scores identify them as potentials for Advanced Placement (a series of academic rigorous, college-level classes offered to high school students), but who, for some reason, have not sought out that additional academic rigor.
"We did a long survey with them," says Jones. "Why are they not in AP classes? Their responses are often heartbreaking. 'I didn't know I could be in AP.' Well, of course they don't. They've grown up in families where no one took AP. They thought that was exclusive for somebody else. And so we're inviting them. 'I work too much, I have to work, I don't get money from my family.'
"So our responsibility is if we're putting those kids in there, we better support them in being successful. Now we have a mentor that's in charge of that [child]. They take that student, they have a conversation. We don't force them in the class, but we say, 'You can be in this class, this is probably best suited for your skills.'"
Districtwide, Bentonville will start offering pre-AP science classes to all sixth-grade students.
"Here's why," says Jones. "There are families that have not had the experience of pushing their kids to AP and pre-AP. But it doesn't mean their kids are less smart. We want every student to have had pre-AP training -- some of the strongest academic training. Everybody deserves that."
Jones says she feels settled at Bentonville, in a way that may have evaded her in the past.
"If I had one word to best describe where I am today -- 'thankful,'" says Jones. "I'm so thankful that my husband and I are where we are. We both have good careers. We get to work with kids. Our own kids are happy.
"I will tell you that, throughout my career, I've always had this feeling of 'What's next?' I was always working to get to the next step. And that's a good thing, and I guess some people may call that ambition. But it's also not a peaceful place. Now, I'm at a peaceful place in life where I'm not looking for what's next. Yes, we have constant challenges here that we're working on. But it's good work.
"It's really, really good work."
Lara Jo Hightower can be reached by email at email@example.com.
NAN Profiles on 03/04/2018
Print Headline: Debbie Jones