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PLANNING FOR A FIRST DAY TO REMEMBER

May 22, 2019

 

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT

Rutherford County Schools

 

As everyone from students and teachers to administrators and staffers gear up for the final week of school, a pair of assistant principals — Jennifer Clark and April Sneed — are already planning for the first day of next school year.

 

Clark was recently named the new principal of Rocky Fork Middle, while Sneed was named principal of Whitworth-Buchanan Middle.

 

“I know that I have a big job ahead of me and it’s already started,” said Sneed, who has met already with every teacher in the school, listened to their concerns and begun to layout her vision of expectations for next school year. “It’s been an emotional week getting to know everybody.”

 

Clark added, “I know we have summer coming up, but I’m ready to go. We have a new elementary school opening up right next door and it’s going to be very energetic.”

 

Both women, who have spent their entire careers in education, have experienced a lifetime of first days of school, but the upcoming 2019–2020 school year will be unlike any they have ever experienced.

 

“I don’t have any connections to Whitworth-Buchanan,” said Sneed, who will be going into her 20th school year and recalled that it was connections she made with teachers and administrators that shaped her career choice.

 

“I’m coming in fresh.”

 

Clark expects her first, first day of school as a principal to feel a lot like her own first day when she started kindergarten at LaVergne Primary — a combination of nervous and scared, but welcoming — when she opens the doors to students on Tuesday, August 6.

 

“I’ve always loved school,” Clark recalled. “My dad jokes that my playhouse paid off for him. He built a playhouse for me in the backyard and that’s where I played school all the time. I had a chalkboard out there and taught my stuffed animals. I taught the neighbor kids.”

 

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Clark and Sneed had previously applied for principal openings.

 

This time, they were the two finalists for both Rocky Fork and Whitworth-Buchanan.

 

“All I had to do was bring those two in for a second interview,” said Director of Schools Bill Spurlock. “The panel did a great job. After interviewing both of them, it was very evident they were prepared and ready for that next role as a principal of the middle schools.”

 

Spurlock added, “It’s their proven track record and where they’ve been. They’ve helped facilitate positive change and good results.”

 

Sneed interviewed with a search committee on a Friday.

 

On Monday morning, she was taking part in a daily meeting of administrators at Rockvale Middle School — “We go over the day and what we want to accomplish” — when she began receiving messages from other candidates, who had received messages indicating they had not been selected.

 

“I was waiting for my email to come through,” recalled Sneed, who found herself refreshing her email multiple times. “I just kept waiting.”

 

Among her duties as assistant principal, Sneed is the testing coordinator for Rockvale and left her office for the guidance area — or the “testing cave,” as they affectionately refer to it — to continue boxing up the last of their testing materials.

 

That is a stressful situation in itself.

 

When she returned to her office, she had a message to call Joyce Michaels, assistant to the director of schools. Michaels informed Sneed that Spurlock would like to meet with her at 11:30 a.m.

 

There was one problem.

 

Sneed did not have a jacket with her.

 

“I feel like when you go into an interview, especially in the director’s office, you have to have a jacket,” said Sneed, who now makes it a point to keep jacket in her office. “You can see, I have one on my chair now because I never know these days where I’m going to be heading off to.”

 

At Rock Springs Middle, Clark was handing out birthday coupons to those who were celebrating May birthdays. She was on the opposite side of the school when she realized she missed thecall.

 

When she returned the call, Clark was overcome with joy when Spurlock said, “I would like you to know that I am going to (name) you the next principal of Rocky Fork Middle School.”

 

Clark added, “It’s a beautiful school. … I’m already familiar with the Smyrna community. There was nothing but sheer excitement for sure.”

 

Sneed is succeeding Avy Seymore, who is retiring at the end of the current school year, while Clark is taking over for Dr. Jimmy Sullivan, who recently named the new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

 

Sullivan, who was a member of the search committee, said, “Both of them have experience at the middle school level. Middle schools are a unique beast in and of their own.”

 

Sullivan also noted that Rockvale and Rock Springs are respectively similar to Whitworth-Buchanan and Rocky Fork in both size and demographics.

 

After sitting in on both interviews, Sullivan said, “You understood that both of them really knew what it meant to lead a school and what they were going to have to do to get that.”

 

Bringing in a new principal — namely Sneed and her track record as one of the top testing coordinators in the county — will give Whitworth-Buchanan an opportunity to stretch itself academically and reach its full potential.

 

“I’ve always heard that (Sneed) was the guru of the testing coordinators in the middle schools,” Spurlock said. “Everyone that wanted to know something or had a question about anything dealing with the testing part of it, they always contacted her.

 

“That speaks highly her,” Spurlock added.

 

Hearing that comment, Sneed’s eyes welled up.

 

She never cried but was clearly impacted by hearing that quote read back to her.

 

“That’s a big role that I play as an administrator and there were lots of working parts and pieces that you have to put together,” Sneed said. “And with the testing difficulties that we’ve had over the past couple of years, it has been difficult to rally teachers and students around that assessment and still take it seriously.”

 

Rockvale has arguably been one of the top two middles schools in the county for the past decade, according to Sullivan.

 

Like Sneed, Spurlock and Sullivan noted Clark’s diverse background as an administrator.

 

“That is very unique,” said Spurlock, “She started out as an educational assistant and worked her way up to a teacher with a special needs background, and she did a fine job there. Then administration, she’s done a great job.”

 

Sullivan added, “You’ve got someone who understands the demographic of (Rocky Fork Middle). Even though we’re 15 minutes from (Rock Springs) we are right over I-24, so we’re probably less than two miles from each other … and our school zones back up to each other. She is familiar with the Smyrna community, is familiar with a lot of my faculty members and so you’ve got both of those.”

 

She attends Community First Church, where her husband Nate serves as a worship leader. The church is less than a mile from the school.

 

“I grew up in Smyrna and LaVergne,” Clark said, “so it’s the people that I know and love.”

 

Her love of people has been a lifelong passion.

 

“I have ethic that I would put up to anyone. I’m very driven. I like results. I love data, but I also love kids,” said Clark, who relishes the combination of meeting academic goals and developing students as young people. “I love the education side. Obviously, that’s the foundation, but there’s just so much more to kids that I find intriguing.”

 

Although the 2018–2019 school year has not wrapped up yet and both officially take over as principals beginning July 1, Clark and Sneed have already been spending a portion of their time at their new respective schools.

 

They’ve met with faculty members, hired new administrators and already began creating a vision that includes goals and expectations for the upcoming year.

 

For Clark, it’s a matter of continuing the success Sullivan has achieved the past two years, while Sneed will be tasked with making a positive impact on the climate in an effort to create the desired culture.

 

That said, they have 76 days until the most important first day of their lives.

 

Between now and then, both are feeling a range of emotions from anxiety and excitement to nerves and restlessness in anticipation of the school year ahead.

 

“I love the smell of new pencils and my new calendar and my new binder,” Clark said. “I’ve always been the type that I embrace first days of school.”

 

She concluded, “I think first impression is big.”

 

PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT