Recently hired Mulberry-Pleasant View School District Superintendent Lonnie Myers has nothing but praise for his predecessor, by all accounts a caring educator who put the needs of her students above all else.
Called "Super Dana" by her staff and colleagues, Dana Higdon, 48, was superintendent at MPVSD for nearly five years before she succumbed to cancer on Sept. 8.
"She just honestly cared about every single kid and their education," said Mulberry High School Principal Brad Williams. "If they couldn’t afford something, she somehow found a way to get it to them."
Higdon was instrumental in bringing about a program that provided 100 percent of school supplies to every MPVSD student at the beginning of each school year.
Williams, who has known Myers for about 10 years, said he could not think of a better replacement for Higdon.
"When I found out that they were actually bringing him in as superintendent, I was so proud," Williams said. "For anybody to step into this position under these circumstances, he’s the one to do it."
Myers worked for Van Buren School District for 29 years, he said. He started as a teacher and coach, then later served as principal, assistant principal, athletic director and assistant superintendent for the VBSD.
Myers was named the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce Iverson Riggs Citizen of the Year in 2010 for his contributions. He left shortly after for a job as Mountain Home School District superintendent.
Myers knew Higdon personally and as a colleague, he said.
"If she could help anyone - kids, her principals or me, she would do it and do it gladly," Myers said. "We loved Dana."
Higdon was principal at both the high school and primary school before becoming superintendent. She was promoted to replace former superintendent Kerry Schneider, who accepted a position at Van Buren School District in 2011.
While superintendent, Higdon also took on the roles of special education facilitator, athletic director, LEA supervisor and transportation director, hence her "super" nickname.
She even went so far as to work concessions stands at ball games and trim ditch weeds, Williams said.
Both Dennis Fisher, Millsap Intermediate-Pleasant View Junior High School principal, and Toni Hopkins, Marvin Primary School principal, noted that Higdon had a "soft spot" for special education, her college major and the area where she began her career.
Fisher told a story of Higdon helping a home-bound special education student last year, at a time when she was exceedingly sick with her illness.
"She was that sick, but she still loved those kids so much she brought that student into the school and worked with him," Fisher said.
All three principals attribute much of the district’s recent academic success to Higdon’s influence, while also giving credit to the hardworking teachers and staff.
"We just have a lot of good teachers that work together, and she was a part of every person that was hired," Hopkins said.
Some of that success includes recent high marks for the schools under the state’s grading systems, based on standardized test results.
In school years 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, Marvin Primary was given the comparable grades of "exemplary" and an "A." In 2013-2014, the most recently released yearly results, MHS and PVJHS were given "B" grades.
Graduation rates for the high school are 93.75 percent, Williams said, higher than the overall state graduation rate of 85 percent. MHS students also scored higher on the ACT than the state level in every area, with a composite of 21.5, he said.
Also under Higdon, the school built into class schedules an intervention period called "Upward and Beyond," after a chapter in Stephen Covey’s book "The Leader in Me."
Under her leadership, MPVSD started the Measure of Academic Performance or MAP at the suggestion of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, Fisher said.
With MAP, students are tested three times per year. Data from the assessments are used to design curriculum for the 30-minute intervention periods.
Teachers work with individuals or small groups of students at similar academic levels in math, reading and language, Fisher said.
"We meet every student academically, and we try to take them to the next level," Fisher said.
In the works is a collaboration with the Assembly of God Church to provide each student in the district a new pair of shoes each year, Fisher said.
"You can’t say enough about what Mrs. Higdon did for this school district," Williams said.
Williams, who grew up with Higdon, became emotional when speaking about her contributions. She was not only his colleague, but a friend, he said.
"One thing I think made her uniquely qualified to be here, she grew up here, she went to school here, she lived and worked here; she didn’t want to be anywhere else," Williams and Fisher said. "Mulberry-Pleasant View was her life - that’s what she dedicated her life to."
Myers agreed, and said Higdon’s legacy will endure. School personnel are gathering ideas and working with Higdon’s husband, Trace Higdon, on a formal memorial, he said.
"It’s an opportunity to honor the legacy of a colleague - to share with everyone what a wonderful professional and a good friend she was to me and everyone," Myers said.
Myers said Dana Higdon left the district in good standing, and he hopes to carry on the work she did with the district.
"I love education, I love working with kids and one thing Dana and I had in common is concern for the education of every single child," Myers said.