Dollarway School District Superintendent Barbara Warren is steering a district with a mountain of problems. But like any effective leader, she is taking them on one by one. She prioritizes visiting her district's schools to meet with educators, students, parents and grandparents.
“Our babies really like to see me and I really like to see them,” Warren said. “They hug me and smile. Many say you're Bianca's mom or Johnny's mom. Some see me as a mommy because my children are here in the district. Others call me Superintendent Warren. They are very formal. When I am at their activities and events, I try to be approachable and I try to be huggable. … I want to be seen as a person who cares about them.”
In less than one hour on Thursday, Warren visited James Matthews Elementary School and Robert F. Morehead Middle School and drove past the Dollarway High School campus. She greeted parents, grandparents and children; made sure certain doors were locked; chatted with employees; and took pictures of facilities.
We have some pockets of low morale. Overall, I think our district is very hopeful about where we’re going and seeing some positive changes. For some people morale is really good. People need to feel that their work matters and that the object of their work is improving.Dollarway Superintendent Barbara Warren
She oversaw the dismissal of students and waved to students who were playing drums in an outdoor courtyard as part of a music class. Many people greeted her with a hug.
Warren said she believes a superintendent leads by being present with students.
“There was a time where if you'd asked me this question before I would have said '[being seen on campus] is pretty important but now I am learning that it's way, way important,” Warren said. “And not because I didn't think people do not deem the leader an important part of the organization but I felt it was important that I take care of those other things that only the superintendent can take care of and spend a lot of my time in that and then of course fellowship, connect, evaluate, and monitor instruction and other activities.”
“I am finding that they want to see me,” Warren said. “They want me to know what they're doing.”
Superintendents do not have the luxury of being unrecognized when they attend ball games, shop at the grocery store or take part in their children's functions. Warren said these realities come with the job and she accepts them.
Warren said she is responsible for making certain that the resources the district needs to operate are being met be it fiscal or human capital, making sure the curriculum is aligned, and that the basic educational foundation principals are being followed.
“Those are the big pieces but what that looks like on any given day is a variety of meetings,” Warren said. “I might be sitting in a meeting with a Department of Education unit. … Or I could be in leadership meetings or a professional learning session meeting. Or I could be gathering assessment data or whatever we have to do to move things forward. Being a district the size we are, everyone wears many different hats. I am not just a top educator sitting somewhere in an ivory tower waiting for things to come to me. I am out there with these things.”
The Dollarway School District has been monitored by the Arkansas Department of Education since December 2015 when it dissolved the Dollarway School Board of Directors due to a prolonged period of academic problems and the firings of superintendents Bobby Acklin and Patsy Hughey. Warren was appointed superintendent in December 2015 after having previously been the director of the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative.
Upon starting her current job, Warren spent time collaborating with the Arkansas Department of Education to learn about the Dollarway School District. With the passage of nearly two years, Warren is formalizing plans to implement a vertically aligned curriculum. She reports to ADE Commissioner Johnny Key.
Warren realizes that word of mouth makes a difference in shaping the culture of the district.
“We have to make a decision on where children are and where they need to go,” Warren said. “We have organized into a leadership structure that has every facet of the district supported by a leader be they building leaders or the transportation director or health services. The district is compartmentalized. We have pretty much taken the organizational chart and have been very deliberate with responsibilities associated with that.”
Warren credits Dollarway employees for instilling a culture with a focus on academics.
“While I have a huge job, I could not do it without the other leaders of the district,” Warren said.
Warren said her greatest professional challenges revolve around having enough time to give her full attention to whatever pressing matters arise. Superintendents do not know what person is going to pose what question until it lands in their proverbial laps, she said.
Dollarway struggles to attract and retain teachers, not unlike other districts, she said. The district did not ever have all the facilities that neighboring districts did but it benefited from having dedicated teachers, she said.
Warren said she gave a survey to Dollarway employees at the start of the academic year to measure their morale. She has met with teachers in small groups to discuss culture and climate.
“We have some pockets of low morale,” Warren said. “Overall, I think our district is very hopeful about where we're going and seeing some positive changes. For some people morale is really good. People need to feel that their work matters and that the object of their work is improving.”
An educator for 21 years, Warren was previously a Pine Bluff School District special assistant to the superintendent, a Stuttgart Public School District assistant principal, an Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative assistant director/teacher center coordinator, and a Phillips Community College adjunct faculty member.
She earned an Education Specialist Degree in Superintendency from Arkansas State University in 2014, a Masters of Science in Education Degree - Supervision and Administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2001, and a Bachelor of Science Degree - Business Technology from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1995.