Watson Chapel Superintendent Connie "Doc" Hathorn is retiring at the end of this school year.
Treat people the way you want to be treated. It is very important to build relationships with students, parents and the community. I don’t put myself above anyone. Retiring Watson Chapel Superintendent Connie Hathorn
Walking through the halls of Watson Chapel High School on a recent afternoon, Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Connie Hathorn didn’t pass a single student, faculty or staff member without greeting them or being greeted by them.
Many students approached Hathorn with comfort, referring to him as “Doc” or “Papa.”
They showered him with hugs and love while begging him to stay another year or two, expressing how much they’ll miss him and what they’ll miss about him.
Earlier this month, Hathorn submitted a letter of resignation to the Watson Chapel School Board effective at the end of the current school year. Though he did not want to discuss his reason for leaving, in his letter, he wrote: “This has been a difficult personal decision for me to make because of the professional and personal satisfaction I have received while working on behalf of our students.”
Hathorn was hired July 1, 2015, on a contract that runs through June 30, 2018. He received an extension last year for an additional two years, which runs through 2020, and in February he received an additional year extension, which runs through 2021.
A native of Louisville, Mississippi, Hathorn was led to Pine Bluff to further his education and play sports at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
His first job was in the Pine Bluff School District as a teacher and a coach for three years; he then moved on to coach at UAPB, Pine Bluff High School and Watson Chapel High School.
“Some of the students I have now are the grandkids of some of the students I’ve taught or coached, so that is a plus,” Hathorn said. “I have taught or coached a lot of the students’ parents in the PBSD as well.”
After teaching and coaching, Hathorn went into administration, where he has gained over 30 years of leadership experience.
“It is an eye-opener. There are so many decisions you have to make while being in leadership positions,” Hathorn said. “You’re not going to be able to make everybody happy, but you have to put the kids first.”
He believes that all kids can learn, especially when placed in the right environment. He understands that children face many issues in day-to-day life and knows that he must treat them like they are his own kids.
“It is a priority for me to respect my students and build relationships with my students,” he said. “I know my students by name and they know that ‘Doc’ cares.”
Hathorn walks through the schools regularly, usually starting his day with a stroll through the high school. He participates in bus duty, does home visits, gives free admission into sports games, etc.
Since he first came to WCSD in July 2015, the district has witnessed an increase in their student achievement each year of his tenure. The high school was removed from the list of schools that were in academic distress due to the lack of student achievement over a three-year period.
The district has doubled the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses, and they have kept their finances in check during challenging times due to a decrease in student enrollment. The district also provided support beyond the classroom to help meet the needs of some of their most vulnerable families.
Hathorn said, “We reimagined what is possible, particularly with our low-performing students. We cultivated highly effective partnerships with UAPB, SEARK and many other community organizations. We did these things and so much more together. I am extremely proud of what we have already achieved and what lies ahead for Watson Chapel Schools as a result.”
He credits his leadership to skills he gained from his 19 years of coaching, saying, “it is important to surround yourself with the right people and build a team because everyone has specialized skills that I may not have.”
Hathorn gave much credit to his leadership team and staff of the district, whom he called “the finest educators I know.”
Each year, WCSD students have experienced higher levels of learning and access to additional opportunities on their pathway to college and career.
“We have provided a model for the schools in how to focus an entire system on raising student achievement and removing barriers for our most vulnerable children,” Hathorn said. “I believe I have fulfilled my responsibilities as superintendent and have accomplished much during my tenure thanks to the dedication and skill of our staff, families and community partners.”
When it comes to what can help the entire educational system in Pine Bluff, Hathorn suggests consolidating Watson Chapel, Pine Bluff and Dollarway school districts.
“It can work, but it takes the right leadership,” Hathorn said. “If you do that, kids can have more opportunities.”
His concern is that with students moving from district to district, they are not being taught the same skills or receiving the same instructional framework across the city.
“If you have one school district with one curriculum aligned across each school, kids won’t have much of a change when transferring from to school to school,” Hathorn said.
He knows that with his skills and qualifications, if asked, he has the ability to lead a consolidated school district with the right team members.
“We have to do something different,” he said. “What we are currently doing is not working, and I think that parents have to realize that it is not fair to the students.”
Hathorn emphasized the importance of creating an inviting and welcoming environment for students and parents.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said. “It is very important to build relationships with students, parents and the community. I don’t put myself above anyone. Because I have a doctorate degree doesn’t mean I’m smarter than anybody else, it just means I went to school longer. You don’t have to have a degree to love kids.”
Ending his letter of resignation, Hathorn said, “I really have mixed emotions as I share with you my plan to resign my position as superintendent of Watson Chapel School District. This decision did not come easily. To me, Watson Chapel is ‘home’ — a community in which I have planted roots and people for whom I care deeply for. I will cherish the memories of my time here and wish the district and its most precious resource, our youth, much success.”