As a girl growing up in a small community in the east Arkansas town of Cotton Plant, Joyce Littleton Craft calls it a “privilege” to have learned about work ethics and the ideal that “your word is your bond” as she and her siblings tended the family’s cotton crop in what’s called the Delta. “[My parents] stressed the importance of education and reaching your goals, even if that meant working twice as hard,” says Craft.
That passion for education drove her to earn degrees at University of Arkansas, Henderson State University, and Memphis State University. It also drove Craft’s decision to devote 40 years to improving education in the Hot Springs (Ark.) School District. She started as a teacher in 1972. More than 20 years later, she became assistant superintendent for secondary curriculum and instruction in 1993, and then rose to become school chief in 2006, replacing a powerhouse leader, Roy Rowe, who led the district for more than 15 years.
It wasn’t always easy. In a culturally diverse district (43 percent white, 42 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent other) that serves the urban city of Hot Springs, Craft replaced Rowe but kept momentum moving forward despite a softer, more reserved leadership style than Hot Springs was used to, says Ann Hill, a school board member. And under Craft’s leadership, her district became the only one in Arkansas to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program for K12. Also, Park Magnet Elementary, an IB Middle Years Program World School, received the national Blue Ribbon School award in 2009. And in 2011, U.S. News and World Report named Hot Springs High School one of the top-performing schools in the nation.
Filling Big Shoes
The Hot Springs School District sits within Hot Springs National Park, known for hot springs, bath houses, spas, art galleries, lakes, and Magic Springs amusement park. But it’s also known worldwide as home to the Hot Springs Technology Institute (HSTI), a conference held yearly in June at Hot Springs High School that Rowe founded in 1992 as a “sharing conference” for Arkansas district leaders to discuss concerns and successes in implementing emergent educational technology.
Rowe also developed Hot Springs’ magnet school model which allows all elementary-age students to attend one of four schools that offer a curriculum focus of their choice: visual and performing arts; math, science and technology; aerospace and the environment; or participation in the IB’s Primary Years Program. Students in grades 5 through 8 participate in the IB’s Middle Years Program. In high school, they either continue the IB program, or take AP classes.
In her 13 years as his assistant superintendent, Craft said that Rowe ensured administrators had opportunities to grow, noting how he laid the foundation for Craft’s potential future hiring by sending her to the Arkansas Leadership Academy Institute for superintendents.
But Craft made her way on her own as well. She has 34 years in the district as a Hot Springs teacher and had her own children go through the system. Craft has also been active in the community as a board member of National Park Community College, and she implemented a tutoring program run by the local Rotary Club where she reads or listens to elementary students practice language arts skills.
Collaborator and Listener
And in 2006, after Rowe retired, the board selected Craft to replace him But Craft says she felt an unconscious bias against her. “Early in my role as superintendent, some felt I wouldn’t be as effective in accomplishing our district goals, and that I would be too timid when dealing with staff, vendors, and board members,” Craft recalls. “Those who had that early misconception soon realized it’s not the size of the package that matters, it is what’s in the package that makes the difference.”
Craft is “poised, reserved, and her objectives are attained without any confrontations or drama,” says Hill, who has been on the board since 2005. “She willingly collaborates with and listens to those around her, but her decisions are unmistakably the final word. This is comforting to the board members, none of whom are professional educators.”
As a woman of color following a male superintendent, Craft calls her transition into the role as “somewhat challenging, but not impossible.” Her first challenge was in construction, since the district was about to begin constructing a newly approved $14 million school for grades 5 and 6. And Craft recommended reconfiguring the elementary magnet schools, which had their own themes, mission statements, school songs, and mascots. The board had her move the district forward “as the Hot Springs School District with magnet themes.”
To implement a district vision that still allowed the magnet schools their separate missions, Craft hired a full-time academic operation director for K8 and a part-time secondary curriculum director to develop and coordinate a K12 curriculum alignment.
In 2006, Craft also implemented two-day administrator and board retreats. Held at Mt. Harbor Resort in Mt. Ida, a consultant from the Arkansas Leadership Academy focused on the district’s vision and mission, and as a group, studied professional learning communities and how they functioned, using books such as Turning High Poverty Schools into High Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge, for guidance. Craft has continued these retreats, where administrators revisit the mission or address other issues she deems important, like the budget and district data on attendance.
In 2006, the district also began evolving its technology landscape. Under Craft’s guidance in 2007, small groups of teachers in each school were given Promethean ActivBoards and complementary document cameras that could be connected to project student work so classes could view it and comment on it collectively. The action “lit a spark” with teachers who began to integrate technology into their instruction. As a result, Craft says Hot Springs increased professional development training for teachers and administrators, and began using programs like Nation A+ Lessons and PrometheanPlanet.com to integrate technology into lesson plans.
Craft continues to push the envelope of technology. Among her major successes, Hot Springs built a districtwide wireless network in 2009 with the aid of eRate and other funding sources to replace its network infrastructure. “This superintendent-led decision has provided greater accessibility to information through increasing multiple technical devices, with the ultimate goal of sending them home with district students,” says Doug Upshaw, Hot Springs High School principal and the district’s director of technology and communication.
The district also purchased new computers for the high school and elementary schools and bought 550 iPads for fifth and sixth graders. In addition, Craft helped the staff prepare for the Common Core State Standards. In the past, Craft says the district focused on teaching students the nuts and bolts of how to read and write, and computers were used mainly to run programs that helped students learn, but not necessarily how to understand what they were reading. With Common Core, the focus has shifted to how well students comprehend text, how well they can further research topics they’ve learned in that text using the internet, and their ability to analyze and organize the information to be able to explain it.
As part of the Common Core preparation, Hot Springs offered professional development to all math teachers. And since 2006, the district helped math teachers learn strategies to evaluate and teach students to problem solve, specifically through Cognitively Guided Instruction institutes, which involve 110 hours of professional development over three years. CGI institutes expect students to solve math problems in multiple ways and explain the solutions.
In 2009, Craft started a “Three4Me” Initiative to answer a need for more parental volunteer participation in schools due to some discipline referrals and student achievement issues.
Finally, Craft took the ball that Rowe threw regarding HSTI and ran with it. Now in its 21st year, the tech institute has more participating schools (up to 1,450), more hands-on workshops, and more than 100 exhibit booths from vendors nationwide, demonstrating the latest technology for classrooms. Thanks to the nationally and internationally recognized speakers at HSTI, Hot Springs is a showcase for the latest educational technology for teachers in Arkansas and the region.
Joyce Littleton Craft
- Superintendent, Hot Springs (Ark.) School District
- Tenure: 7 years
- Students: 3,650
- Staff and faculty: 584
- Schools: 7
- Per-child expenditure: $6,267
- Students receiving reduced-price lunch: 77 percent
- Dropout rate: 3 percent
- Web: www.hssd.net