Michael Shepherd, Lakeside Principal

When Michael Shepherd was a senior at Pine Bluff High School, he wanted to be Wally Hall, the sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Shepherd was editor of his high school newspaper and was already working for the Pine Bluff Commercial. He loved covering sports.

“People at the Pine Bluff Commercial were very good to me,” Shepherd, Lakeside Junior High’s principal, recalls. “They gave me some great assignments. I got to cover Razorback football and basketball games. I thought I was big time. I was convinced I would be Wally Hall someday.

“I was a sports reporter nerd. I listened to every Razorback football and basketball game I didn’t cover. I had been a Razorback fan since I was young because my dad took me to the football games at War Memorial Stadium and the basketball games at Barton Coliseum.”

What changed his direction?

“My goals were to someday have a family and be a dad who spent time at home with his kids,” Shepherd responds. “When I was working at the newspaper I would be in the newsroom until midnight or one in the morning. I worked every weekend. I loved it but I wanted to be available to my family.

“My mother was a principal, in Arkansas City when I was in elementary school and in Pine Bluff at Watson Chapel from the time I was in seventh grade. I knew education was the route to make a difference. It is the way to make positive change with kids.”

Shepherd was thinking about family because he was already dating Lara, who would become his wife. There was a problem, though. He was a freshman at Arkansas State while she was at Ouachita Baptist.

“Neither of us wanted to go to the other’s school so we compromised and both enrolled at the University of Arkansas,” Shepherd explains. “I switched majors from journalism to social studies education. She was interested in the medical field. If I couldn’t be Wally Hall, I wanted to create positive change. I’ve never regretted the decision. I still love athletics but I am doing what I was meant to do.”

While he was at the UA, athletics were spectacular. The Razorbacks won the national basketball championship and moved into Bud Walton Arena during his junior year.

“I was among the last group of students in Barnhill Arena and the first in Bud Walton Arena,” Shepherd remembers. “I was always right there in the student section. I didn’t go to Charlotte but watched the championship game in Bud Walton Arena where a lot of us watched on the big screen.”

Once he graduated, Shepherd taught social studies for two years at Walnut Ridge. Meanwhile, Lara was in graduate school in St. Louis, studying for her eventual career as a hearing specialist. Once Lara finished her studies, they got married and moved to Marion. Michael taught at the high school while Lara worked at the Baptist Hospital in nearby Memphis.

“Once we had Will, our second son (Braden was the first), we knew we wanted to move back to Northwest Arkansas,” Shepherd says. “I sent out applications and was hired as a social studies teacher at Springdale High School.”

Shepherd arrived at SHS during the final year before Har-Ber opened. He says it was “an interesting year. It was so crowded that 10 of us taught classes in trailers on the band practice field. I knew every band tune because the band practiced during first period. I taught mostly ESL (English Second Language) students. We didn’t have ESL in eastern Arkansas. So, I was starting all over in a trailer on the band field.

“Still, it was a great experience. When Har-Ber opened I was named department chair for social studies. I love teaching and someday will go back to it. I love being in the classroom with kids. A teacher can have great impact when he or she has every day to get to know them.”

While teaching at Marion, Shepherd also completed work toward his administrative certification even though “I didn’t know if I would use it.” He used it pretty quickly in Springdale. After just one year at Har-Ber, he was hired as assistant principal at Central Junior High.

“Darrell Watts (principal at the time) called me and I got the job,” Shepherd says. “Kelly Koons, who is now with me at Lakeside, was there and we built a relationship. He taught me how to be an administrator.”

It only took another year for Shepherd to move again. Student growth allowed Har-Ber to add an assistant principal and Shepherd answered the call of then-principal Danny Brackett. He was there for six years and during that time became the first National Assistant Principal of the Year ever from Arkansas.

“It was an amazing time at Har-Ber,” Shepherd notes. “Being assistant principal of the year allowed me to travel all over the country. I don’t know if I was any better than anyone else but I learned so much from other administrators. I brought everything I learned back to Springdale and still use it today.”

When Springdale opened a new junior high school in 2013, Shepherd was named its principal. He says, “It was a fantastic opportunity for the next move. It was an honor to open what was then the newest secondary school in Springdale (the Don Tyson School of Innovation has opened since). Very few people get to open a new school and build an entire staff in their first job as a principal.

“We’ve created a fantastic culture at Lakeside. We have one of the best staffs in the country and they are so student focused. It’s not about what teachers are teaching but what students are learning. We’ve been fortunate to have people who have done fantastic things with families and their kids. We have a reputation as innovators.

“We use standard based grading and have implemented a block schedule because it increases the depth of learning by cutting class transition time in half.”

Lakeside also has been blessed with an amazing number of state, regional and national honorees on its staff. Chelsea Jennings is Arkansas Assistant Principal of the Year and is one of three finalists for National Assistant Principal of the Year. Arkansas Teacher of the Year Joel Lookadoo was at Lakeside when he earned the honor. Brian Johnson is Arkansas Media Specialist of the Year, Lauren Willis is Arkansas Middle Level Counselor of the Year and Rachel Cornett is Regional Choir Director of the Year.

“It’s amazing but not surprising,” Shepherd says of the honors the Lakeside staff has collected. “We have been very purposeful in recruiting the best people to Lakeside. Hiring staff is my number one priority. We recruit them. We go find them. We’ve brought them in from all over the state and out of state.

“For example, we have a science teacher from Colorado who is national board certified and is fantastic. Rachel Cornett is from Arkansas but she was teaching choir to inner city kids in Harlem when we found her. She was thinking of coming back, so we talked to her. She’s been here eight years now.”

Time has gone quickly for Shepherd and his staff and also for his family. Braden is now a senior at Har-Ber High School and Will is a sophomore at the Don Tyson School of Innovation. Michael, Lara, Braden and Will still go to as many Razorback football and basketball games as they are able as Shepherd continues the tradition his father started with him.

When the games are over, though, Shepherd can take his family home rather than face deadlines as he writes game stories. Since he did not become Wally Hall, he and his family help make Springdale Public Schools #THEChoice.