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by Mark Cheffey
While teaching, coaching and administrating in Northeast Missouri his entire career in education, Jason Harper had grown a strong appreciation for the Palmyra R-I School District.
And, now Harper gets to see it up close and personal after officially becoming the superintendent July 1.
“The community has high expectations and there is strong community support for the district. And, from what I’ve seen so far, we have a lot of caring people in the school district, and people who care enough to build relationships and care about kids is the No. 1 factor.”
Harper’s appreciation for the Palmyra schools came mostly from his 23 years at his hometown Clark County School district. He served as high school principal after teaching social studies and history while coaching varsity girls basketball, where he witnessed competition between the two districts.
“I think Clark County sees Palmyra as a rival, very, very much as a rival, maybe even more than Palmyra considers CC a rival,” said Harper, who indicated he always looked forward to the annual Tony Lenzini Basketball Tournament, which often featured his team’s first match-up of the season with the Lady Panthers.
“It was a big, big game,” Harper said.
But the rivalry even went beyond athletics, as both district’s compared themselves to each other.
“I felt like there were a lot of similarities,” Harper said. “We felt we had a great school district with great programs, and felt Palmyra had the same. And so you were always measuring yourself against Palmyra.
“All the things I saw from the outside looking in were top notch.”
Harper’s familiarity with Palmyra also came while growing up with older siblings, and in the process became familiar with past superintendents Jim Lowe and the late Ray Church, whose son, Jason, was a high school classmate and best friend.
So, it would not have been a big surprise when, while deciding to seek a superintendent’s position elsewhere, Harper applied with just two districts, including Palmyra.
“I went through the thought process of applying for jobs, and I was very selective about where I wanted to go,” said Harper, who originally anticipated spending the rest of his career in Clark County.
However, it looked to him over time that rising to the superintendent’s position there would not be possible.
“As it went on, it became apparent that if I was going to become a superintendent, I would have to look elsewhere,” Harper said. “Which is not a bad thing.”
Harper ended up interviewing for Palmyra’s open position in December and it went quickly from there.
He came in on a Wednesday, was offered the job on Thursday and was introduced the next day.
“So, I would call that a fairly quick turnaround,” Harper said.
And, after school let out in Kahoka, Harper and his family began the move to Palmyra.
The older son, Corbyn, a senior at Truman State, actually was the first to head to Palmyra after landing a summer job with Bleigh Construction.
The rest of the family moved four days after school was out and have been busy becoming Palmyra residents ever since.
“We’ve enjoyed it and are starting to get acclimated and have been trying to get out and about and trying to communicate with people,” Harper said.
Son, Carter, a high school junior, got a job with Breadeaux Pizza, and also as a substitute lifeguard at the Flower City Park swimming pool.
Wife, Nicole, is also joining the school district as a seventh grade science teacher as well as cross country coach and assistant track coach.
Harper said his daughter, Callie, a fifth grader, may have had the most difficult time with the move.
“She sort of struggled with the move, but we were able to enroll her in summer school, and she loved it,” Harper said.
A change in direction
Harper grew up a big sports fan and had early aspirations of someday becoming a sports writer, and eventually went to Western Illinois University as a journalism major.
“I quickly found out that was not my calling,” he said.
And, while there was no tradition of teaching in his family–he grew up on the family farm–education was still strongly emphasized, exemplified by the fact that his father served as president of the Clark County school board.
“So, education was important,” Harper said.
Upon graduating from WIU, Harper embarked on his 26-year (and counting) career in education at Knox County High School in Edina, where he taught history and also served as the district’s transportation director and athletic director while coaching varsity basketball.
In 1999, Harper began teaching middle school social studies and coaching varsity basketball at Clark County.
He completed his master’s degree in administration in 2006, then his administrative specialist degree in 2008.
In 2006, Harper became the high school principal and vocational director at Clark County.
In his 16 years in administration, Harper has taken an active role in the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals, serving as the Northeast Region president in 2016.
He was also named the Northeast Regional Principal of the Year in 2010 and 2017.
Harper mentored multiple high school principals in Northeast Missouri, including Jared Pontius, PHS princiipal, and had been a speaker at the State MoASSP Conference as well as the Aspiring Principal’s Conference.
While at WIU, Harper met his future wife, who is originally from Pekin, Ill.
She’s been teaching science for 23 years, including 21 in biology.
The move to Palmyra has reunited the Harpers with some people they knew while at Clark County.
Macy Bross, a PHS graduate, who teaches and coaches at Palmyra, was one of Harper’s teachers and coaches at CC, as was Betsy Brass, also now teaching in Palmyra.
Another Palmyra teacher, Julie Thrower, was one of Harper’s basketball players when he coached at Clark County.
Initially, Harper is busy getting to know his new staff as well as the building facilities.
“I feel it is my job to initiate conversation and be as communicating as much as possible here these first couple of weeks, so I can relate to people and build relationships,” Harper said. “My No. 1 priority right now is to not only build relationships with in the school district but outside the school district as well.”
Harper said he has already attended the meetings of some local civic groups and looks forward to more interaction within the community.
“Right now my first impresssions are very positive,” Harper said. “Every one is very gracious to me and it seems like there is some excitement, and I appreciate that.”
Also, on his early agenda is taking walk-throughs of all the school facilities which he said are “outstanding” for a district this size in northeast Missouri.
“I Will be doing walk throughs with the goal of developing short and long range plans and to make sure we keep on top of things,” Harper said. “If you pause the updating, then all of a sudden, things get old fast.”
Harper said he faces challenges ahead as all school administrators do.
“Finding quality people to teach is the No. 1 difference maker,” he said, noting an overall teacher shortage statewide.
Coming in, he said, Palmyra has already managed to fill all of its vacancies going into the new school year.
“But, there are a lot of school districts that are still looking for teachers,” Harper said. “That is worrisome to principals especially, and superintendents also, because you’ve got to have quality people in front of the kids.”
A combination of low pay and the costs for college and continuing education are factors.
“It’s a high stress job and not necessarily high paying, and that combination creates a situation where it can be difficult to find quality people,” Harper said.
The stress level has also gone up of late due to external factors.
“As you watch the news and you watch around the world, things are more divisive, and that extends right into our classrooms and right into our offices where there is more negativity,” Harper said. “People are expressing their opinions on a more regular basis, and so it makes it more difficult for a lot of these workers.”
The COVID pandemic has also left a mark that is still felt by school today in the form of lower school attendance.
“And part of it is because the mind-set before was you need to go to school when you are feeling good, but now the mind set is if you feel sick at all you need to stay home.”
And school attendance is still considered a key to success.
“I think the No. 1 thing we learned was there is no substitute for the in-person classroom experience,” Harper said. “If you have a high quality teacher in front of the students, it’s the best learning experience available.”
Supply chain issues also provide headaches for school superintendents who find it harder to obtain needed supplies and equipment in as timely a manner as it was before the pandemic.
“You’ve really got to be on top of things and have a plan in place,” he said, noting that finances are an issue with higher costs.
And there is the ever-present concern about funding from the state, where there is a push in the legislature to fund school vouchers.
“Even if there is no need for vouchers in Marion County, that may make the pool statewide more shallow for us,” Harper said.
Life outside of school for Harper focuses on the family, which enjoys travel and annual vacations.
Personally, he unwinds by heading for the links.
“I love to play golf,” said Harper, who like just about every golfer, is always trying to improve his game.
“But, every time I think I have that game mastered, it humbles me,” he said.
He also loves watching sports on television, a tradition started when he was growing up and becoming a big Mizzou fan while always watching Norm Stewart’s basketball Tigers games in the 1980s on the Raycom network’s Big 8 double headers.
“I remember enjoying watching Anthony Peeler, Doug Smith, Derrick Chievous and Melvin Booker,” Harper said. “I loved Mizzou basketball.”