By Laura Goodwin | Photos courtesy of Fayetteville Public Schools
Dr. John L Colbert
Servant leader and superintendent to retire from Fayetteville Public Schools
“You can’t imagine the joy that John L Colbert created for us at Bates Elementary,” said Jason Smith, director of executive administration, classical music and special initiatives at Walton Arts Center. Now 50, Smith attended the Fayetteville school where, as a fourth, fifth and sixth grader, he learned mathematics from Colbert.
“We truly loved him. He had a huge smile and laugh and played football with us at recess,” said Smith. “Many students wished Mr. Colbert could be their own father. He helped us believe we could do anything if we were willing to work hard. And he helped us understand that we were responsible for each other. The sense of belonging I felt at Bates as his student is one of the happiest memories from childhood.”
Colbert, superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools since 2018, will retire in 2023 after more than 40 years with the school district.
Colbert grew up in Rondo, an Arkansas delta community in Lee County. The sixth of 10 siblings, Colbert, the first and only educator in his family so far, was called to the profession as a young man. “As a high school student, I began tutoring other students who struggled in reading,” Colbert said.
The school’s superintendent noticed that young people truly respected Colbert, who served as vice president of the student council. “The superintendent asked me if I wanted to drive the school bus,” Colbert said, laughing. “He thought because the other kids respected me, I could be successful — as long as I could drive a standard transmission.”
Dr. John L Colbert performs Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham to students, demonstrating his desire to keep learning fun
Colbert could not, but he learned how quickly. “I thought I could do anything,” he said. These experiences were formative. “I knew my future was teaching.”
In recognition of Colbert’s exemplary service and career of many firsts — he was Fayetteville Public Schools’ first African-American special education teacher, first African-American principal, first African-American superintendent, as well as the first staff member to rise from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent — the middle school under construction in west Fayetteville, scheduled to open in Fall 2023, will be named for the beloved educator.
“It’s humbling to have my work recognized in this way,” said Colbert, who looks forward to celebrating when many of his family, including his mother now in her 90s, will travel to Fayetteville for the opening of the school designed by Little Rock firm Lewis Architects Engineers.
“I’m honored to serve as the first principal of the John L Colbert Middle School,” said Warren Collier, who has served the district for nearly a decade. His principalship at Colbert Middle School began July 1. This year, Collier will collaborate with district administrators to oversee the building’s construction and assemble a team of staff and other stakeholders to plan for the school’s opening. “I’ve been lucky to learn from many leaders in the district,” Collier said. “I admire the work Dr. Colbert has done with the school board and district team to implement more inclusive and equitable practices at every level.”
Collier serves on the district’s Equity Champions committee, an initiative that began under Colbert’s leadership to make the work and learning environment more inclusive throughout the district.
“Mentors have made a big difference in my life,” said Colbert, and in turn, he has mentored many throughout his tenure. “Dr. Colbert is a servant leader,” said Jason Edwards, principal of Root Elementary School. “He’s a man of integrity who has been a tremendous mentor for me.”
Like Colbert, who deeply enjoyed working with elementary school children, Edwards values the opportunity to make an impact early in children’s lives. “The right decision is the one that is the absolute best for kids,” Edwards said. “We have to meet children wherever they’re at and we’re called to serve all of them.” Edward’s philosophy echoes Colbert’s.
“Dr. Colbert listens, he thinks and he takes all opinions into consideration. And then he acts in what he feels is the absolute best for children,” said Holly Johnson, who recently retired as executive director of communications and public relations at Fayetteville Public Schools.
Members of the Fayetteville Public Schools Board of Directors and students celebrated the naming of the new middle school May 26 with its namesake superintendent John L Colbert, who will retire in 2023
John L Colbert (third from right), superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools, and members of the school board break ground in 2021 for the construction of the John L Colbert Middle School
Johnson worked under Colbert’s leadership for nearly 10 years. “Dr. Colbert has been a force for good in Fayetteville Public Schools,” she said. “He is a healer and a consensus builder. When he says his door is always open, he means it. If you call him, you get a personal call back.”
Colbert’s deep respect for his colleagues and love for his students has earned him mutual respect, but Johnson noted that Colbert may well be remembered for his sense of fun. “Dr. Colbert loves to dance, laugh and have fun, especially with students and staff,” she said. “The focus stays on learning, but he fully believes that we should all enjoy the process.”
Colbert will carry this fun into his retirement, when he plans to travel to Europe and Africa, spend more time in Rondo and be more available for his grandchildren. “When they call, ‘Can you come, G-pa?’” Colbert said, he will quickly respond, “I’ll be right there!”