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But it was a short life. The beautiful dark-haired teen-ager was killed in a single-car accident in 2001. After the tragedy, her trigonometry teacher called the family to tell them she would have earned an A, though she'd previously struggled in math. She was 17.
The foundation Paul and Linda Leopoulos created honors their daughter's memory by promoting arts education. Its headquarters at Fourth and Main in Argenta offers exhibit space for students and art-related public events, such as the Argenta Arts Festival; raises funds for art supplies for schools across the state, and awards annual visual and performing arts scholarships to graduating high school students. Since 2002, the foundation has distributed $1.5 million in scholarships to 197 students, money that is matched by 20 colleges in partnership with Thea.
Seems like that would keep the foundation busy, but Paul Leopoulos is a driven man, who feels his daughter looking over his shoulder, approvingly.
In 2007, Leopoulos took a trip to El Dorado to deliver an artwork from the Arts Across Arkansas program, a joint Thea and Clinton Foundation program that circulates paintings and drawings to schools, to Hugh Goodwin Elementary. The principal, Phillip Lansdell, "met me at the door. ... If it wasn't for that school and that man ... . He said, 'You ever hear of A+?' He took me on a tour. I got goosebumps."
Here's what Leopoulos saw: A school that in a previous year had had 80 suspensions, but by the third year of its adoption of A+ didn't even have a discipline referral. A school that had been a "focus" school, whose third and fourth graders had scored only 23 percent proficient in literacy and 36 percent in math on the 2005 state benchmark exams, but by the third year of A+ were scoring at 50 percent proficient in literacy and 69 percent in math.
"I called Linda and said, 'I've just seen the answer.' This is it," Leopoulos said. "If all schools in Arkansas did this, we wouldn't need the Thea Foundation."
Lansdell had been a coach and school administrator, but, like Paul Leopoulos, changed course because of a little girl: His daughter had crawled up into his lap and asked why he was too busy to come to her events. Lansdell took the principal's job at Hugh Goodwin, which had just been made an arts focus school and which was one of the first five schools in Arkansas to pilot the A+ program, then funded by the Windgate Foundation. The others were in Fort Smith, Clinton and Little Rock.
"Everybody was a little hesitant" at first, Lansdell said of the teachers. "We'd had a lot of scripted programs in our school ... there wasn't a lot of getting out of the box." Teachers worried it was just one more thing to deal with, and they wouldn't have time. But, Lansdell said, the A+ method offered teachers a way to return to "the way elementary teachers used to ... . It allowed them to get back having fun."
You might expect a coach to have different ideas about discipline, but Lansdell said the fact that the kids were engaged "and wanting to learn" took care of previous problems. The kids, he said, were "walking down the hallways smiling."
About the time factor? "They never have enough time," said Connie Reed, who succeeded Lansdell four years ago when he returned to the administration as athletic director; "It wouldn't matter if we had A+ or not."
In October, Hugh Goodwin third-grade teacher Tobie Sprawls looked happy, too, though she was overseeing mildly noisy and active 8-year-olds who were learning what makes a place urban, suburban or rural, a social studies exercise. Students grouped at tables were looking up definitions of the words on their school-supplied iPads. Sprawls called on them to tell her what they learned and wrote their definitions on the board. Then she handed out little booklets — stapled sheets of blank paper — in which students were to draw pictures that illustrated each word.
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