A Fort Smith elementary school principal is the Arkansas PTA’s pick for administrator of the year.

Cavanaugh Elementary’s PTA nominated Principal Hank Needham, who won of all those nominated in the state.

One of the Cavanaugh PTA leaders, Chelsea Sykes, remembers when she was a mischievous kid and Needham was her fifth-grade teacher.

“He was very strict with me, and I did not like it,” she said. “But now when I look back as an adult, I am so thankful.”

Sykes said she and some of the other students lived in a low-income apartment complex nearby and that Needham would come on his personal time to tutor them.

At that time, she did not know what she was capable of, she said.

“But he did. He saw potential,” Sykes said.

Needham has worked in education for 31 years. He was a teacher at Cavanaugh from 1991 to 1995. When he returned in 2001 as the principal, there were seven regular classroom teachers and it was not a “high profile school,” he said. There are now 12 regular classroom teachers. His goal was to develop the school enough that parents would want to buy homes in the neighborhood.

He worked with the PTA to renovate the school’s playground and buy new equipment.

Cavanaugh Park is across the street from the school. When Needham arrived, there was a trailer park there, which affected how people saw the school, he said. The school bought it in 2009 when the school was expanding and Needham had a vision for what the area could be. Several businesses, organizations and individuals pitched in materials and work to make the area a park for anyone in the community.

“It was a way to enhance the school experience for kids and a way to give parents and families an advantage of having what other areas of Fort Smith have,” Needham said.

The park has been a continuous project, from cleaning up the area, doing dirt work, getting benches, planting trees and having a concrete walking trail.

“The Cavanaugh Park has been really huge,” PTA president Ronika Morgan said.

Morgan said Needham knows each student by name and has gone as far as making sure children in need have shoes and coats. Misty Fleming of the PTA said she’s noticed Needham spending time with students in the mornings before school and always showing up to PTA fundraisers.

“What I like the best about working with little kids is how impressionable they are,” Needham said.

The goal is to instill a good work ethic in students when they’re young.

Needham said the PTA and community support has grown in the past several years.

“For Cavanaugh School to be able to raise over $6,000 at a carnival or a chili supper is phenomenal,” Needham said.

Needham gives most of the credit to staff, parents and others in the community, calling himself a liaison.