ELAINE NATIVE MAKES HER
MARK IN CONWAY
Toward the back of Oak Grove Cemetery in Conway, in the first plot of the cemetery’s 54th section, sat a grayish-white gravestone covered in fresh grass clippings from the recent morning mow.
At the top, a name could be faintly seen through the grass. I wiped off the top and saw in capitalized letters the name “CONE.” At that point, I knew I had found who I had spent almost an hour searching for.
The person who rested in this plot was just one of the many buried on Oak Grove’s 24 acres. But her impact is still being felt today.
Sallie Hildreth Cone was born on Jan. 17, 1892, in Elaine, Arkansas. Cone earned her bachelor’s degree from Central College (now known as Central Baptist College) in Conway and obtained her licensed instructor degree from the nearby Arkansas State Normal School (now known as UCA).
After spending several years teaching in Helena and Montrose, Arkansas, and marrying her husband Jesse Grafton Cone, Sallie returned to Conway and was hired by the Conway School District. Cone went on to teach for the district for almost 40 years, retiring in 1960. In 1961, the then Fairside Elementary School, located on South Boulevard in Conway, was renamed in her honor as Sallie Cone Elementary School.
Built in 1955 and opened in 1956, Sallie Cone Elementary School has served the city of Conway for 65 years. The school has had multiple expansions in its history, including the addition of a media center in 1972 and the building of 14 classrooms and offices in 1991.
The school has also served multiple purposes. Until 2012, Sallie Cone Elementary taught school-aged children for 36 years. However, in 2012, Carolyn Lewis Elementary School was built on Old Military Road in Conway, taking Sallie Cone Elementary’s staff and students with its opening. Conway Public Schools then repurposed Sallie Cone Elementary and its buildings as a preschool and adult education center.
Sallie Cone Preschool’s hallways are narrow with a low-hanging ceiling. On my tour of the building, I was struck by the fact that my tour guide, Conway Public Schools Director of Support Services Jason Lawrence, and I couldn’t walk side-by-side through the school’s passageways, having to alternate between walking ahead and behind each other. The building’s classrooms are small, a relic of an era in which school building standards were minimal and almost non-existent, Lawrence said. Interior hallways make for fewer windows and dark shadows through the original 1955 building’s central corridor. Some classrooms have doors that lead outside, which while helpful for preschool parents picking up their children, are problematic for ensuring facility security, Lawrence said.
Despite the district’s best efforts, maintaining Sallie Cone Preschool at an optimal level for students and staff has been difficult, Lawrence said.
“We keep pretty good maintenance on it,” Lawrence said. “Our maintenance crew is phenomenal. [There’s just] so many band aids.”
On June 9, the Conway Board of Education approved a renovation of Sallie Cone Preschool to improve its current facilities and replace the original 1955 structure.
The renovation will happen in parts. First, the school’s 1991 addition will be renovated and turned into the new preschool area. Sallie Cone’s Adult Education Center is being moved to another facility in Conway.
“Each preschool class has to have a restroom,” Lawrence said. “So, we’re putting restrooms all 14 of [the school’s] classes.
In addition to renovation work on the 1991 addition, the building’s 1972 addition will also be renovated with new paint, floors and ceiling tiles.
Renovation work is expected to be completed by mid-December.
The work won’t stop with renovating the existing structure. Conway Public Schools is building a new safe room and cafeteria that will join Sallie Cone’s 1991 addition.
Following completion of the renovation and addition, Sallie Cone’s original 1955 structure will be torn down.
“Our kids deserve a better environment,” Lawrence said.
Despite the history behind the original 1995 building, Lawrence said the school hasn’t received any community pushback from the plans to renovate the facility and tear down the original structure.
“When we get the new facility, [the public] will see what we can do,” Lawrence said.
In Sallie Cone Preschool’s lobby, a picture hangs on the wall of its namesake, Sallie Hildreth Cone. While the school’s facilities might be upgraded and replaced, one constant is certain. Sallie Cone’s impact on the city of Conway and Conway Public Schools will remain, no matter the building her picture resides in.