By Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal
JACKSON – In the 1970s, the state required students in every other grade to be tested at the beginning of the school year and then at the end to determine whether educational progress was made.
In Corinth, former Superintendent Wayne Gann said administrators thought that was such a good idea that they conducted similar tests in each grade.
But after a few years, Gann said as a way to cut costs he recommended to resume what the state mandated – every other year testing. He said teachers who liked the concept raised such a ruckus that he backtracked and resumed the yearly testing.
Gann believes that testing “got Corinth a little ahead of other districts” when the state began to rank districts in the 1980s. Corinth and Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast were the only two Level 5 (or highest performing districts) when the state’s first rankings were released in the early 1990s.
Since then, the district where Gann served as superintendent from 1974 until 2001 has been one of the tops in the state.
Now Gann, 69, will play a major leadership role in the performance of all Mississippi school districts as the new chair of the nine-member state Board of Education. Gann was selected earlier this month by fellow members.
He is the third Northeast Mississippian to hold the leadership post. Tupelo businessman Jack Reed was the first chair of the state board in the 1980s. Tupelo businessman Claude Hartley, whose tenure on the board ended earlier this year, also served as chair.
“I never dreamed I would serve on the state Board of Education,” said Gann, a short man with a round face that is quick to break out in a smile. “… I have always done things kind of my way.”
If his way could lead to the success statewide that Gann’s Corinth District enjoyed, it would be a remarkable feat.
But Gann is not promising any miracles.
“We have tremendous challenges in Mississippi,” he said.
Gann said, “We will continue to focus on our lowest-performing schools by providing the technical assistance needed to help them improve, while also providing opportunities to better our highest-performing schools.”
Closing the achievement gap, where students from poor backgrounds – especially minority students – lag behind is a priority. He said he also wants to focus on improving the quality of education leadership in the state.
“We have some great leaders, but just not enough of them,” he said.
Dealing with cuts in funding in recent years also must be addressed, he said, to prevent a long-term negative impact.
Gann has been on the state board since 2006, an appointee of former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck. Gann said he knew Tuck and respected her, but was not particularly close to her politically. He said then-Senate President Pro Tem Travis Little, R-Corinth, called and asked if he wanted to serve on the state board.
Tuck, now vice president for campus services at Mississippi State University, said, “I am pleased to have had the opportunity to appoint Dr. Gann to the state Board of Education. With his background, I believe he will be an outstanding chairman for the state Board of Education. I think every child attending public schools K-12 in Mississippi will benefit from Dr. Gann’s service.”
Gann’s selection was a bit unusual. Slots are reserved for an active school administrator and teacher on the board. Gann, a retired educator, filled one of the “lay” slots on the board.
While Gann is a career educator, that is not the background of his family. His father was a small farmer in Mantachie before a road improvement split his property. He then opened a store that included a barbershop.
Gann, one of five brothers and the only one to complete college, attended Itawamba Community College and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degree from the University of Mississippi.
He taught math at East Union and later was a principal in New Albany before taking the superintendent’s post in Corinth.
In the late 1980s, Gann hired Lee Childress, an administrator with the state Department of Education who had previously worked in Clarksdale and DeSoto County, as a deputy superintendent. Childress would later marry Gann’s daughter, Vicki, who is a dentist in Corinth.
The affable Gann has joked before that Childress stole his job and his daughter.
“We are a lot alike,” Childress said of his father-in-law. “We both want to do what is right, but sometimes that might not work within the system that is in place. But as long as you are doing it to look after children, I think it works out OK.”