(Jerry Horton in last interview – Supt. of county schools retiring after record-making tenure.)
Like a coach who has just taken his team to the Super Bowl, Jerry Horton is walking away from the top education post in Pontotoc County with a major victory in hand.
For 12 years he packed the school district with top level educators, set a pace to become a Level 5 district and finished among the top five percent of schools in Mississippi academically.
When the final door on his career as superintendent of county schools ends Dec. 31, he will have accomplished all of them.
The transition to retirement life will come as welcome relief to the man who has stood in the gap to defend public education’s right to have prayer and Bible study in schools.
Already he is making sure his fishing gear and hunting equipment is ready to go.
For the first time in years, he is ready to get away, get a “new perspective on things,” and consider his options after a career that brought the highest academic recognition to county schools in history.
His life has been filled with public service, since his early days as an alderman in his hometown of Ecru.
Since then he served two terms in the Mississippi House and is finishing his third term as county superintendent of schools.
Horton’s leadership started early after being elected vice mayor of Ecru.
“People have placed a lot of trust in me over the years, and I certainly appreciate it.”
Without question his years as the county’s top school leader has been challenging.
“But, it has also been the most rewarding,” he is quick to explain.
When the long-standing practice of having prayer over the intercom at North Pontotoc School was challenged in Federal Court, Horton went head-to-head with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The legal confrontation wrangled on for months, cost thousands of dollars to litigate, and strained emotions and physical energy.
Horton found himself in the biggest spotlight of his life appearing on several major television network shows and defending the value of prayer in public schools.
But throughout his career from the city hall to the Legislature, he could not escape his love for education.
The former classroom teacher set “education as his top issue in the Mississippi House” and eventually won a seat on the House Education Committee, one of the chamber’s most prized appointments.
His years in the House help get him ready for one of the toughest jobs in public life, “especially where it dealt with finances.”
It was there he learned the “ins and outs” of education financing, “where the money came from and where it should go.”
When he won his first term to the school position, he made it a priority to get as much money from state sources as possible.
He laughs that being the school boss is not all glamorous.
“There were days when I was on top of school building roofs or dealing with angry parents. I have passed out commendations to teachers and dealt with discipline problems all within a few hours.”
The changes in school have been major.
It used to be that report cards were sent home on students only. Today, report cards are issued on the schools and how they are doing.
“Accountability in schools is so great today.”
He has also been part of an ever-changing education philosophy.
Schools are returning to lower student-teacher ratios. Schools are hiring support staff like guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, etc.
Once, most of those were the prerogative of parents. But that is all changing.
With it the philosophy of education is changing because of these new demands.
“With no child left behind” requirements, students now must be “tracked” individually so that if anything is going wrong in the education cycle, teachers can spot “the red flag.”
The “key to the school district success” has been the district’s ability to track students, follow them from grade-to-grade and give special attention to areas in which students were having problems.
Those who know the school district well say Horton has put in “one of the most talented” administrative and teaching staffs they have ever seen.
The school district’s success has been so great that it has already had the top third grade in Mississippi one year and scored the tops on algebra testing.
In the 12 years he’s been at the helm, the student population has expanded from 2,400 to 3,100.
Even with new classrooms at North Pontotoc, he predicts a major expansion will be required in just the next two to three years to take care of the fast-growing system.
Another school may also be required.
“I don’t know of any other source of revenue to build buildings than the bond issue,” he said.
What he does believe in strongly are small classes, centralized classes, and additional buses to cut student time on buses.
Horton is not likely to sit on a creek bank long nor relax in his fishing boat at a favorite fishing hole.
His friends say he is a born educator, and he’ll not be able to stay away long.