By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Urgency marked Gearl Loden’s arrival in Tupelo.
In introducing the school district’s superintendent at his first public reception in February 2012, an emotional mayor called the hire among the most important in the city’s history.
One year later, business owner and now former mayor Jack Reed Jr. stands by those words.
“I wouldn’t change a word of that,” Reed said last week. “I think it has been a remarkably successful first year.
“Really I don’t see how anyone could have done a better job of both eddying the ship as far as the teachers and the school system goes and then reassuring the community of parents and people who live in Tupelo… In every way, I think he has more than met the challenge.”
Loden, 44, begins his second year at the district’s helm Monday when teachers return to work. Classes start one week later.
School commences under a much calmer atmosphere than the district has seen in several years. When Loden came to Tupelo, he faced a litany of challenges – lagging teacher morale, disappointing test scores, changing demographics, students leaving for private schools or nearby public schools and concerns about discipline. There also was an air of public distrust created by two controversial personnel decisions in the prior year that had each sparked community protests.
And although school and community leaders acknowledge the work is not complete, many cite progress and a new momentum and optimism.
“We sense some hope internally that, frankly, had been lacking,” said TPSD Community Liaison Mary Ann Plasencia.
A big turning point came last fall when test scores improved and the district’s academic ranking rose. Although those tests were taken by students before Loden came to the district, their results provided a new sense of hope and pride. Test scores from Loden’s first year have not yet been released, but he said early data indicates they improved again.
The district had much less turnover this summer, when it had to replace about 50 teachers, down from 109 the previous year. It lost only one principal, when Thomas Street Elementary’s Kay Collins retired.
“He is very open,” said Tupelo High School AP Government teacher Jeramy Turner, entering his 14th year at the school. “He doesn’t want to be up in your face saying this is what you need to be doing. You can talk to him, and he’ll listen to you.
“The whole administration seems open and willing to work with teachers and to get to know teachers.”
Loden is still working to reverse a trend of some families leaving or not choosing TPSD, and he instilled two new initiatives at the district’s elementary schools to try to help with that – grouping students by ability level and better integrating art into the classroom. He’s continuing his focus on discipline but said the district has done a lot of work to create safer and more orderly schools.
Just as importantly, the school system seems to have regained community trust that had been waning.
“I just think his whole personality has been the right fit for what was called for,” Reed said. “I think it has been his quiet, firm, positive leadership.”
Many interviewed for this story cited Loden’s listening ability as being among his greatest assets, particularly in his first year in a new situation.
“If Gearl Loden was a rock star, I’d be his biggest fan,” said the Rev. James Hull, who served on a community committee formed to study and support Tupelo High School. “He is one of the best listeners I’ve been around in my life. It really doesn’t matter what Gearl Loden is thinking. Gearl Loden cares about what you think.”
Under Loden, the district has implemented several initiatives: it has added online suggestion boxes, provided employees with membership at North Mississippi Medical Center’s Wellness Center, required parents to attend conferences with school administrators after students’ discipline infractions, doled signs to Honor Roll students and hosted data meetings with parents to discuss children’s test results. It has launched an aggressive marketing campaign that includes billboards, guest columns and commercials at a movie theater.
The school chief’s biggest relief came at the beginning of this month, he said, when he began to see preliminary data from last year’s tests that led him to believe scores have improved.
“If you worked hard all year and scores don’t improve, you begin to wonder,” he said. “It is nice and reaffirms what you’re doing.”
Upon entering the district, Loden said he focused on student achievement, faculty morale, addressing discipline and building community support.
“It is a matter of focusing on a few key areas,” he said.
He also notes that the work in the district is much bigger than him. He often calls the district’s teachers its most important asset. He also works closely with a leadership team that includes assistant superintendents Matthew Dillon, Diana Ezell and Kim Britton and Executive Curriculum Director Leigh Mobley.
Plus, his reshuffled administrative chart establishes closer ties with the principals, who now report directly to the superintendent and meet with him weekly.
“This is about more than one person,” he said. “If things go well, the superintendent gets more credit than you deserve, and if they go poorly, you get more credit than you deserve. It is a team effort.”
It isn’t uncommon, Ezell said, for a member of that team to receive a 10 p.m. text from Loden, asking if they are awake and available to discuss something.
That’s because, Loden said, he’s found the time between 9 and 10:30 at night – after his two sons have gone to bed – to be an ideal opportunity to study educational research.
“If we’re not doing that, someone else will be ahead of us,” he said. “If you are not studying, you are falling behind.”
That is among the superintendent’s greatest strengths, said school board president Beth Stone.
“I’ve always thought to be a great educator, you need to be a great student,” she said. “I think he is a student first. He studies really hard.”
It was the school board that hired Loden, offering the job to the man from Mantachie then in his third year of leading Amory’s schools.
“I really do think it has been a great year,” Stone said. “…I’m sure not everything is perfect and there are always things you can improve on, but I think to have changed this much in one year is exceptional. I didn’t expect this much improvement in the first year.
“Test scores, I think, will be great, but it is not just that. The whole atmosphere has changed, and I think he is building a very sound foundation for us. I think we’ll just continue to build on that foundation, and we’ll get stronger each year because of it.”
Ward 1 City Councilman Markel Whittington, who has been critical of the district in the past, said Loden has been the right man at the right time.
“Gearl is not so wrapped up in the academic world as he is in the common-sense world,” he said.
Other community leaders also spoke highly of what the superintendent has done during his first year. Doyce Deas has been impressed with the way he has taken time to assess the situation and make appropriate changes, and Bishop Clarence
Parks of the Temple and Compassion and Deliverance said Loden is “trying to work with those who would work with him.”
David Rumbarger, who represents Tupelo’s business interests as head of the Community Development Foundation, called Loden “a cheery advocate for Tupelo public schools.
“I find a very thoughtful, very studied leadership approach to his advocacy, and that is very positive for the community,” he said. “He is not unrealistically enthusiastic.”
New mayor Jason Shelton said Reed was correct in his assessment of Loden’s hire.
“I have been incredibly impressed with Dr. Loden on every occasion,” Shelton said. “I think he has a tremendous amount of respect in the community as a whole and particularly among our educational professionals. I think he has brought a renewed energy to the Tupelo Public School System, and I am looking forward to the positive things to come in the future.”