By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Instead of a baton, Randy McCoy will be passing Randy Shaver a thumb drive with the district’s budget spreadsheets and a check list of decisions to be made before school starts.
School officials and community members have lauded McCoy’s accomplishments as superintendent, but they are looking for Shaver to push Tupelo Public Schools higher, further and faster as he runs his leg of the race starting Wednesday.
“He can really promote a culture of learning where everyone is a stakeholder,” said Mary Ann Plasencia, who has been an active parent volunteer in Tupelo Schools. “He’s expected to reach out further than maybe has been done before.”
Increased academic rigor, fewer dropouts, narrowed achievement gap and smart stewardship of the district’s resources are key long-term focus areas. Out of the gate, Shaver will preside over the final implementation of the elementary school rezoning during uncertain financial times.
“We have an excellent school district,” said Mike Clayborne, president of the Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees. “I would hope Dr. Shaver will provide the leadership to build on past success.”
Shaver said he’s happy for the high expectations that the community has for the school district.
“Academically, most everything is already here,” Shaver said. “My agenda is to ramp it up.”
When Shaver came to Tupelo in November as one of five candidates to be interviewed for superintendent, he was impressed with what he saw in Tupelo Schools and Northeast Mississippi. The more he’s gotten to know Tupelo, the more he likes what he sees.
“It’s even better,” Shaver said. “I’ve never seen this level of support for education.”
Randy Shaver comes to Tupelo with 33 years of experience in education in his home state of North Carolina.
The biggest chunk of his career has been in Greensboro, N.C., where he served as a high school English and speech teacher, debate coach and later as a principal.
He made the jump to district administration in 2006, when he served as associate superintendent in Duplin County, N.C., In 2007, he made took on the top job at the Whiteville, N.C., City Schools, located on near the South Carolina border.
Shaver is poised to come to Tupelo as Mississippi’s highest paid district superintendent, with a salary of $177,000. McCoy also topped the list when he started in 2002.
Both former board president Shawn Brevard, who led the superintendent search, and Clayborne said they had a mandate from the community to get the best possible superintendent and make no apologies for hitting the top of the pay list.
“The most important thing was to find the person we believed could led this district to future success,” Clayborne said.
The pool of doctoral candidates for superintendent positions is small and the district has to compete regionally and nationally for the best candidates.
Even though Shaver won’t take over officially until Wednesday, he’s up and running.
Shaver already is working with Tupelo High Principal Mac Curlee to expand Advanced Placement offerings at the high school.
“Part of the program is to increase rigor,” Shaver said. “Get more teachers trained, more students into those courses.”
Shaver wants a wider pool of students in the AP courses.
“A lot of time kids are afraid of AP,” Shaver said. “You want them to embrace it.”
They also are laying the seeds for a speech and debate program at the high school.
Shaver has a passion for debate, which became his sport when his short stature could no longer support his love of football and he carried it with him into his career as an educator. The Tarheel Forensic League annually gives a Randy Shaver Award to high school debaters at its annual competition.
“It really increases learning,” Shaver said, because the students have to learn more about all kinds of topics as they prepare for public speaking.
In just a few years, he believes Tupelo can build a team that competes on the national level.
“Our students are bright and articulate,” Shaver said. “Look what they’ve done with bridge building” where Tupelo Middle School students are competing on the regional and national level.
At the other end of the spectrum, the district needs to build on its efforts to prevent dropouts. For the Class of 2008, 19.7 percent of the class left between ninth grade and graduation.
“We need to make significant progress,” Clayborne said. “It’s a very complex matter and it will take a lot of different approaches.”
Those efforts will need to look at kids who are still years away from high school, Shaver said. The research suggests many of those kids are making the decision to drop out as early as third or fifth grade.
“If kids – from Day 1 – feel that school is important and we can keep them engaged … we can keep kids in school,” Shaver said. “The future of our state depends on these kids having a good education.”
To reduce dropouts, the district will need to develop some non-traditional models of high school such as early college or middle high school.
Beyond the classroom, the community has to be engaged in a dialogue on dropouts and the creative programs to address it, Shaver said.
“The future of our state depends on these kids having a good education,” Shaver.
Plasencia, who served on the Community Development Foundation’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Education, sees a critical need for Shaver to clearly communicate the importance of education to all corners of the community and engage them in the work of education.
“The expectations of the community is to close the achievement gap sooner rather than later,” Plasencia said. “ We need a visionary change agent.”
As Shaver takes over Wednesday, he will be facing an unusual budget year and the final stage of an elementary school organization.
The state budget is in limbo, public money is tight because of the ailing economy and the Tupelo district has not yet issued teacher contracts because of questions about teacher supplements and other funding.
At the same time, the district is working on plans for renovations at the high school and technology initiatives in the classroom. Neither project is cheap.
“The school system is already doing a very good job, but we may have to be even more judicious,” Shaver said.
The elementary reorganization takes seven lower elementary schools and three upper elementary schools and reshuffles them to five lower elementaries, four upper elementaries and a single sixth grade school.
Shaver is philosophical about the adjustments. The restructuring plans have been well-thought out and well-executed, he said.
“The only thing that never changes is change,” he said. “It will not be without hiccups, but it will go as smoothly as possible.”
Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or firstname.lastname@example.org.