By NEMS Daily Journal
The Tupelo Public School District’s trustees on Tuesday unanimously chose a widely experienced, successful 14-year Mississippi administrator, Dr. Gearl Loden, to lead the 7,500-student district.
Loden’s strengths appear to match Tupelo’s needs at a critical juncture for the school district and the community.
Loden, who has headed the Amory Public Schools for three years, has a record of leading academically challenged schools to higher performance in relatively short periods of time. He also has demonstrated a commitment to community engagement and effective relationship-building. He knows Tupelo and the region well and is keenly aware of the challenges the district faces.
Choosing the new superintendent has been considered the most important appointment in decades for the system. Loden faces definite challenges in restoring unity within the district, resolving nettlesome discipline issues and raising disappointing academic achievement rankings.
Loden, a native of Mantachie, has taught in Noxapater, Kosciusko and at Tupelo High School in the mid-1990s, and served as an administrator or in upper management in Meridian, Oxford, Houston, at South Panola High School in Batesville, and in Amory.
Amory, a historically strong district, had fallen to academic watch status, the same as Tupelo’s rating. Loden led Amory to high performing standing in less than two years. Amory ranks 17th among the 152 districts statewide. It was 59th before Loden’s tenure.
South Panola rose from Level 3 standing under a former five-tiered system to high-performing under Loden’s direction. South Panola, like Tupelo, is majority minority district – 60 percent African-American, 39 percent white and 1 percent Hispanic, with a 70 percent free lunch rate.
Demographics are important factors, especially free lunch rates, because economically at-risk students present generally greater challenges in achieving high performance. Bridging the achievement gap is key to higher ranking, as are higher graduation rates, as Loden noted in a Tuesday interview with the Daily Journal.
Loden, who is engaging and firm in his views of how children learn effectively, pledged transparency and accessibility in dealing with parents, school district issues, faculty and other staff members – all important in restoring public trust and confidence.
Loden described one of his early, important goals in Tupelo as building relationships and “mending fences” in the district, which he said must reclaim its place as a statewide example of achievement and effective leadership.
Claude Hartley, a former TPSD board chair and longtime member of the state Board of Education, said Loden is an administrator “who has some starch in his spine.”
He will need that – and the hardest work he has ever undertaken – in his new job. And he’ll also need a community as determined as he is to see Tupelo’s status as a high-performing school district re-established and maintained.