By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – From Randy Shaver’s first day in the Tupelo Public School District, the superintendent was given a mandate to bring change to the school system.
It was a mandate he took seriously during a brief tenure whose end was initiated on Tuesday. Some would argue that he took it too seriously.
In less than two years, Shaver’s district provided laptops to all secondary school students, increased training and responsibilities for teachers, transformed the alternative school and added programs for teen mothers and for those who had fallen two years behind their age peers.
The way these changes took place frustrated many residents who complained that they were not communicated well enough, not planned for correctly or took place too quickly.
“Dr. Shaver’s term here was filled with days of change,” Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said during prepared remarks at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “…In retrospect, it has been the way he tried to implement his strategies that failed to enlist the trust and support of many teachers, parents and members of the community.”
The superintendent also received criticism of personnel decisions, including Fred Hill, the assistant superintendent he brought with him from North Carolina; Glenda Scott, whose tenure as Tupelo High School principal lasted only three months; and Billy Crews, the former Chief Executive Officer of Journal Inc. hired to oversee the district’s operations.
But it was Shaver’s most recent personnel decision that ultimately led to his early departure from Tupelo Schools. Upon Shaver’s recommendation, the board voted to reassign Tupelo High School Principal Lee Stratton to another school in the district and replace him with a principal from North Carolina.
The community rallied behind Stratton, a popular administrator who has spent 25 of his 31 years as an educator in Tupelo. People flooded social media and staged several protests to support Stratton.
Shaver said it was this anticipated community “backlash” that led him to resign. That decision was announced Tuesday, when School Board members said they were beginning negotiations with Shaver to amend a contract that was due to expire in June 2013.
Because the Stratton issue had become so contentious, Shaver said, he felt that his continued leadership “would distract the Board and the school system from its mission.”
Difficulties at THS
Over his time as superintendent, Tupelo High School became the focus of much of the criticism of Shaver.
From the time that long-time principal Mac Curlee announced he was retiring in December 2009, following Shaver’s first semester on the job, the district has shuffled principals at its showcase school.
Scott’s brief tenure was followed by Stratton, who was first an interim before being named principal in June of 2010. By February, Stratton was told he was being reassigned and replaced by Chris Barnes, who said on Tuesday that he had changed his mind and decided to remain in North Carolina.
Many in the community also complained about discipline problems at the high school, real or perceived, something which they blamed on Shaver. And it seemed to be at the high school where the superintendent had the most difficulty connecting with teachers.
Mixture of successes
The tenure wasn’t without its successes. Although it received mixed reviews, a large group of parents praised the district’s laptop initiative for enhancing critical thinking skills and training students for the jobs of tomorrow. It also earned Tupelo recognition from the American Association of School Administrators, which gave the district a third-place national award for its use of technology in instruction.
Shaver was invited by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to serve on a panel that gave the federal education department input on the future of the No Child Left Behind law. He was a member of a group of rural superintendents that provided frequent input to Duncan and the department.
Shaver also held multiple community forums during which members of the public could submit questions for him to answer. It was a practice that hadn’t been used by previous Tupelo superintendents, and the district rotated the times and locations of the forums in an attempt to increase community participation.
Shaver was chosen as Tupelo’s superintendent after serving two years in that position in Whiteville, N.C. He was one of five candidates selected by a search firm to be interviewed and was the only one chosen as a finalist.
“I think his depth of knowledge for academic instruction was clearly a strength,” said Mike Clayborne, then a member of the district’s School Board. “I think his understanding and use of technology and instruction was also a strength. He was able to clearly articulate his approach and beliefs in the instruction of children. He was very impressive in the interview.”
Shaver, who earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, has been an educator for more than 30 years. Nearly 25 years of his work was as a high school English and speech teacher and debate coach.
Before he was hired, board members Shawn Brevard and John Nail traveled to Whiteville to meet with teachers, administrators and staff members there.
Brevard said then that she heard from Whiteville people that “he’s not going to set you up for failure. But he will push you out of your comfort zone.”
The changes demanded of Shaver were not easy problems to solve. He entered a district where test scores had already begun to decline, producing an Academic Watch state rating, and where demographics were shifting to a majority minority student population.
“We have had a changing district,” Clayborne said. “The demographics of the district have dramatically changed, and I think there was a need to change some approaches to how we were instructing the students of the district.
“Clearly at that point, it was obvious our test scores were not at the level we wanted them. We needed to make some adjustments in the approaches we were taking.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.