THS’s next leader faces tough job

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When Gary Smyly was named principal of Dexter High School in 1971, he was handed a set of keys to the small Walthall County school.
“I was to walk up and down the hall,” said Smyly, who after 31 years as a high school principal is now the executive director of the Mississippi Association of Secondary School Principals. “I thought I could evaluate teachers by walking up and down the hall. You can’t do that anymore.”
The position of high school principal has become much more complex through the intervening years. As Tupelo Public School District Interim Superintendent David Meadows works to find the next leader at Tupelo High School, he will be looking for someone who can communicate a vision, lead instruction and build relationships.
Meadows will be making a decision that will carry particular importance for the future of the school district. As its lone high school, THS is the district’s flagship. The school, and its leader, will set the tone for the district and bear its image to the greater community.
“It is the most important decision that that school district has to make, including the selection of the superintendent,” said Mike Walters, who was Tupelo’s superintendent from 1990 to 1995.
Tupelo High School is Mississippi’s largest school with an enrollment of more than 2,100 students during the previous school year. Those students are spread across a campus that includes 12 buildings.
In addition to managing that environment, the next leader will be tasked with raising test scores at a school that was ranked Academic Watch by the Mississippi Department of Education during the fall of 2010. That is the fourth of seven tiers in a state ranking system based upon student scores on standardized tests.
He or she also will need to address community concerns about discipline that arose during the previous school year.
“It is probably one of the toughest jobs in the state,” said Mike Vinson, who served as Tupelo superintendent from 1995 to 2002 and is now the conservator of the Okolona School District.
On any given day, Vinson said, the THS principal must not only lead academics, but must also oversee a myriad of student activities taking place most nights.
“Just to be able to be part of that makes for some very long days for a high school principal,” he said.

Hiring process
Meadows said his goal is to make a recommendation to the Tupelo school board by its June 28 meeting.
Since being named interim superintendent April 14, Meadows has been thoroughly reviewing the applications and previous interviews of candidates who had applied for the job through March. The district reopened that application process on Friday, and Meadows will continue to review new applicants.
As a final pool of candidates is selected, they will be interviewed by a team of central office administrators and possibly THS teachers, he said.
Meadows said he is looking for someone who can communicate with the many audiences he or she must work with and who can develop a plan for raising the school’s state ranking. That leader must also be able to understand research and strategies for helping students learn, he said, and be thoughtful and deliberate in decision making.
“I hope that individual will be someone who understands how critical relationships are in terms of having a sound instructional school and a person who understands that discipline should come out of relationships he or she establishes with students and their parents,” Meadows said.

Getting to this point
Tupelo High School’s new principal will be its fourth in less than two years.
When Mac Curlee retired in December 2009 after 14 years of leading THS, he was succeeded by interim principal Glenda Scott. Three months later, Scott took a medical leave of absence and was reassigned as director of elementary curriculum.
Lee Stratton followed Scott as interim principal and had the interim tag removed last June. However, Stratton also was reassigned within the district, being named executive director of athletics and extracurricular activities.
Chris Barnes, the principal of an elementary school in North Carolina, was originally chosen to replace Stratton, but after multiple protests followed the news that the popular Stratton had been reassigned on March 29, Barnes opted to remain in his current job.
Despite the turnover, Stratton described it as a “wonderful job,” though one that requires long hours. He called the school “beautiful,” but noted that it is built more like a college campus and that supervising its multiple buildings can be a challenge.
“Being principal of THS is a fantastic job,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges, and it is more difficult with state testing and accountability, but it is good because it makes everyone rise to the challenge.”

New environment
The THS principal will face a myriad of responsibilities now required of high school leaders.
“At one time, many of the principals were just managers,” said Walters, who is now chief executive officer of the JBHM Education Group, which coaches teachers and principals in 12 states. “They managed the facility and they took care of discipline but they didn’t pay a lot of attention to what went on inside classrooms. We can’t get away with that any more.”
Smyly said the primary responsibilities of a high school principal used to be unlocking doors and making sure buses ran, children got home safely and athletics went smoothly.
Today’s world is not that way, he said, noting that the job now requires a 24-hour, seven-day commitment.
“The principal needs to take those students and analyze why Jimmy and Johnny are not doing well in that class and how to fix that,” he said.
Principals, Walters said, must have “a deep understanding of the science of teaching and learning.” Others said they must be able to hire a talented staff and delegate responsibilities.
Anna Hunt, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Administrators, was the superintendent of Ocean Springs Schools from 1999 to 2006. The key to leading large schools, such as Ocean Springs and Tupelo, is being a great manager of time, people and resources, she said.
“To me, it is one of the most difficult jobs in education today,” she said. “…The skill set a person needs for that job, it is almost unending.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.