By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – As he welcomed the Tupelo Public School District’s new superintendent on Tuesday afternoon, the city’s mayor wasn’t shy about the magnitude of the moment.
Speaking before an audience of several hundred parents, teachers and community members in Tupelo High School’s Performing Arts Center, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. referenced the turmoil that has gripped the school system for more than a year.
New Superintendent Gearl Loden, Reed said, may be just the person to reunite the district and restore its luster.
“In the proud history of our city and our school district, I doubt there has ever been a more important job hiring than the hiring today of Dr. Gearl Loden,” said Reed.
Fighting back tears later in his speech, Reed held up his Tupelo High School diploma and spoke of the need to restore the special meaning that piece of paper has long conveyed.
“I think we have the right man at the right time for the right job,” Reed said afterward.
Loden, in his third year of leading the Amory School District, brought hope on Tuesday for a district that has been recently reeling. Former Superintendent Randy Shaver requested an early release from his contract last April after an unsettled tenure of less than two years that ended with an unpopular decision to replace a well-liked high school principal. This year, the community was torn by another personnel decision – the firing of a popular show choir director and its resulting appeal hearing.
As the school district tries to maintain its community support, quell the flight of middle-class residents from the system and rebuild its academic standing, it will look to Loden, a native of Mantachie who said he has long been interested in the Tupelo job.
“We have to build relationships,” he said. “We have to mend fences and be involved in the community.”
Many of those in attendance at a ceremony welcoming him to the district were optimistic that he would be able to do that.
“We’re very encouraged by what he has to say,” said businessman Johnny Robbins, who has been publicly critical of the school system’s leadership. “We do have issues and we hope he is the person to address those issues and restore the confidence of teachers that they have the support of the administration.”
Loden was unanimously approved by the school board at a special-called meeting held Tuesday afternoon. His official start date is July 1, but he will work with Interim Superintendent David Meadows to begin learning the district before that.
Loden’s four-year contract will pay him $182,000 annually, $5,000 more than the district paid Shaver when it hired him three years ago. He said he will take time to analyze the administrative staff in place but acknowledged that the school board had given him latitude to build his own team.
“I commend the board for its excellent selection,” said Claude Hartley, a Tupelo resident and former TPSD board president who currently serves on the state Board of Education. “We all know that Dr. Loden has been extremely successful in raising student achievement.
“However, it will take the support of the school community, including teachers, administrators, parents and citizens like myself to enable Dr. Loden to improve student achievement to where we want it to be for our students.”
During Loden’s first year in Amory, he improved the 1,860-student district from Academic Watch to High Performing. The district maintained that ranking this past year and saw all of its schools also earn a High Performing ranking.
Academic Watch is the fourth of seven tiers in the state rankings, while High Performing is second best. Tupelo has been ranked Academic Watch for the past three years.
Before that, Loden was a principal for four years at South Panola High School, leading the school to a High Performing ranking during his final year.
School board President Amy Heyer said Loden has “proven himself as an instructional leader in improving academics.”
“He has a proven track record of improving performance in every school where he’s worked,” she said.
In introducing Loden on Tuesday, school board member Eddie Prather also noted that Loden’s schools have achieved that success with diverse student bodies. Amory’s schools are currently 64 percent white and 35 percent black. Sixty-three percent of its students receive federal meal subsidies for having low incomes.
At South Panola, the school was 60 percent black and 39 percent white, and 70 percent of its students qualified as low-income.
“He has all the right attributes to take us in the right direction in the future,” said Brent Waldrop, the president of the Association for Excellence in Education.
Added the Rev. Charles Penson: “My initial impression was good. I was pleased hearing about his track record in Amory and South Panola. He may be just what the doctor ordered.”
During his remarks, Loden spoke of the pride he felt when he served as a social studies teacher and coach at Tupelo High School from 1995 to 1998.
“Today I’m honored to return home to work in the greatest district in this state once again,” he said. “I understand the importance Tupelo schools play to our city and our region.”
Said community leader Doyce Deas: “This is probably the most critical appointment we’ve had, and I’m hopeful.”
Meanwhile, 30 miles away, residents of Amory were feeling a different emotion.
“I’m disappointed losing Dr. Loden,” said Bill Rogers, president of the Amory School Board. “He was a great leader and has the school district headed in the right direction. We still have the people who actually did the work – the students, the teachers, the principals, the staff – that will still be here and we’re excited about that.”
Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, called Loden “one of the finest superintendents in this great state,” but also noted that the district’s principals, educators and staff remain.
Dwayne Blaylock, the CEO of Gilmore Memorial Regional Medical Center, said Loden pointed the district in the “right direction.”
“Personally I’m sad because he’s done such a good job in the school system,” Blaylock said. “He has proven a good strong leadership and a sense of direction and an emphasis on what is important, and that is learning.”
Loden and his wife, Monica, have two sons, Trey, 10, and Arthur, 3.
The Monroe Journal contributed to this report.