By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Memories still are fresh of a time when Tupelo residents gathered in large numbers and expressed frustration with the city’s school district.
There were protests over personnel decisions and even a march on City Hall.
Fast-forward to Thursday when several hundred students, staff and community members gathered at BancorpSouth Arena, this time to celebrate the high school football team’s trip to the state championship game.
“This is a unifier,” said Robin Haire, founder and president of Haire Wealth Management and treasurer of the Tupelo High football booster club. “This football program and a 6A North Half championship team is a unifier.”
Efforts to restore the school district’s luster already had made significant progress well before the THS team made its improbable run to Jackson. Under the leadership of Superintendent Gearl Loden, who began in June 2012, the district has begun to regain community trust. This year it received its second consecutive B-ranking – based on student test scores – and had two A-ranked schools, including THS.
Now, Tupelo has a football team playing for a state championship. Where does that fit into the greater picture of rebuilding the district?
“Positive energy leads to more positive energy,” Loden said, noting that the school already has won four state titles this year for boys and girls swimming and cross country. “…Winning state championships is going to build community support.”
Grabbing those titles is not new at Tupelo High School, which regularly claims The Clarion-Ledger’s All-Sports Award and has been recognized by Sports Illustrated as one of the nation’s top high school sports programs. Winning football titles is.
The school’s last gridiron crown was secured in 1992, when current Mayor Jason Shelton was a junior and a reserve quarterback.
“Most everyone in this part of the country loves football,” he said. “It is something you talk about at work, in social settings, at church and around the dinner table. It is a catapult for the general discussion of the school system and the city as a whole. It is something that brings sensitivity and awareness to greater issues.”
Besides a boost and a community unifier, the football team also is a metaphor. From 4-7 a year ago, they are standing on the brink of the state’s most coveted title. Just like a school district trying to go from being battered locally to being the envy of Mississippi.
“As a school, we’ve come full-circle in three years,” said THS Principal Jason Harris. “We’re having academic success, athletic success. How awesome would it be if we get a trifecta, to be an A school, to win an All-Sports award and to win a football state championship.”
During his first year as principal in 2011, Harris started feeling an increase in positive momentum when the basketball team reached the state title game. The run pulled everyone together, he said.
“Winning like this and knowing you are going to the state championship gets everyone excited,” said THS senior Daniel Purnell.
Teachers April Friar and Braden Bishop said school pride has grown during the past three years. The buildup to tonight’s game has fed that.
“It has been a fun week,” Bishop said.
Former Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said one thing that set Tupelo apart for many years was its excellence in both academics and extra-curriculars.
“Everyone is not a football player, but to have a well-balanced, strong program, that is the best you can have,” he said. “That is what we are looking for, what the community wants and what the children and the families deserve.”