LLOYD GRAY: One person can't do it all

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Waiting for Superman is the title of a documentary film that has created quite a stir in education circles. It could describe expectations for the next Tupelo public schools superintendent.
Michael Waldrop conducted 17 meetings over two days recently with school district constituencies, including two open community forums. The district’s search consultant asked people what they wanted, and he got an earful.
I attended one meeting with a couple of dozen folks, and together we provided a composite of the perfect person, and I do mean perfect: The next superintendent should be a servant leader, a dynamic but not overbearing personality, an excellent listener, an instructional expert, a parent pleaser, technology savvy, able to communicate with all segments of the community, highly visible, politically intuitive and responsive, attuned to the Tupelo culture, able to lead and manage change without offending anybody and – oh yes – business experience would be nice, too.
You’re asking for someone who doesn’t exist, Waldrop said after listening patiently. And of course he was right.
It’s always tempting to want “Superman” or “Superwoman” to come in and solve all our problems, whether it’s in the schools, government, business, sports, church or any organization. It’s never quite that simple, and even if such a person did exist, there’s no way he or she could do it alone.
Tupelo is at a crossroads in its schools. People realize that the schools need reinvigoration and renewal. Most have only a vague sense of what that would look like on the other side, beyond an improved state accountability ranking.
The default position, then, becomes recreating what once was. How can Tupelo’s schools return to the way things used to be?
The simple answer is that they can’t. That’s not to say that the schools can’t again be high-performing – that ought to be the short-term and sustainable goal – but how that happens will look different from the past.
The most fundamental issue driving Tupelo’s school performance, and in some ways its wavering level of community support, is demographics. Twenty-five years ago Tupelo’s student population was less than one-fourth minority. Today it’s slightly over half.
An analysis by Lewis Whitfield of the CREATE Foundation shows Tupelo’s white students as a whole still perform better on state tests than virtually every other district in the region. But in Tupelo as almost everywhere else, there’s a big academic achievement gap between white and minority students. As Tupelo’s minority student population has increased, its test scores – and thus its academic ranking – have declined. That’s the story in a nutshell.
So what worked in the past won’t work in the future. Tupelo must figure out how to raise the achievement level of underperforming students without diminishing its historic legacy of nurturing the highest achievers. That won’t be easy.
But a superman superintendent is neither realistic nor necessary. An effective leader will suffice. Parents, students, teachers, administrators and the community must do the rest.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.