November 26, 2011 10:20:00 PM
Scott Colom - [email protected]
The departure of Dr. Del Phillips prompted me to think about the obstacles waiting for the next superintendent. First, he or she must overcome the shadow of Dr. Phillips, a man who left with high approval ratings and a state of the art middle school as a monument to his success.
The person will also enter an environment with rising expectations. In an effort to improve the quality of education, Mississippi recently adopted "Common Core" standards that require schools to teach and test based on national guidelines and metrics. This is intended to ensure math and language arts are taught on the same level across the country but is expected to increase the pressure on Mississippi schools to raise test scores.
Then, there are the problems that have plagued the district for years, like the high school drop-out rate and teen pregnancy; problems even Dr. Phillips wasn't able to solve.
Interestingly, these obstacles remind me of the classic film "Lean on Me." In it, Joe Clark, played by Mississippi's own Morgan Freeman, is chosen to be the principal of a high school facing a state takeover. The school is a parent's worse nightmare: The halls are painted with graffiti; the bathroom stalls are full of drug use and teenage sex; and the students regularly curse and challenge teachers.
To change this, Mr. Clark decides the school must get rid of all the bad apples. So, he has the teachers make a list of the students with serious disciplinary records and holds a general assembly where he has all the troublemakers placed on the stage and expels them. No questions asked. He warns the remaining students that they will face the same consequence if they don't improve their attitude and behavior.
In the following scene, several parents angrily confront Mr. Clark about the mass expulsion. One accuses him of selling out the community and claims the students simply needed encouragement and more resources. Mr. Clark, in response, refuses to back down. Instead, he claims he promised God he would do whatever it took to save the school. And, since getting rid of the hopeless students was necessary to transform the rest, he has no apologies about doing it.
Though the problems in our district certainly don't compare to the school in "Lean on Me," our next superintendent must have that same tenacity and courage. Like Mr. Clark, he or she must be willing to do whatever it takes to improve our schools and raise our test scores; willing to make tough choices even when they disappoint or displease, and willing to make clear the buck stops with him or her. Blaming parents and accepting the status quo must be unacceptable.
A column about the next superintendent wouldn't be complete without mentioning the interim one, Dr. Martha Liddell. Since her appointment, Dr. Liddell has made clear she's auditioning for the permanent job. She's rolled out new programs to decrease the drop-out rate, collaborated with church leaders to offer summer programs and spoke at community events.
During this time, Dr. Liddell has shown she has the ideas and enthusiasm to lead. She's smart about the important issues and personable enough to influence and persuade. My only remaining questions are whether she can stand up to the politics and petty distractions; whether she can avoid the human temptation to avoid responsibility; and whether she can make tough decisions and stand by them. If she can, if she can keep a Joe-Clark-like focus on the future of our students, she will not only have earned the superintendent's job, she will have changed the lives of our students and shaped their future.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.