January 16, 2014 10:36:46 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Life is filled with numerous paths, said Jeremy Nicholas, but three months ago the current Park Place Christian Academy headmaster could not see himself leaving his job and returning to Starkville, his self-described second home, to serve as Starkville Academy's next head of school.
"God laid out a new path for me," he said Wednesday.
With his strong faith in tow, Nicholas met with various constituent groups, ranging from Starkville Academy teachers to representatives of various economic and community development agencies, to outline his vision and plans for the private school.
SA announced Nicholas' hire Monday in a letter to stakeholders. He was unanimously selected for the position out of six finalists. Current SA Head of School John "Doc" Stephens will retire at the end of the academic year.
"My faith is important to me. Sometimes it takes a bit to see what exactly God has in store for you. God is calling me here. I feel convinced that this is where God wants me," he said. "I'm a big believer in high standards for academics and athletics, and providing opportunities for children to succeed. For me, it starts with faith, understanding who it is we serve and why we're doing it. That, for me, helps make Starkville Academy a good fit.
"I'm leaving a school that I still love dearly. Had you told me I would have been making this move months ago, I would have been very, very surprised," Nicholas added. "I trust in God, and I've gained a lot of trust in the school board as I've come to know them. I feel good about being here, along with the days and years to come."
A former faculty member, coach and director of administrative programs at Jackson Preparatory School, Nicholas holds degrees from Mississippi State University and is AAA-certified by the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools. He also taught at a Georgia public school shortly after graduation.
Nicholas takes over in July as the leader of SA's almost 700 student population. PPCA grew to similar enrollment figures under his watch.
"I never thought I'd be in the independent school system, but you get older and realize God will take you down paths you don't yet know are there," he said. "(Jackson Prep) gave me a unique perspective of what independent schools can do and stand for. We're free to do some things - express our values - differently than public schools can."
In addition to bolstering academic achievement, Nicholas says he aims to expand the school's Christian foundation and become a model option for private education in Mississippi.
"We have to look to be competitive, and I look at things on a statewide and national level. We have to make sure our kids are going to be successful, whether they are going to a college five minutes down the road or 500 miles away. With each year comes new technologies, new challenges and new standards," he said.
"(Education that builds upon a religious foundation) gets to the purpose and character of who our kids are. Why are we doing what we do when so much of the world says life is centered around you? That's not the case. Life is more than just you - true love comes from serving others. We have to develop that mindset and become a model," he said. "I'd like to see us take the Christian foundation and expand upon it. We have to really get out in our community and start serving not just Starkville, but the Golden Triangle and north Mississippi. We should be that school that other independent schools look at and ask, 'I hear so many good things about you. How are you doing that?' Starkville Academy is poised to do that because of where we are, being a university town, and the ties we have. We can become a model for north Mississippi."
While Oktibbeha County's public schools have received most of the spotlight recently due to consolidation efforts, Nicholas says SA also has an opportunity to show off its unique attributes. Strong school systems, whether public or private, he said, will benefit the community as a whole.
During the spring semester, Nicholas will prepare his current school for his departure while transitioning to SA. One of his first tasks includes hiring a new elementary school principal. Along with Stephens, Principal Cherie Maynard will also retire at the end of the school year.
Nicholas and his wife, Sarah, have an 8-year-old son, Charlie, and a 5-year-old daughter, Mary Holland Sarah. Nicholas is a Starkville native.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch