Steve Mullen: Lessons from John Jordan

February 19, 2010 10:57:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


Lots of Mississippi school districts are in bad shape — 52 out of 152 are either ranked at risk of failing, or failing, according to the state Department of Education. 37 more are on the bubble. 


And for John Jordan, that means business is a-boomin’. 


I first met the businesslike yet affable Jordan back in 1994, when he was superintendent of the Oxford School District and I was a reporter with The Oxford Eagle. Since then, he’s served as an assistant state superintendent and recently as interim state superintendent of education. Now a private consultant who advises low-performing school districts, he finds himself in Columbus every now and then, due to his friendship with Columbus Superintendent Del Phillips. 


Oxford, our old stomping ground, is consistently recognized as one of the best school districts in the state. Columbus is building toward that goal. 


The secret to Oxford’s success? 


“People think Oxford is a 90 percent, upper-white-class community, and it’s not,” Jordan says. “Oxford School District is 50/50 black/white, it’s got as many poor kids in it as any district. 


“The issue is, in Oxford, the entire community supports the Oxford public school system,” Jordan says. “And as long as we’ve got splinters of community members, that got split out, we’re going to continue to struggle to be relevant in our communities by people that don’t support us.” 


The same could be said about the Clinton school district, which I attended. It’s also around 50/50, and highly successful. 


I pointed out that communities across the state made a choice, 40 years ago, back during integration. Some, like Oxford and Clinton, chose to embrace and support the public schools. Others didn’t.  


Which path is Columbus on? To answer that question, one only need look at the makeup of the public schools (90 percent minority) and the number of private schools in the city (including three high schools). 


Yet in Columbus, Jordan sees a district on the mend, under Phillips’ leadership. “I think what going on in Columbus, is absolutely the model we have to start replicating across the state,” Jordan says. 




The Yazoo City lesson 


Rewind to January 1970, when Jordan was a senior in high school in Yazoo City. 


As Jordan explains it, integration happened suddenly, over the Christmas holidays. 


“We went home on Christmas. We had a white high school and a black high school. We went back three weeks into January, and we had one high school, black and white.  


"It’s really making the hair stand up on the back of my neck for remembering what a traumatic change that was.” 


For a time, he says, integration went fine. 


“The first seven or eight years, things went pretty well,” he says. “A lot of the families stuck with public education, black and white. And then something happened in ‘75, ‘76, and those academies started feeding, and then the white flight started out of schools in places like Yazoo City where I come from. A great little American town that is so dead, and so dysfunctional, and so divided and hateful and the downtown all boarded up. And it’ll just break your heart.  


“And you know why? Because communities split themselves over the issue of where their children were going to school. And that was the biggest mistake that I think we ever made in the Deep South, was running from public education, and starting private schools across this state and across this country. And that’s my main contention.” 


What’s the recipe for turning this around? According to Jordan, Phillips and Columbus are on the right track — unlike the majority of communities in the state. 


“Del has put a model in place that’s going to bring new people back to support the public schools. And that’s what you have to do,” Jordan said. 


For his part, Phillips says he embraces his local competitors for students. 


“I’m friends with people whose children are in private school, parochial school,” Phillips said. “I’ve always said that’s not a factor for me, because I look at it as competition.” 


Phillips points to things like the International Baccalaureate program at Columbus High, the magnet school concept, and a new grant that will bring pre-Advanced Placement classes into middle school, as ways he’s making public schools attractive. 


“I want to prove we have the best programs, and we’re going to give your child a competitive advantage, no matter what those other options are. And I think that approach puts you in a competitive nature, and kind of holds everyone accountable.” 


But with such racial disparities in many school districts across the state, is it too late, if not impossible, to change the system? 


Jordan doesn’t want to think so. “I don’t think it’s too late. I think what we do in public education is improve the process, and people will come back to us. What we have got to show the community is we care about every student that comes to us.  


“If we’re going to make schools something that’s viable for the entire community ... we’ve got to concentrate on moving the bar up so high for our students that they can barely touch it, and when they can touch it, we continue to move it up. We’ve got to challenge our brightest students. And with that, the entire system moves up.” 


Why is this more important now, than ever? The economy, for one thing. “I think public education is on the brink of improvements in the state of Mississippi that people are going to be proud — if we can keep from tearing it completely apart,” Jordan says. “And there are a lot of bills running through the Legislature right now that would love to see that happen.” 




Consolidation, the right way 


Jordan was interim state superintendent when Gov. Haley Barbour announced his budget proposal, which called for consolidating Mississippi’s 152 school districts down to 100. A committee of lawmakers and education experts, appointed by Barbour, is currently exploring consolidation options. 


“Whenever I hear Haley talk about education, he’s talking about how much money can be saved,” Jordan said. “I don’t ever hear the governor say, ‘We’re going to consolidate to improve the academic ability of children.’ Say that and I’m all for you.” 


Jordan has other suggestions for saving money — including a bold plan that would decentralize the state Department of Education, and spread it out based on the 15 community college districts. “We can save some money, and give some regional leadership to some of these districts,” he says. 


For example, in the state Department of Education, “I’ve got 50 people working in the federal programs office. So we say, guess what? Now we’re going to bust that crowd of folks up, and we’re going to send five or six of them to the regional center and say by the way, we love you, you’re doing good work, but your job site is now over in Greenville, it no longer is downtown Jackson. And by the way, you’ve got 10 districts here, and your job is to make sure they succeed. And if you don’t, we’re gonna change you out and get somebody in there who can get it done. 


"The money generated from the savings can run it,” he says. “And you can take the huge amount of resources we’re putting in the state Department of Education, and bust it up across the state of Mississippi, and give them a specific responsibility.” 


At the same time, the regional offices could serve as clearinghouses for federal grants, purchasing, transportation, personnel and other business- and service-oriented tasks that local districts either can’t afford to do, or don’t do well. 


Similar systems are in place in states including Texas, New York and California. 


Instead of compromising education, regional offices could bolster it, Jordan says. Many poor and low-performing districts have “no vision for improving the instructional system, in most of them,” he says. “That’s the reason the company I work for makes a lot of money. Because they don’t seem to have the capacity to do the things necessary to improve education in the classrooms.” 


Consolidation, b

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.