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What Jacksonians Want in a New JPS Supe

Jackson Public Schools Board Vice President Ed Sivak asked stakeholders how the board can ensure the community’s concerns are worked into their interview questions for superintendent candidates.

Jackson Public Schools Board Vice President Ed Sivak asked stakeholders how the board can ensure the community’s concerns are worked into their interview questions for superintendent candidates. Photo by Stephen Wilson.

— Dozens of applicants are interested in being the next leader of the second-largest school district in Mississippi.

Thomas Jacobson, CEO at the search firm McPherson and Jacobson, said 38 people began the application process for the superintendent position. 
 He told the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees last week that this is a good sign—the majority of applications come in the last two days of the search, and that deadline is May 14.

Jacobson's team came to Jackson last week to meet with stakeholder groups, including some outside the district. They met with more than 600 people to solicit feedback about the district, what is needed and what a good leader looks like.

The consultants will write up a report with the feedback, which should be finished this week. "We encourage you to post that on your website so your community members can see what was said," Jacobson said last week.

JPS is paying the Nebraska-based firm $24,900 to help conduct the superintendent search, which includes working with the new superintendent once he or she is selected. The contract guarantees that if the new superintendent quits before two years have passed, the firm will repeat the search process.

The JPS Board received input from not only the consultants but also from Jackson residents last week in meetings across the district. A year ago, before the potential for a state takeover threw the district into survival mode for several months, local leaders had organized discussions about what they wanted to see in a new leader. Jacqueline McClendon-Griffin, president of the Jackson Association of Educators, presented the findings of the 2017 community chats to the board last week. She said about 1,000 citizens participated in the conversations over three months.

McClendon-Griffin said Jacksonians who participated in the chats, which consisted of mainly educators, want to see a leader who brings a strategic vision and plan and is a "proven change agent."

"(We want) one who understands that being a leader is an inclusive process, (has) experience in leading a school district similar to JPS and a proven track record of turning around a district," she told the JPS Board last week.

McClendon-Griffin also emphasized the importance of teacher development, support and training. The 2017 superintendent search chats reflected similar sentiments in the district today.

'A Candidate with Experience'

Jason Thompson, co-founder of the Fahrenheit Creative Group, shared results of recent listening sessions with local organizations and Jacksonians who attended sessions at JPS schools.

The results echo what McClendon-Griffin told the board.

"Folks definitely want to see a candidate with experience in an urban district similar to Jackson, thinking about size, location and some of those other socioeconomic and health indicators that are unique to Jackson," Thompson told the school board.

Jacksonians also said they want someone who is sensitive to the specific cultural and socioeconomic factors in the capital city—and what impact problems such as poverty and homelessness have on the education system.

"The community desires to have somebody that wants to be here, that wants to not only live in Jackson but be a part of the community through and through," Thompson said. "... They want to see someone who is committed to Jackson in the long haul."

McPherson and Jacobson will give the board the results of their stakeholder meetings this week, and they encouraged the board to release the report to the public.

"We encourage you to post that on your website, so your community members can see what was said," Jacobson told the board last week.

What's Next

Candis Finan, one of the consultants who interviewed stakeholders for the search firm, told the board that the main issues identified in the district are certification and retention of teachers, curriculum and accountability concerns, and infrastructure needs. She said Jacksonians she interviewed wanted a results-oriented leader who is visible in the city and schools.

"How would you recommend we take this feedback as we move into the decision-making process to make sure all voices are heard?" Board Vice President Ed Sivak asked Finan.

She recommended that the board not only publish the McPherson and Jacobson report of stakeholder feedback on its website but also use those comments to create the questions for superintendent questions who come to interview.

McClendon-Griffin told the board that local involvement is going to be crucial in the coming months. The board wants to get a new leader in place by July. McClendon-Griffin, who is an educator, said the community wants to know they are heard. She suggested that the final candidates for the position participate in a public town hall. She also told the board that she would like to see a small vote in-house by local school stakeholders before the board makes its final decision.

"One thing we heard very clearly was frustration from parents ... that there's distrust and mistrust and that won't be repaired just by naming a superintendent," Thompson said. "That's a process to rebuild that (trust)."

McPherson and Jacobson is taking applications for the superintendent position through May 14. They will begin to sort and vet applications, creating a shortlist for the board. The firm also will give the full list of candidates to the board. The board will interview candidates in June.

Jacobson recommends that the board interview one candidate per day, once it gets to the interview phase. The board will next need to finalize its interview questions, which all finalists will answer. It plans to release the names of the finalists to the public.

Email reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara for breaking news.

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