School & District Management

At Delta State U., Principals Find Focus

By Alan Richard — June 13, 2001 11 min read
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Two summers ago, Dwight J. Luckett stood before his classmates in graduate school, and that’s when a wave of self-doubt hit him. Back home at the crossroads known as Camden, Miss., where he had taught and coached basketball, they couldn’t afford for him to return as an ordinary principal, or worse, a terrible one.

“I almost came to tears before the group. My whole world was just changing,” said Mr. Luckett, who is now the vice principal at Velma Jackson Magnet High School in a far corner of Madison County, 40 country miles from Jackson. “A lot of my experiences were not the best experiences, I was learning.”

Mr. Luckett’s determination to become the best principal he could be came as a result of Mississippi’s long, hard look at its graduate-level programs to prepare principals. In 1997, the state board of education passed new standards for the programs, hoping the changes would help Mississippi escape its legacy of poor schooling.

The changes Mississippi made reflect a change in direction nationally for graduate-level educational administration programs: a more determined focus on principals as involved leaders of teaching and learning. The results were so far-reaching that some experts in school leadership now regard Mississippi as a model. No college more avidly pursued a path of change than Delta State University, the institution here where Mr. Luckett earned his master’s degree and where his new personal mission began to take shape. In this impoverished rural area, principals are learning to attack their jobs with better preparation, stronger skills, and greater inspiration.

‘Flying Colors’

One spring night, Delta State professor Sue Jolly took her seat at a rustic restaurant called Crawdads in the Delta town of Merigold. She had just been on her cell phone with a former student who had recommended the dismissal of three teachers. The school board had approved the dismissals—by a single vote.

Faculty members in Delta State’s school leadership program realized too much was at stake for the college to allow its students to promote business as usual, including the practices of allowing poor teaching and a lack of strong leadership to continue.

“The people we teach are influencing hundreds of students for many years. You put a bad leader out there, and that’s a lot of years,” said Ms. Jolly, now the coordinator of Delta State’s graduate program in school leadership.

Under the guidance of Tom Burnham, then the state superintendent of schools, Mississippi began work in 1993 to improve all of its graduate schools of education. To show that the state was serious, Mississippi forced its eight graduate schools of education to reapply for state accreditation. Hunter Moorman, a veteran manager of leadership programs at the U.S. Department of Education, was drafted to head the committee that would accredit the programs.

Several programs passed. Others passed but were required to do more work. Two programs were closed.

“Delta State was the university that came through with the highest flying colors, and really was the one that met all the criteria that the state had identified,” said Mr. Moorman, who now oversees a national network of fellowship programs on education policy, based at the nonprofit Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington.

His panel was especially impressed with the college’s determination to establish a full-time, yearlong program stressing on-the-job work experience. It was ambitious for a small university with only modest financial support.

North Carolina adopted the same strategy in 1995 as a piece of its influential school accountability law, pushed by then-Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. At first, the North Carolina law required full-time graduate study for future principals, but lawmakers later relaxed that requirement. What did stick was a focus on change, on less-than-traditional classes that focused on principals as leaders of instruction.

“There’s amazing similarity across the state” now in graduate-level programs, said Kermit Buckner, the acting department chairman at East Carolina University’s educational leadership program in Greenville, N.C. “It’s not the same old stuff.”

Debate about the shift in substance and style was fierce in Mississippi’s education schools.

“It turned into a war zone in these other places. I mean, people got fired over it,” said E.E. “Butch” Caston, the dean of the education college at Delta State, who came to school here as a football player. He and former professor Alan Evans, now the head of the leadership program at Mississippi College in Clinton, helped devise the new approach at their school.

Mr. Caston believes the only way to renew a graduate-level program in school leadership is to do what Mississippi has done: start over.

“You don’t go in and renovate,” he said, munching a chunk of fried crab at Crawdads with Ms. Jolly. “You just dynamite the sucker to the ground.”

What Delta State eventually came up with—using a cohort of students, team-teaching by faculty members, and a strong emphasis on internships in schools—is becoming more familiar in graduate schools.

Ron Lindahl, the chairman of the educational leadership program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., said his college and many others across the country have adopted some of the same changes. But few have been forced to do so, as schools in Mississippi and North Carolina were, he notes.

“Everybody in the profession knows now what we’re doing is second-best to what would be ideal,” Mr. Lindahl said. “We know it has to happen, but the states have been very reluctant to do this. We can do better. The potential is there. But the nation is still doing what it was doing 30 years ago.”

‘Serve, Serve, Serve’

Delta State’s school leadership graduate program calls a three-story, 1970s-era, tan-brick building its home. Situated on a wooded mall of university buildings in the town of Cleveland, the place looks like a top-flight college. But most people outside the borders of Mississippi have never heard its name, and even people in Mississippi often don’t know where Delta State is.

“It’s not trying to be a research university. It knows what it is, and that was somewhat unusual for an education school,” said David Potter, the new president of Delta State.

What Delta State’s education school is trying to do, says Mr. Caston, is plain and simple: serve, serve, serve.

The 14-month, full-time program in school leadership illustrates that point by putting its graduate students to work in schools almost immediately. Encouraged by an unusual state law that provides a year’s salary during the program, 32 men and women will have graduated by this summer and earned licenses to be principals in Mississippi. The college has accepted fewer than half the program’s applicants—a selectivity few graduate schools of education could match.

Students start in June, with a summer of intensive, full-time education and leadership classes. The first of four internships begins in early August, and lasts for 12 weeks. Immediately, the interns are more than just graduate students—they’re apprentice administrators. Each Wednesday during the internships, they gather at Delta State for a day of meetings with members of the leadership faculty. Theory is introduced, and how those theories meet with real life is the topic of discussion, Ms. Jolly says.

Occasionally, students take field trips to model schools or to Jackson to meet state officials. The students also hold their own group meetings to discuss topics they develop, learning to conduct public meetings and to make better presentations.

Much of the work prepares the students for their licensure exams. Mississippi is one of only six states that use the assessments devised by the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium, which seek to identify candidates’ knowledge of instructional-leadership practices, to certify principals. The remaining three internships, at the elementary, middle and high school levels, are interspersed with two-week class sessions on campus. One internship consists of working in a district office, to learn about central-office jobs and executive-level decisions. Students return to campus at the end of the school year for final sessions.

“When they go into the schools, they know what to expect. They have those experiences to call on,” said Jennifer Wilson, a professor in the program and a former school administrator who was raised in the Delta town of Greenwood. “When I went out there as a first-year principal, I knew the theory. The application, I didn’t have.”

Faculty members carefully monitor the internships. Students are required to writeessays and conduct projects during their time in the schools. Ms. Jolly says they take that work seriously.

“When I came in, I felt like I’d really been a principal for a full year,” said Kyle Brigance, the assistant principal at Horn Lake Middle School, who finished his master’s degree at Delta State last year.

Big Transition

For Mr. Luckett, the first-year principal who nearly cried during a session at Delta State because he felt inadequate, the internship underscored the responsibility he was about to undertake.

In his first year back at 370-student Velma Jackson Magnet High School, Mr. Luckett made a big transition. He had been a teacher and coach, and was closely identified with girls’ basketball.

The faculty here say he made the change to vice principal seamlessly. If a speck of paper appears on a hallway floor, he scrapes it up, and students and staff members do the same. He observes teachers intently, but he tries to be friendly about it. He handles discipline differently from the way he did as a coach, trying to be more thoughtful.

Behind closed doors, there’s serious conversation about academics at Velma Jackson. The school has the lowest test scores of any high school in Madison County, which includes the growing suburbs north of Jackson.

But suburbia seems far away, even though it’s only a 30-minute drive. Out here, men gather to chat at the 51 Tire Co., and there’s even a Delta-style juke joint, the Moonlight Inn. The high school stands five miles off the highway. One mile from the school is the Camden post office, a little store, and a white clapboard church, and that’s it.

Inside Velma Jackson High, a long, 1950s- style brick building, Mr. Luckett can be seen walking the hallways, tapping students on the arm, speaking to them sternly but with respect. He is businesslike but kind. People know him, and they’re beginning to understand how badly he wants this school to change for the better.

The school’s magnet program, focused on the theme of “eco-journeys,” involving ecology, economics, and world cultures, hasn’t worked to desegregate this corner of Madison County. Only one or two white students drive here from the Jackson suburbs. The program, despite the presence of enthusiastic instructors, is facing scrutiny.

Closer self-scrutiny is one of the things Mr. Luckett hopes he’s brought to the school.

Some days, he can be found in Principal Patricia Ashmore’s office talking about teaching.

At Delta State, Mr. Luckett learned to observe classes regularly, and to keep up ongoing conversations with teachers about their work. He also learned the legal process for removing a teacher if necessary, and he plans to use it. “When you do it right, you won’t lose,” he said. “When you don’t do it right, that teacher gets another year. If you’re here to do the job, and want to do the job, you’ll do the job. We will help you.”

Ms. Ashmore said Mr. Luckett’s knowledge and passion provide welcome help to the school.

The vice principal already has improved the school’s reputation, Ms. Ashmore said. Using skills he learned at Delta State, Mr. Luckett called the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and asked people at the newspaper to write about the magnet program. The result: four pages of complimentary copy. “This has never happened,” Ms. Ashmore said. “A lot of ideas he’s brought back from Delta State have helped us here at school.”

English teacher Devertis Robinson, who has worked at Velma Jackson for 34 years, has noticed the differences in Mr. Luckett and in the school.

“He expects a lot out of them,” Ms. Robinson said, looking down a hallway filled with students. “He doesn’t have the same trouble some people have who don’t expect a lot.”

The faculty at Delta State doesn’t define leadership as just happening in schools. Students write their own personal growth plans, which often include leadership roles in their communities— something Mr. Luckett has done.

As the president of the Madison County Medical Center/Nursing Home board of trustees, he installed a new leader for the local hospital and is overseeing an expansion.

Reviving Camden

With Paul Griffin, an old friend who’s on the county commission, Mr. Luckett is working to revive Camden. The pair have teamed up to land money for a new public library near the high school, along with a park and community center. People will want to call Camden home again, Mr. Luckett hopes.

“We’re trying to bring some life back to it,” he said.

He believes the community’s welfare starts with education, and that’s where he’s put his heart: “I just do what I feel God wants me to be doing.”

Ms. Wilson, one of Mr. Luckett’s instructors at Delta State, said the graduate program is seeking out people like Mr. Luckett, who she hopes will change education in the far reaches of Mississippi, school by school.

“He’s just a natural leader,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as At Delta State U., Principals Find Focus


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