In May of 2016, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—or so it would have appeared. Schools rich in personal and communal history were closing. Their doors were shutting for good, and the buildings would just sit there, rotting. There was no clear plan for what would happen to those buildings other than the fact that they wouldn’t house students. The county commission was firing questions at every meeting wondering what happened to the savings that would supposedly come from the closing of said schools, which was the financial backbone of Vision 2020.
A few months later, Dr. Verna Ruffin announced that she wouldn’t seek a contract renewal for the next three years, and the school board scrambled to find her replacement. Close to a year removed from that month of mayhem, the board announced they had hired Dr. Eric Jones as the next superintendent of the Jackson-Madison County School System and, with that decision, began to pick up the pieces of what has been a turbulent four years. Knowingly or unknowingly, Dr. Jones has shouldered the burden of our school system’s last chance to start over.
Dr. Jones will be the system’s fourth superintendent in just over ten years. That’s an alarming turnover rate for the leader of an entire school system, especially a system that has faced the struggles and challenges that our system has faced. A few things separate Dr. Jones from his predecessors, though. First of all, Dr. Jones has taught and led in this system. This is in stark contrast from Dr. Nancy Zambito and Dr. Ruffin. While Drs. Ruffin and Zambito had previous leadership roles in systems outside the state, they found out quickly that leading in Jackson was probably much different (as well as more frustrating) than leading in their previous school districts. Jackson isn’t exactly the most progressive community, and local politics are even further behind in many regards. I’m sure both superintendents felt stonewalled or as if they were treated like an unruly stepchild by the sometimes parental Madison County Commission. I don’t foresee Dr. Jones having as many issues in that regard, mainly because he already knows the intricacies of the system and the county.
Dr. Eric Jones is inheriting a system full of teachers who are ready for a change. He will find that he’s leading teachers who are starved for appreciation and a connection with leadership. He will also find he is the perfect person to take on that responsibility. We may be able to lay out data sheets from South Elementary School all the way to Northside High School and discuss test scores ad nauseam, but if the leader of schools doesn’t inspire trust and hope in his or her teachers and students, we might as well light those sheets on fire.
Three years ago at the school where I teach, we had an influx of teachers who had previously taught at Jackson Central-Merry under the leadership of Dr. Jones. They all came to my school because Dr. Jones had taken a job in Huntsville, Alabama. Every one of the teachers I spoke with went on and on about how motivating he was. They talked about how well he led the school and how much he appreciated his staff. They described his vision as all-encompassing and discussed how he encouraged every paid position in that school from custodian to assistant principal to take hold of that vision and help make it a reality together.
This past May, after Dr. Jones had accepted the job as superintendent, I saw him in the hall at my school, where he stopped to pick up a piece of wadded up paper that was in the floor. Does that make him an outstanding leader of a school system? No. However, it speaks volumes to the kind of man he is. He is a man who cares about every aspect of this system from the hallways of a middle school to the vision that he will ultimately lay out for Jackson and Madison County.
Our school system may never be what it used to be, but that’s not a bad thing. We always want things to be like they were even though they have the potential to be so much more. There is no doubt that our system is near a tipping point. This may truly be our last chance to start over, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been more encouraged about the person who is leading our district than I am right now. In my ten years of teaching in JMCSS, this is the most confidence I’ve ever had in my school and our district, and that’s something to be excited about. Dr. Jones has put together a great group of people in leadership roles to help him make his vision a reality. This will be a long process, but I’m very eager to be a part of it.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.