Is the only constant in this world the success of the Petal School District? I was blessed to serve twenty-five years as a teacher, coach, and administrator in the Petal School District, and it was a great school district before I arrived on the scene, it was a great school district while I was there, and it is a great school district today. Recently, the state released school accountability scores and rankings, and the Petal School District was once again ranked in the top five school districts in the state (number one in mathematics). No one was surprised because no one can remember when or if there was a time in its history that Petal was not ranked at the top. The mark of a great school district, athletic team, or great business is the ability to sustain success over time regardless of who is at the helm or in the trenches, and the Petal Schools have done a remarkable job of maintaining success even when key personnel have changed.
In the past four years, the District has had two superintendents, changes in directorships, and multiple changes in school principals and assistant principals, yet, it has remained a top-rated school district. That is amazing! However, what is more amazing is the District has maintained its success even with the loss of some great teachers who have retired or moved elsewhere due to family and career decisions. Common sense says for a school to be successful it must have great teachers in the classroom. In fact, research supports a quality teacher in the classroom is the most crucial factor in the education of a child. However, in an era of state and nation-wide teacher shortages, it is not easy to find quality teachers to replace outgoing quality teachers even for a school district, like Petal, with a strong discipline and academic reputation, so how does Petal do it?
Having worked in the school district, I am very familiar with the “movers and shakers” (great educators) among the teachers and administrators, but until recently, while browsing the District website I was unaware of the turnover that has occurred over the past four years. The school websites are filled with new teacher and administrator faces at almost every school. Most of the old guard is gone! The people I always believed made the schools great were missing, but success marched on without them. How could that be? Maybe, there is truth to the adage, “One monkey does not stop the show.”
Before I retired, I often bragged, the key to my success at Petal High School was the quality of teachers that lifted me and the students on their shoulders and made what sometimes appeared impossible possible. Although many of the administrators and teachers who carried me to success are now gone, Petal High School and the District continues to be successful. That is not only a tribute to the recruiting efforts of the District, it is a tribute to the foundation on which the District is built. Superintendents, directors, staff, teachers, principals, and school board members come and go, but the two constants, the two non-negotiables, that never change in the District are “everyone is accountable for learning” and an undying attitude that “ALL children can learn.” These constants result in a successful school district year after year regardless who leads the way in or outside the classroom.
Faces change, but as the battle-scarred veteran teachers gradually move on to another phase in their lives, fresh faces arrive to grow into their shoes. Like those before them, they pick up the banner of excellence, refuse to lower standards for themselves or their students, and rise above the crowd. They do so because that is the PETAL WAY; the only WAY for a Petal educator! Petal educators expect the impossible of themselves and the children they teach, they rise above their imperfections and the imperfections of their students and show them what may seem impossible is but a grain of sand in their shoe. They lift kids – their own and the kids of others – on their shoulders and carry them – sometimes kicking and screaming – to heights they would never know unless their teacher sacrificed a piece of their life, their heart, and their soul to show them the way.
However, where does the district continue to find quality teachers who have the ability to pick up where the masters left off and walk in their shoes? Contrary to widespread belief, good teachers are not a dime a dozen; they are few and far between. They cannot be contracted through Amazon and arrive in the classroom in two days, so where are they found? Maybe, there is a secret door hidden under a green moss laden bluff somewhere along the Tallahala Creek where teachers with iron nerves who do not know the meaning of “quit”, teachers with hearts of glass kids can look into and learn trust, and teachers with eyes that say, “I am here for you – take my hand” stand waiting patiently for their time to step forward and cultivate our tomorrow. Or, maybe quality teachers are born somewhere off the Gulf Coast in emerald waters salted lightly with rock flour and wisps of dreams and hope. More likely, there are no secret doors or emerald waters, only a one-time school boy or girl who grew up to be a teacher with dreams to save the world one child at a time, and was fortunate enough to find like-minded people in a place that has yet to give up on its children and their dreams – the Petal School District.
Yes, year after year, it amazes me how superintendents, directors, staff, principals, teachers, and even school board members can change, yet, the school district continues to not only be successful but thrive. Working hard and smart with kids as the bottom line while plugging in a sincere love for them and passion for learning is a surefire formula for success, and that success becomes even more sustainable when everyone from the superintendent to the custodian understands everything a school district does is about kids. “Doing what is best for kids” is what ensures success for the District regardless of who the superintendent or the teachers in the classroom may be. When a school district asks, “What is best for the kids?” prior to every decision it makes, it cannot not help but be successful year after year. That single question puts every decision and every action in the proper perspective for a school district. It enables a small, underfunded (by the state) school district like Petal to succeed where others fail. My hat is off to those who laid the foundation, to the old guard who remain as models of commitment and excellence, and to those brave new faces that are carrying on the tradition of Petal excellence. My hat is off to the Petal School District for always putting kids first. By doing so, the District will always be a success! Congratulations, Petal educators for another successful school year! You deserve every accolade laid upon you! Your success is not luck! You work hard for your success, so take a few minutes to enjoy a job well done, then get back to work – the kids need you.
©Jack Linton, August 24, 2017