By STEVEN NALLEY
With his first day as Starkville School District’s superintendent one month away, Lewis Holloway returned to Starkville this week to spend more time with SSD staff, students and alumni, assess the district’s needs and prepare to address them.
Holloway said he arrived during Memorial Day weekend, and throughout June, he will use paid leave from his job in the Bulloch County, Ga. school district to complete his move to Starkville and work with the SSD as a consultant. Holloway’s contract as SSD superintendent officially begins July 1.
Keith Coble, SSD Board of Trustees president, said June will enable Holloway to develop a better understanding of the district’s budget, personnel and activities. He said SSD Interim Superintendent Beth Sewell and Assistant Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin have been instrumental in the transition process.
“I would say the transition has been quite easy up to this point,” Coble said. “Dr. Holloway has been eager to get his finger on the pulse of the district. I think, in a lot of ways, (he’s) getting up to speed.”
SSD recently completed its Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation evaluation, and Holloway said he will use that evaluation to prioritize the district’s issues. The district needs realistic, actionable plans for technology, facilities, a five-year budget and to surviving economic constraints, he said, and he wants to keep the process transparent enough for all SSD constituents to provide input.
“I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to help me understand and acclimate to the school district,” Holloway said. “Every time I’ve come (to Starkville, SSD Public Information Officer Nicole Thomas) has given me a full schedule to meet with different people in the community ... to give me a perspective of what it’s going to be like coming into Starkville. I’ve focused the last visit on school board members and people in the district. Right now, we’re in the budget process and trying to bring closure to that. I hope in the next couple of days to begin touring the facilities and keeping up with the different facility needs the district has.”
Coble said Holloway’s experience will prove valuable. When Coble talks to Holloway about the SSD’s issues, Holloway frequently replies, “I’ve dealt with that before,” Coble said.
“That’s very positive,” Coble said. “I think there’s an opportunity to get started moving forward, making some strategic planning decisions.”
During his tenure in Bulloch County, Holloway said he placed a heavy emphasis on assessment, assessment systems and technology. He said Georgia’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program did much to improve the district’s facilities and technology infrastructure.
“That provided a penny sales tax for the building of facilities and technology infrastructure, so we were able to build $150 million of facilities in ... five years,” Holloway said. “(We were) providing smart boards for every classroom, laptop computers for every teacher (and) labs at all the schools. We had teachers taping their lessons on YouTube. We developed a five-year staffing plan that reduced staff to the point to where we could stay inside our budget constraints.”
Holloway plans to start evaluating SSD buildings this week, looking at the basic plans, age and renovation dates of each and visiting them in person to determine which improvements will take priority. He said his top priority in Starkville, as in any district, is improving the graduation rate.
“In my previous district, we were able to show improvements to the graduation rate every year except for last year,” Holloway said. “That was due to how they computed the graduation rate, which I think affected Starkville as well. Meeting your (Mississippi Curriculum Test) scores is going to continue to be an issue in Starkville. Those percentages to be a highly functioning school district are going up. That’s going to be a struggle, but it’s a great staff, it’s great personalities (and) it’s good people that are working hard.”
Holloway said school districts with limited resources can unlock unlimited potential if the human element is strong.
“I think the people here, in my interview and visits, (were) the most outstanding part,” Holloway said. “You’ve got great personalities, you’ve got strong teachers, strong administrators. I think that’s the greatest resource Starkville has. I’m just happy to, as of July, take over a strong team. (The SSD also has) great kids. We just left an art class that’s helping us with convocation. Those are some of the brightest kids I’ve ever been around.”