Principal Corps Expands Placements to Mississippi Gulf Coast

Innovative educator training program's recruits possess impressive credentials

Principal Corps recruit Braxton Stowe visits with students at Quitman County Elementary School.

Principal Corps recruit Braxton Stowe visits with students at Quitman County Elementary School.

OXFORD, Miss. – Twelve accomplished educators with aspirations of helping shape the future of Mississippi public education have joined the fifth cohort of the University of Mississippi’s Principal Corps.

For the first time, the 13-month program – which prepares teachers for K-12 leadership positions with a combination of graduate coursework and two full-time internships – will partner with schools on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Previously, the program has primarily recruited and placed educators in internships in north and central Mississippi.

The select group includes John Barnett of Tishomingo County School District, Emily Branch of Petal School District, Jacob Dykes of Ocean Springs School District, Angela Ellison of Rankin County School District, Cloyd Garth Jr. of Jackson Public School District, Gretchen Gegenheimer of Harrison County School District, Elizabeth Koehler of Brookhaven School District, Misty Spencer of Vicksburg Warren School District, Braxton Stowe of Quitman County School District, Tess Trimm of Petal School District, Kodjo Wilder of Greenville Public School District and Haley Wilson of South Panola School District. All began summer classes in educational leadership at UM in June.

“From its beginning, this program was designed to train quality principals for the entire state,” said Principal Corps interim director Tom Burnham, who retired as state superintendent of education last year and helped establish the program during his tenure as UM dean of education. “Expanding to the Gulf Coast shows that this program has earned a reputation for producing excellent administrators who understand the challenges facing Mississippi schools.”

Housed in the UM School of Education, Mississippi’s largest producer of teachers and educational leaders, the program has graduated 37 educators since its creation in 2009. To date, nearly all have received job offers as educational leaders in Mississippi.

The program offers one of the most valuable leadership scholarships in the state. All cohort members receive a living stipend, full tuition, books, laptop and tablet computers, and housing while at UM.

The 12 new cohort members possess impressive credentials. Some are lead teachers or literacy coaches. Many hold advanced degrees or national board certifications or hail from highly selective programs such as Teach for America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

“We are all entering this program with different strengths and backgrounds, and this lets us grow together while learning from each other,” said Gegenheimer, a literacy coach from Woolmarket Elementary School who will complete internships next year at West Harrison High School and Pecan Park Elementary School in Ocean Springs. “Some of us come from an elementary background and some are from middle school or high schools. We’ve been able to lean on each other and share our expertise. It’s been a unique experience so far.”

In addition to two summer sessions, Principal Corps participants come to Oxford one weekend per month for face-to-face instruction during the school year. Each graduate receives a Master of Education or Specialist in Education degree. Principal Corps graduates have posted an average score of 179 on the School Leadership Licensure Assessment, 10 points above Mississippi’s cut score for an administrator license.

“The fact is there are very few people who have the skill set that it takes to move a school,” said Hank Bounds, Institutions of Higher Learning commissioner and former state superintendent of education, during his keynote address at the program’s June 26 banquet. “This really has grown into one of the premier principal preparation programs in the country. Principals and superintendents know that when you leave here, you are prepared.”

Above all, the Principal Corps focuses on learning by doing. During full-time internships in the fall and spring, each recruit works closely with experienced principal mentors, often acting as the assistant principal at his or her placement site. Many recruits receive job offers from one of their internship sites before graduation day.

“I’m here to develop myself as a leader,” said Stowe, a social studies teacher from Madison Shannon Palmer High School in Marks who will complete internships at Quitman County Elementary School in Lambert and North Panola High School in Sardis. “To learn under phenomenal leaders and combine the lessons we learn from them with the theory and the literature that we study is a fantastic opportunity.”

Besides earning an advanced degree in educational leadership, graduates also receive a $10,000 bonus upon accepting a principal or assistant principal job in a Mississippi public school. Each graduate makes a five-year commitment to stay in Mississippi.

The Principal Corps was established with a $2 million grant from the Jim and Donna Barksdale Foundation. Last October, the program received $1.5 million in new funding from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation to expand the program’s reach across the state. Upon the graduation of the new cohort, the number of alumni is expected to grow to 49. Next year, administrators hope to expand the program and accept as many as 15 new educators for its sixth cohort.

“We believe this program has the potential to make an impact on hundreds of schools and thousands of students,” Burnham said. “As we grow, we want principals and superintendents to look for new leaders in their schools, invest in them and recommend them for the Principal Corps.”

About Andrew Mark Abernathy