Principal Corps Cohort Addresses House Education Committee

… Jim Barksdale charges group to reform state’s educational system

OXFORD, Miss. – Benjamin Barlow started his career in education 10 years ago as an English and language arts teacher at Rankin County High School. He recently talked to the Mississippi House of Representatives education committee in Jackson about why he is ready to become a principal.

Barlow, a Vicksburg native, is part of this year’s graduating class from the prestigious Principal Corps at the University of Mississippi.

“This has possibly been the greatest growth opportunity of our lives,” Barlow said. “We know that we’re ready to take this challenge on. We believe that Mississippi requires two things for students to grow: instruction and leadership. This program takes care of that.”

Principal Corps

This year's graduating Class of the Mississippi Principal Corps tours the state Capitol after addressing the House education committee. The class includes (front row, left to right) Cody Shumaker of Cleveland, Kim Luckett of Madison, Felicia Pollard of Pontotoc and Courtney Van Cleave of Lyon, and (back row) Matt Buchanan of Pearl, Benjamin Barlow of Vicksburg, Patrick Doyle of Marks and Morgan Dean of Cleveland.

An innovative training program for K-12 administrators established in 2009 after a $2 million grant from the Jim and Donna Barksdale Foundation, the Principal Corps has cultivated a reputation in north and central Mississippi for producing ambitious principals and assistant principals. In fact, 21 of the 22 alumni from the program’s past two years hold principal or assistant principal positions in Mississippi.

This year’s cohort was invited to address the education committee for the third consecutive year.

“The program was designed to be very competitive,” said Susan McClelland, UM interim chair of curriculum and instruction, associate professor of educational leadership and director of the program. “Each student was selected for his or her potential to succeed and passion for shaping communities. In the last year, we’ve seen more superintendents come to us saying, ‘We want Principal Corps graduates.'”

This August, the class of eight aspiring educational leaders will graduate from the program with either a M.Ed. or an Ed.S. degree in educational leadership, growing the Principal Corps’ alumni ranks to 30.

The program is designed to accommodate both graduate studies and hands-on experience simultaneously, with students attending seminars on the Ole Miss campus during two summer semesters and utilizing online coursework with one weekend of face-to-face interaction each month during the fall and spring semesters. During the school year, students complete two full-time internships working with proven principals and occasionally acting as de facto assistant principals in Mississippi schools.

Admission to the program includes funding for tuition, fees, books and a $30,000 salary stipend from the Mississippi Department of Education, or MDE, and the student’s school district.

During the recent trip to Jackson, both students and faculty toured the Capitol and met with State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham before their education committee presentation. Burnham sat down with the group to discuss pending education legislation at the state level and how the MDE helps shape legislation that affects educators.

“The thing that most don’t understand is that, sometimes, it’s not the legislation that we help get passed that matters the most,” he explained. “It’s the legislation that we stop that helps Mississippi schools.”

Burnham, a former Ole Miss education dean, also introduced the students to top-level MDE officials who could be great sources of information for the future leaders.

“New principals don’t fail because they don’t have the desire,” he said. “They fail because they don’t ask questions. They don’t know who the people are that can give them the answers or they consider asking for help a sign of weakness.”

Barlow, who is completing administrative internships at Brandon Middle School and Highland Bluff Elementary School this year and will receive a specialist degree upon graduation, gave the formal address to the education committee.

Personally, the most rewarding part of the program has been developing relationships with peers who challenge him mentally and help him shape views on education policy and philosophy, he said. Hopefully, he explained, they will all work together in some way as leaders in Mississippi schools.

“I’m constantly getting to bounce ideas off of incredibly bright people,” Barlow said. “I’m challenged by this cohort. Personally, I cannot grow if I’m not challenged intellectually. I felt that way about the students in my classroom and I feel that way about myself.”

What’s also motivating the cohort members to succeed is the promise of a $10,000 bonus for graduates who accept a job as a principal or assistant principal in a Mississippi public school within two years of completing the program. Each Principal Corps graduate has a commitment to stay in Mississippi schools for five years.

Before leaving Jackson, group members met with Jim Barksdale, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority and the donor who originally funded the program. In an hour-and-a-half session, Barksdale charged the future leaders to reform education in Mississippi and to search for new ideas to do so.

“There are no silver bullets when it comes to fixing education in Mississippi,” Barksdale said. “But I do know the answer to improving education in Mississippi – it’s you.”

Principal Corps faculty are reviewing applications for its fourth cohort of aspiring Mississippi principals.

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