Former Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham Returns to UM

Veteran educator to serve as interim Principal Corps director

Tom Burnham

OXFORD, Miss. – Who better to lead the University of Mississippi’s Principal Corps than the state’s former superintendent of education?

Coming out of retirement from his second appointment as Mississippi state superintendent in June, Tom Burnham, former dean of the UM School of Education, the state’s largest institution for teacher and educational leadership preparation, has rejoined the faculty as interim director of program.

“We’re going to concentrate on expanding our recruitment efforts across Mississippi,” said Burnham, who was a key player in founding the Principal Corps during his tenure as dean. “When you look at a map of our past recruits, we’ve only had one from south of Jackson. We’re hoping to receive more applicants from the Gulf Coast this year.”

An innovative, 13-month blend of graduate study and on-the-job training, the Principal Corps was founded in 2009 with a $2 million grant from the Jim and Donna Barksdale Foundation. To date, 100 percent of the program’s alumni have received job offers as K-12 principals or assistant principals upon graduation. By next August, the number of Principal Corps alumni working in Mississippi public schools is expected to grow to 39.
“Dr. Burnham has been an influential character within the Principal Corps from its beginnings,” said Susan McClelland, who is leaving the director position to concentrate on her latest appointment as interim chair of teacher education at UM. “His extensive experience in educational leadership in Mississippi and North Carolina, creativity and passion for student learning makes him an ideal candidate to grow the program and ensure we’re preparing instructional leaders who can address today’s issues in education.”

Principal Corps recruits attend seminars on the Ole Miss campus one weekend per month and during two summer semesters to earn either a Master of Education or Specialist in Education degree in educational leadership. During the fall and spring semesters, students complete two full-time internships with proven principals and occasionally act as de facto assistant principals at their internship sites. Many receive job offers from one of their internship sites.

“From the very beginning, we said we’re looking for only the most outstanding candidates,” Burnham said. “We’ve always had a fantastic applicant pool, but it’s not indicative of the class size. If we have 20 outstanding candidates this year, then that’s how many we will accept. If we have nine, then we will take nine.”

Admission to the program includes funding for tuition, books and a $30,000 salary stipend from the Mississippi Department of Education and the recruit’s school district. Also motivating cohort members to excel 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. Each Principal Corps graduate makes a commitment to stay in a Mississippi public school for five years upon accepting a signing bonus.

“The Principal Corps is a program that can dramatically change school leadership in Mississippi,” said David Rock, UM education dean. “We’re striving to become a national leader in education. Bringing in proven leaders like Dr. Burnham is going to help our students think outside the box and become leaders who make a difference.”

Past recruits come from school districts across the state, with teaching experience ranging from just a few years to more than 10. Many already hold advanced degrees, licenses and national board certifications, and hail from selective teacher education programs such as Teach for America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

“When we see candidates coming from these backgrounds, we’re confident that we’re selecting idealistic and bright people who can naturally evolve into principals,” Burnham said. “We have to make sure our candidates can be successful with today’s issues.

“If you look back to when we started the program, everything is different. Now it’s Common Core Standards, there are new national assessments, there’s a whole new generation of teachers and principals who are going to be measured by student achievement. This is an opportunity for our state and our schools to invest in a new generation of principals.”

The Principal Corps is accepting applications for its fifth cohort online at Deadline for admission is Feb. 1.