8 things to know about Lakeland and its new superintendent

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison

Dr. Ted Horrell was hired as the first superintendent of the Lakeland School System in January. Horell sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss his career, the challenges of starting a district from scratch and what people misunderstand about the new Lakeland district.

Listen to or read Horrell’s answers below.

 1.  Is there a moment in your education career that exemplifies why you are in this business?

Lakeland Elementary School has a guitar club, and so they got wind that I played the guitar.  And somebody said, well you need to join the guitar club.  And I said I am definitely joining the guitar club.  And the teacher invited me to play some of my songs for the students.  We interacted back and forth and they played some songs for me.  It was very fun.  It was very grounding.  It was at the most simple level of why it is that we’re doing what we’re doing, is because it makes a difference to kids. 


 2.  What is your dream job?

Right now this is my dream job.  This has been a great opportunity to learn the superintendency on a smaller scale.  It’s about as small as you can get with one school.  Because it’s so small I don’t really have a staff to speak of.  I have got a secretary and I work really closely with the school.  But that’s given me the opportunity to see every single aspect of a school system.  Because even small school systems have to do many of the same things that larger school systems, in fact most of the same things that larger school systems have to do.


3.  What are the challenges of forming a new district?

There’s nothing that you can take for granted is quote just going to happen. When you walk in as principal, there are a lot of things that you don’t have to worry about. They’re going to happen. The alarm system probably works, the closed circuit TV probably works, the light bill has probably already been set up. In this situation there is nothing, there’s almost nothing that is going to keep happening unless you do something.  

4. How do you know what are all the things you need to do?

One of the best parts about this experience for me is that all of the six munciipal superintendents meet together regularly. We have a standing meeting once a week.  We sit down and we kind of benchmark and go over our punch lists.  And somebody will say I had a thought to call the garbage pick-up folks, has anybody else called?  This is a couple months ago.  And we’ll say yeah I called them and left a message.  And sometimes we’ll say let’s just bring them in here together and we’ll all meet with them.  Or sometimes somebody will say, I did this application for the state, would anybody else like to see it?  And usually we’re all like, yes, we all have to see  it, I haven’t done that, I didn’t think about that or in some cases I didn’t even know I needed to do that.  So we do a lot of sharing.

5.  What challenges are left to make sure everything is rolling on day one?

The buses is the one thing that we’d all like to have resolved.  Some of that has to do with the process and some of it has to do with the complexity.  But we don’t have bus routes yet and we’re not 100 precent sure of start times yet. Althought we’re working under the assumption that we’re going to have the same start times.

6.  How does being your own separate district allow you to focus more on improving the quality of education at Lakeland?

Before it’s over we’ll have done 250 or so policies that we’ve done since January essentially, which is a lot.  Some of them have a lot of complexity to them.  The teachers gave me feedback on what they wanted to see in those policies on things like grading and discipline and attendance and things like that…. When you’ve got 50 or 200 schools you just don’t have that luxury. You’ve got to do something that is going to fit everybody. And most things don’t really fit everybody. So you wind up with a lot of top down things….But with ours it’s going to be very very specific to our kids, our teachers and our community.

7.   Lakeland has such a close relationship with Arlington and many of their students attend schools together.  Why are there two superintendents rather than one?

Ms. Mason [the superintendent at Arlington] and I, we’ve talked a couple of times [about that], at the time we both applied to be one superintendent for both systems, and now I think we both agree I don’t even know how you would do that with two different boards. It seemed a lot simpler in my head.  It’s really hard enough to kind of work with and respond to one group of five people, if you had two differnt groups that would be a tough gig.

8.  Are there any misconceptions about what you’re trying to do at Lakeland?

I think what’s good for any of us is going to be good for all of us. There’s a politicizing of this story as there is with everything.  And there are certainly a lot of political aspects of it.  But at the end of the day we sat down with Superintendent Hopson in Shelby County Schools and his staff several times to work through problems and we got them worked out.  And at the end of the day we had to ask what’s best for the kids.  That’s really what we’re all trying to do.


This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede