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.