John Aitken served as superintendent of Shelby County Schools from 2009 to 2013 amid one of its most tumultuous changes in recent memory, including the changes wrought by Race to the Top, a new teacher evaluation system and the merger with Memphis City Schools. Now as the superintendent of Collierville Schools he hopes that, after a busy start, his job will settle down and he can spend more time building relationships.
In this interview he talks to Chalkbeat about how, until this year, there hadn’t been a new district in Tennessee in over 60 years, what remaining challenges wake him up at night and when and how he plans to celebrate.
1. People are excited about moving into Collierville now that it has its own new municipal school district, according to Aitken. As students from nearby schools return to the district in the coming years, he expects Collierville Schools to grow so much that they will likely have to build more schools in the near future.
2. Aitken says he took over the superintendent job of legacy Shelby County Schools at a moment when so much of education in Shelby County was about to change. He spent so much time dealing with Race to the Top, evolving teacher evaluation models, the merger and demerger—that he was never able to fully settle in. Although he wasn’t in favor of the school merger last year, he thinks taking the job may have been his subconscious letting him know that the opportunity to lead his own community in Collierville would be coming soon.
3. Until this year, there hadn’t been a new school district in Tennessee in over 60 years. Many times even the state’s Department of Education couldn’t answer his questions about policies and procedures.
4. The municipal districts have been passing hundreds of new policies in the last few months, but many of them are dictated by law and the other ones, he said, have drawn largely upon the practices of legacy Shelby County Schools.
5. Aitken says that in the future the district might start looking at changing more policies that are specific to Collierville’s community, such as new start times, but right now the focus is just on making sure that everything functions at the beginning of the year.
6. He says that some of the little details, such as getting the bus routes down, are what keep him up at night. And he says that he will be celebrating after the first payroll on Aug. 15, if everything goes well.
7. Aitken says that each of the municipal districts is unique and will have their own challenges.
8. There isn’t as much money for programs such as special education in the municipal districts, so he says they have to be more careful about how they spend their money.
9. Being superintendent of eight rather than 51 schools means that he thinks he’ll be able to be more hands on as superintendent.
10. Over the course of 35 years in education, he says he has been inspired by both helping his schools deal with tragedies, and sing at the weddings of the children of his former students.