When the Monroe County Board of Education interviewed director of schools candidates last week, it was ladies first. Actually, lady first.

DeAnna McClendon might be the only female candidate for the Monroe County director of schools position, but she made sure the board would remember her passion for education and this area.

McClendon is the current director of Early Childhood for the Shelby County Schools in Memphis, a role she has held since 2011.

“I’m a native Monroe County student,” McClendon told the board while introducing herself. “Madisonville, Tennessee, is officially my home. But I haven’t lived here for probably about 20 years.”

McClendon said she is a divorced mother with two little girls, one who is 9 and an adopted daughter who is 15.

“They keep me very busy,” she said. “We play competitive soccer. Both play piano.”

McClendon obtained her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Lane College in Jackson in 1994. She continued her education at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) to obtain her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 1995. In 2005, she also completed her master’s degree in administration and supervision at Freed-Hardeman University. She obtained her Educational Specialist degree in leadership and professional practice from Trevecca Nazarene University in 2007.

She began her career in education in the Metropolitan-Nashville Public School System, where she taught from 1995-2000. Following her time there, she started working as a reading/social studies teacher in the Shelby County School System in Memphis, working her way up the system in a variety of roles until landing in her current position in 2011.

Even though McClendon moved to Middle Tennessee, and then West Tennessee, for work, her parents still remained in Monroe County.

“We lost mom last year, but dad is still here,” she said.

McClendon was part of the Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools merger in 2013. The unified school district became Tennessee’s largest school system.

“We had about 100 classrooms and now we have 291 classrooms with 5,600 students in our early childhood program,” she said, noting it is comparable to the Monroe County School System as a whole.

1. What is your vision for Monroe County Schools and how do you plan on achieving that vision?

McClendon had prepared a brochure for the board members to answer this question.

“I don’t know that coming into this position that it’s really for me to set the priorities and the vision,” she admitted. “You need to do a lot of listening, learning and leading. I think I need to work very closely with the board, the administrative staff and others so that I can determine what the mission is. What are people going to buy into? So that we can then set the agenda and the plan and then begin to execute what is our vision and mission.”

McClendon said Monroe County Schools have a “phenomenal foundation.”

“I think you start there,” she said.

She also laid out a 100-day “new-on-the-job” plan if she were to be selected as director.

“Building relationships and communication — that’s going to be important,” said McClendon. “I need to understand the communities that you all represent.”

She stressed the importance of having good working relationships with the board, principals, Central Office staff, all faculty and staff, students and parents, business owners, etc.

“They all have a stake in what happens for those children,” said McClendon. “These are people who are invested. Every time you have a change, you’re going to have to build trust back. People don’t really know you. They aren’t sure what your expectations are going to be. You have to put time in to understand. Sometimes what you think is happening or what we think are problems or wins, sometimes that’s not really the current reality. We need to get a good grasp on what is reality.”

McClendon said she would like to have events to introduce herself to the communities.

“Supper with the Superintendent, Dance with the Director ... anything like that,” she said. “A listening, learning and leading tour for all schools. I need to visit local businesses, local churches, the Chamber of Commerce…”

“I don’t want to forget our PTO,” she added. “They’re a direct line and connection. We want to make sure we get involved with them and help them create needs assessments.”

She said it was also important for a director to attend sporting and academic events as often as possible.

“Let those families have access to you and be able to talk to you and get to know you,” she said. “You’ve got to go so that families really understand that you care about their babies.”

McClendon, who was wearing heels for her interview, said she usually is in “flat, rubber shoes.”

“Because I’m in those classrooms, in those buildings,” she said. “Not as a ‘got-ya,’ but as a ‘I gotta go and see.’ I want to sit, listen and determine where we need to go next and how we can be the most helpful.”

The candidate also addressed the need to improve the county’s Career & Technical Education (CTE) Program.

“Here in Monroe County there are two paths,” she said. “You’re either going to college or you’re going to start the career. We need to go through and really look at our CTE programs. How many lead our children to actually receiving a certificate?”

In a follow-up question from 2nd District’s Marsha Standridge, McClendon was asked about her success in obtaining grants. In her current role, she has obtained grants totaling $50 million.

“I hate to say this, but grant writing is almost a formula,” said McClendon. “Once you write one grant, and you get the formula, it’s easier to build off another one.”

She noted there are some grant opportunities that Monroe County might qualify for, including 100-percent free and reduced lunch grants.

“We have a great opportunity being a rural school district to really just look under rocks and trees to see what is available that we might be eligible for,” said McClendon. “Then, we need to get busy trying to write for those.”

2. This year has been somewhat stressful for some employees as we have worked through the transition to a new director. How would you promote positive morale and help employees feel secure and confident moving forward into the new school year?

“I called a couple teachers and asked what the problems seemed to be,” said McClendon. “It seemed there was a lot of movement and they weren’t informed. It made them feel like they were on pins and needles all the time.”

McClendon said when Shelby County and Memphis City schools went through the merger, there were some morale issues.

“We needed some wins,” she said. “We have to remember that what we see as wins isn’t always what teachers see as wins.”

McClendon gave several examples of things that could be done to raise teacher morale and spirits.

3. If one of our schools has a significantly low achievement score across the board, what sort of strategy would you implement to improve achievement among the students?

McClendon said one of the biggest things with improving scores is to watch the “feeder patterns.”

“What is it that students aren’t getting? What do students need? What students are affected?” she questioned. “It’s important to have a good, solid academic plan and to utilize predictive assessments.”

Currently, McClendon said Monroe County’s achievement score as a district is about 33.4 percent.

“My goal is that we want to at least be or beat the state average, which is at 39.1,” she said. “There are experts right here in Monroe County. They may just need a couple new strategies. Sometimes as a leader, you have to put your pride in your purse. You have to really work through who has an idea that you can really work and expand on.”

4. What plan or plans would you develop to keep students who have attendance problems from going to homeschooling?

McClendon said Tennessee Code Annotated states that parents are permitted to homeschool under the supervision of a superintendent of a school district.

“This gives you an opportunity to sort of meddle,” she said. “When they come to pick up the form for homeschooling, there needs to be an interview with that parent. We need to ask those tough, hard questions. Tell me why you’re electing to homeschool. It needs to be a four or five-step process, where they pick up the form, you conduct the interview and explain some options to them and try to sell about why they should stay in school, provide resources and continue to check in and monitor to see if we can’t get them back into school.”

McClendon also stressed that it is important to make school environments “warm and welcoming.”

Third District’s Jo Cagle asked what could be done to prevent this from happening with students who turn 18 and decide they want to quit.

“That really affects your graduation rate. That kills your graduation rate if those particular students drop out,” noted McClendon. “I think you have to provide some things like course recovery options, maybe some night programs or Saturday programs. You start convincing them that we have other options for them. Maybe they aren’t a traditional student. I think we also need to think about a robust GED program for those students — because getting them to a GED counts. If you can keep them enrolled in some sort of program, that will keep from messing up your end count for graduation rates and it will show them their opportunities. Show them what you earn as a high school graduate versus a non-high school graduate. You’ve got to lay it out for them. They’re mature enough.”

McClendon noted that the students who are labeled “troublemakers” can often be pinpointed early.

“Children usually start getting in trouble around third or fourth grade,” she said. “When you start having those parent-teacher conferences, you know the first person who should be that conference that we leave at home? The child. You’ve got to start having conversations with children early on about what their goals are and try to help them in their situations.”

5. Do you understand the BEP formula and how it works? Our fund balance is at a minimum required amount and the next two years may make balancing our budget extremely challenging. How will you approach this process for developing a workable budget?

McClendon said she thinks the budget process should begin around Christmas break.

“I like for managers/directors to submit their budgets to me by the time we leave for break,” she said.

Around February, she said, the budget is ready to submit to the School Board, giving the board plenty of time to look over it before finalizing it in May and moving forward with a vote.

“We’ve got about a $53-54 million dollar budget (at Shelby County). I’ve been responsible for a budget that size for the past three years. We’ve had no findings on our single audits. We’ve come in on time and under budget each and every year. That’s a thing you’ve got to be mindful of, especially if your fund balance has cliffed and you know you can’t go there anymore.”

Second District’s Jason Miller asked McClendon how she would prioritize things in the budget process.

“I think you have to look at what priorities are taking place that particular year,” said McClendon. “Each budget year is unique based on what your plan is, operationally and academically. You’ve got to be very fluent. You can’t be married to anything because you’ve got to get our of your way and do what is best for children and families and what is the will of this board.”

First District’s Dewitt Upton asked how McClendon would help retain teachers in Monroe County due to teacher salaries being lower here.

“Did you realize that you guys are only about $8-9,000 below the state average?” McClendon responded. “Your teachers are doing pretty well.”

“You’ve also got to also tell them it’s a little bit cheaper to live in Monroe County than Knoxville or Nashville. You’ve got to show them that if you make this particular amount in Monroe County, you’d have to make $10-15,000 more if you lived in Nashville or Knoxville. But to make the difference in other counties poaching your teachers, it’s got to be a place where they love it,” McClendon continued. “Teachers don’t go into teaching because they think they’re going to get rich. They like to teach. They like to be valued and treated as professionals. They like to think someone cares and listens. That’s 50 percent of retaining —I ’d say maybe even 70 percent — of retaining your teachers right there. Then you look for some other wins.”

McClendon was also asked about the importance of social and emotional learning.

“It is just as important as the numeracy and the literacy,” she said. “People don’t really care until they know how much you care. You’ve got to address those. Not only with the mental health of your students, but your teachers and your faculty. That’s highly important as well. A lot of times we say we do what is best for children, but if you haven’t done what is best for children and the adults, it makes it very, very hard. You can’t leave any piece of that puzzle out. You’ve got to be supportive to everyone.”

To conclude her interview, McClendon listed her top four priorities if she were to be chosen as the new director of schools: Having a strong, collaborative relationship with the board; creating opportunities for broad listening; having an outstanding opening to school in August; and making sure a robust plan is in place to support the district in achieving its goals, both operationally and academically.

“Being from Monroe County and a student from Monroe County, even if I’m not selected for this particular position, I want to do anything I can do to help,” said McClendon. “I have buy-in to the students and families in Monroe County because I’m a Monroe Countian. In five or six years, regardless, I plan on making this my home.”

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