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Education Matters

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by Arthur Mallory

The state Board of Education and I had just made an agreement that I would leave Southwest Missouri State University, then College, and assume the role as Missouri's commissioner of education. Prior to my leaving my family in Springfield for three months until they could join me in Jefferson City, my dad and I were visiting about the new responsibilities.

He said even though the superintendents of schools throughout Missouri did a good job with their duties, I would discover that, "true leadership in education is veneer thin."

This conversation brought into sharp focus some events during my youth which demonstrated the kind of educational leadership which can make a difference.

My dad was superintendent of schools near Springfield and Mother was a teacher. Sometime during my eighth-grade year in school and one of our breakfast discussions, he mentioned a new initiative by the state Board of Education on the classification of schools.

A more sophisticated method of evaluation of schools was to be put in place and "AAA" was to be the highest classification.

My Dad observed that for our school district to acquire that rating, we would need several new programs which, to be effective and meet the new standards, needed to be housed in facilities especially designed to accommodate them. The problem was that the total assessed valuation of the district was $575,000, and were the patrons of the school district to vote to bond the district to the legal limit, we could raise only an additional $5,000.

From that moment in 1947 until the work was completed, my parents took their $10,000 life savings, mortgaged our home worth about $7,000, leased a lot near the school for $1 per year with an option to buy and began the process of purchasing surplus buildings from Camp Crowder, Missouri, and O'Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, dismantled them and started the construction of buildings to house the programs necessary to obtain a AAA school rating.

He and my mother borrowed construction money on their signatures and paid off the loans, then repeated the process until the school district was able to assume the financial responsibilities.

In the early years of this effort, the building projects were paid off from revenue raised by a snack bar operation and concession stands during school events. My sister and I spent our high school years operating concession stands.

During commencement ceremonies in 1963, my parents gave the school district the property and several buildings to which my parents held clear title. This was done without a dime of cost to the taxpayers of the district. I was the commencement speaker, and for me, that evening, and the years of effort to obtain and maintain a quality program in a poor rural school district, were reminders of what is meant by "real leadership."

The success of this effort required a vision, inspiring leadership and courage on the part of the superintendent of schools. It also required no less courage and vision on the part of the local Board of Education.

The board kept true to the goal, and presented a stalwart united front to the patrons of the district who needed assurance that all was well and the project would benefit their children and youth.

The real key to the success of the "school district enhancement project" was the fact that the leaders never for an instant took their eyes off of the students. Every decision was made with the students, then and in the future, in mind.

This formula for leadership and unselfish service will work today! The battle cry of each school leader should be, "watch the learner." Always, the litmus test is, "Do what is best for the students."

Today, several school districts in southwest Missouri are looking for new superintendents of schools.

It all boils down to finding someone who will provide a vision, offer inspiring leadership courageously and who will, under all conditions and regardless of the consequences, "watch the learner."

(Arthur L. Mallory, EdD, is a former president of Southwest Missouri State University and former commissioner of education who resides in Springfield.)

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