|By Billy Davis
When the new school year kicks off August 10 in the South Panola School District, more than 1,200 students are expected at South Panola High School.
That’s 1,200 cases of peer pressure, hormones, possible family problems, life questions, and life-altering decisions. Somewhere in the midst of those teenagers’ lives, they’re expected to earn a diploma and graduate.
The students’ best advocate for success could be their new principal, Dr. Gearl Loden, who plans to improve academics through better attention to students’ struggles and challenges.
Loden, 36, was hired by the district to boost the school’s academics, which would eventually nudge the Level 3 high school to at least a Level 4 status.
Using students’ test scores, the state Department of Education ranks the public schools from a Level 1 "low performing" school to Level 5, which is "superior performing."
In South Panola, only Pope Elementary has climbed to Level 5.
South Panola High is one of three schools in the district at Level 3, which is deemed "successful" by state standards. The other schools are Batesville Junior High and Batesville Middle.
Batesville Intermediate is a Level 4 "exemplary" school.
Batesville Elementary School’s K-1 grades aren’t included in state testing, but the school is considered a Level 4 since it’s a "feeder school" for the intermediate school, said Superintendent Keith Shaffer.
Loden comes to Batesville after teaching social studies in Kosciusko and psychology in Tupelo, and serving as assistant principal in the Oxford public schools and principal in the Houston public schools.
Loden was a human resources director for the Meridian school system when he and his family, wife Monica and son Trey, made the move to Panola County.
Loden was a finalist for the superintendent’s position that was eventually won by Shaffer, who later recommended Loden for the principal’s position.
At the high school, Loden’s leadership team includes assistant principals Ruth Ball and Leslie Busby, vocational director Billy Smith, and activities director Kaye Smythe.
Loden said the step-by-step plan to improve students’ test scores will begin with a personal touch: let the students know they matter.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest student or a student who’s struggling," Loden said. "The point of an education is to encourage you to do the very best you can."
The high school is helping struggling students, for example, who failed state tests last spring. Those students recently received letters announcing remedial classes July 25-29 for algebra and U.S. history, and August 2-5 classes for English and biology.
On the other end of the achievement scale, Loden said, the high school will dangle the goal of a National Merit Finalist in front of high-achieving students.
"It’s been years since we’ve had a Finalist, and it’s past time that we did," Loden said.
For students who want a challenge, SPHS already offers six college-level advanced placement (AP) courses in English literature, English composition, Spanish, U.S. history, U.S. government, and calculus.
Loden said the "core group" of any high school is the "regular old Joe," a student with mediocre grades whose progress is overlooked by teachers more concerned with failing students.
"Those are sometimes the hardest ones to reach, but we know they’re there and we’re going to reach out and help them," Loden said.
To better reach out to students, Loden said, the school administration is building a "family support" structure of counselors and teachers who will closely monitor students’ classroom grades and school attendance.
"This is a pro-active stance of quickly reacting to sudden changes in the students’ performance," Loden said.
Echoing Loden’s philosophy, Shaffer said Loden’s mission is to count every student as important.
"Dr. Loden and I feel the same way about education: we want to provide each student the opportunity for educational excellence," Shaffer said.
South Panola High offers 120 subject areas, known as Carnegie units. A student needs a minimum of 24 units to graduate, said Smythe.
The high school offered 114 Carnegie units during the 2003-2004 school year, state records show, the 29th highest among high schools in the state.
The high school’s graduation rate was 85 percent last year, two points above the state average and the same as its neighbor, North Panola.
State records show 44 SP students dropped out in recent years between their 9th grade and 12th grade year.
In addition to academic courses, the high school offers a vocational program with nine two-year courses: allied health, business and computer technology, auto trades, child care, horticulture, building trades, food production, cooperative education and metal trades.
Loden said he will help change the perception that a high school student should choose between trade courses and college-prep academic courses.
Regardless of a student’s plans for a job or career, each South Panola graduate should be prepared for college classes, the new principal said.
"When teachers talk to their students, I want them to say ‘when you got to college’ not ‘if you go college,’" Loden said. "If the teachers keep saying it enough times, the students will eventually start believing it.
"With today’s global society, young people have to be competitive now more than ever," Loden said. "It doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or a painter – you need some college courses to compete and stay ahead."