Working through the Memphis-Shelby County schools’ merger honed Bartlett superintendent David Stephens’ skills, and it’s a good thing he’s an experienced task juggler.
Doing everything at once — that’s the challenge and one of the least-understood aspects of the district’s work, he said. “If we were just looking at outsourcing transportation or outsourcing custodial or changing the curriculum, if you were just doing one of those, or a new student management system for student information …,” he shook his head. “You know, the years I was with Shelby County, when we took one of those endeavors on – when we outsourced custodial, it was a massive undertaking to do the one thing. We are doing all of them at one time.”
In his new role with Bartlett City Schools, Stephens appreciates his father’s wisdom and talks with him every day. His father, 82, wrote Plan Z in the days of school desegregation. Stephens himself was part of the largest school merger in U.S. history when Shelby County and Memphis schools joined.
“He’s a great resource and friend, and someone that kind of understands all the things that I’m going through as far as trying to start a new school system.”
It’s exciting and never boring work, Stephens said. Most of his days currently are from 7 a.m. to about 6 p.m., and he does some work at home. He also keeps an eye on his health and makes time for his family. Stephens said his wife and children are an oasis of calm amid his hectic schedule.
“You have seasons where you’re going to be extremely busy,” he said. “But if you look at the work we’re doing, it’s good work and it’s important work.”
Stephens meets weekly with principals and every Monday morning with his staff, and he plans to meet with various local groups as requested once the district is fully operational. He intends to keep his finger on the district’s pulse by staying visible and accessible in the community and by frequent school visits once the schools officially transition from Shelby County to Bartlett City Schools.
He said that the district will have great teachers and kids, and the buildings and materials will be ready when school opens, and the district is working to make sure the rest of the tasks are checked off. “We just have to make sure that the buses run, that we have what we need, that we’re able to pay people, that kids are being fed good nutritious food and enough of it, and our buildings are clean.”
The people are the most important element, he said, and that includes great teachers, principals, office staff, teachers’ assistants, school nurses, cafeteria ladies, janitorial and all the other key roles that help children in a school.
“If you work in a school, you’re a teacher,” Stephens said. “… Everybody is a teacher, because they’re impacting kids.”
School district update
Stephens said he feels good about the district’s status. “I have not had anything where I’ve said we’re behind or not on track. I think, as a whole, the operational side of the house I feel real good about. I’m excited about the shared services model that we’re putting into place – I think that’s a real cutting-edge concept that’s going to save us money and really give us quality.”
His central office is still working through the intricacies of school district boundaries and zoning. “We kept all the buildings but we didn’t keep all the kids,” he said.
Long-term, that is a positive because the district will have facilities to grow into. Short-term, it adds to the unknowns of launching a school district. “I’m going to have plenty of buildings,” Stephens said. “I’ve just got to get the kids in them.”
The district must finalize its best enrollment estimate, currently in the ballpark of 8,500 students. It also must determine the number of teachers needed and work through those contracts. Benefits and retirement packages for teachers and all staff are currently being developed with a goal of early May to get this part of the work.
He said good hires have already developed into a strong central office of people who work hard, make sacrifices and enjoy what they do. “I’ve brought on really strong people here at the district. When I sit down with my staff, I look at the years of experience – I’ve gone out and hired people who can get the job done.”
Even the district’s feasibility study has been thorough, accurate and a huge help. But the task remains challenging.
A five-year capital plan is a project he’s beginning. It’s difficult to do for a new district, particularly when they are still estimating how many students not zoned to Bartlett schools will be attending and how many students no longer zoned to Bolton High School will be allowed to stay there; the Bartlett district must make room for both definite and possible attendees.
“We’re really trying to determine what they’re going to do, because if all of a sudden two or three hundred students show up in August that we haven’t planned on – or if they show up in November or December or January – I have to have a seat for them.”
To date, the district has received about 1,600 open enrollment applications.
No contingency plans are off the table yet, Stephens said. He expects to make recommendations to the board this month on how the district will handle uncertain enrollment numbers.
Although the immediate focus is on becoming “operational before aspirational,” Stephens is thinking ahead to long-range plans. He expects the district’s future direction to include a balanced emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM); technology integration and interactive textbook technology; and a beefed-up high school honors program. The central office will continue tackling the long-range vision once the operational details are ironed out and the district is up and running.
“The bottom line, through all of this, our goal is to give our kids better opportunities,” he said.
He said Bartlett is a great city. “I think these new municipals schools are going to really give our city that opportunity to grow and thrive.”
Stephens provided the following snapshot:
- Lifelong resident of the Raleigh/Bartlett area
- Married for 26 years
- Active church member
- Father of two children in Bartlett schools
- Relaxes by bass fishing and duck hunting with his children, catching shows with his movie-buff wife, listening to sports talk radio, and watching sports (particularly the Grizzlies and University of Memphis football and basketball)
- Enjoys several music genres, from country to pop, Southern gospel and classics
- First cousin to Tennessee beauty queen Linda Thompson, formerly of Memphis, the long-time girlfriend of Elvis Presley and former wife of Olympian Bruce Jenner and composer/record producer David Foster. As a kid, Stephens visited Graceland and met Presley many times.
- Part of a family of educators (13 aunts, uncles, father, sister and great-aunts)
- An entire career in education: Stephens started his career with two years as a teacher at Snowden Junior High School and then 10 years at Houston High School. He went to Millington as an assistant principal for two years and then four years as vice principal. He was named principal of Bolton High School and served for five years before he worked for Shelby County Schools as assistant superintendent over curriculum and instruction and later as chief of staff. In the new merged district he was the deputy superintendent.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email at email@example.com. Editor’s note: See next week’s issue for an interview with the Lakeland School Systems Superintendent, Dr. Ted Horrell.