We all have moments in life that make us who we are.
Curtis Jones was a black high school junior raised in Griffin, a small Georgia mill town. For him, that moment was when his French teacher was absent.
Let’s set the stage. Jones grew up a poor, second-class citizen in the segregated South in a house across the street from the very railroad tracks that separated the community, black from white. His best friend didn’t make it through 8th grade. Others didn’t make it through life at all.
Though his hometown was segregated, the schools there were desegregated in 1971, his sophomore year. For the first time in his life, he had access to many of the same privileges the white kids had.
Those who were willing to break away, attend school, and learn, he said, they were able to break away from the cycle of poverty.
“It’s the hardest thing to get out of,” he said. “Even some middle-class families struggle with it.”
The substitute teacher couldn’t speak French. To pass the time, she engaged her students in conversation.
After class, she took young Curtis aside and asked him what he wanted to do after high school.
“I don’t know,” he recalled saying. “I think I’d like to fly airplanes. And she said, I know a guy who may be able to help you join the Air Force.”
That guy was U.S. Rep. Jack Flynt (D-Ga.). She had been his teacher. He lived in Griffin and Jones was invited out to his house that summer.
Jones impressed the congressman, who agreed to nominate the young man for a service academy appointment.
That’s one thing congressmen can do for their constituents—hand out service academy appointments. Attending a service academy is a golden ticket to life. Just as prestigious as any Ivy League school, service academies train young men and women to become leaders in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, fully paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Not only do they have more clout than non-service academy officers, once they leave active duty, they have a bright future in whatever second career they choose.
It was a little late to apply for an appointment, Rep. Flynt told him. He had no more Air Force Academy appointments to give out. But he did have some left for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Young Mr. Jones became West Point Cadet Jones, then 2nd Lt. Jones, until 20 years later, he retired as Lt. Col. Jones.
He started as an infantry officer and later became a comptroller, serving in the Army during a time of rebuilding following the Vietnam War. Later, he became a Senior ROTC instructor at Albany State University in Georgia, teaching young men and women to become Army officers like himself.
While teaching ROTC courses to fledgling officers, Jones caught the education bug, and after leaving the Army, he started his second career, the one that eventually resulted in the title he now holds: Dr. Jones.
Jones never did fly airplanes, but after retiring from the Army, he found a career in which he soared.
A stint as an instructor for Junior ROTC (the high school version of Senior ROTC) led to high school principal, then assistant superintendent and then superintendent of schools – all in his hometown of Griffin.
As impressive as all that was, it was after that when he rose to national prominence.
When Dr. Jones first became Superintendent of Bibb County Schools in 2015, he found an organization that was in disarray. His predecessor left facing federal bribery charges (he was convicted and served time for the lesser charge of tax evasion) and who left a school district that had last graduated only 58.9 percent of its high school seniors.
His first long-term goal was to raise the district’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2025.
(Spoiler: The Class of 2019 had a graduation rate of 79.4 percent, more than 20 percentage points better than what he started with. Six of the district’s seven high schools had graduation rates greater than 80 percent in 2019, putting the district on track to achieving his goal.)
The schools in 2015 had a mindset that the graduation rate would be low, he said.
“It took a mind shift,” he said. “They thought we were giving grades away and giving kids too many opportunities.”
Those opportunities include credit recovery and credit repair programs. Students who have fallen behind can make work up during the school day and the summer.
“It takes meeting kids where they are, and helping them move forward,” Jones said. “The expectations changed to, you are going to come to school, you are going to behave, and you are going to pass.”
At one middle school, to encourage pupils to not fight, they don’t have to meet the school dress code on Fridays if there are no fights at their grade level that week. And yes, it works.
“Grades, attendance, behavior – that’s going to get us where we need to be,” he said.
Each year, they give students a report showing them the academic standards and where they stand. It’s not a report card so much as a report card on steroids, with actual useful data. A copy is given to the new teacher in August, so they know where their new pupils did well and where they fell short.
It sounds innovative, and it is, but it was really a case of thinking outside a box that wasn’t sealed very tightly.
“It was a collective effort of the district,” he said. “If we were not going to have a state assessment, how do we tell parents what our students learned? We looked at math, reading, and English language arts, and we said, you know what?
“We have all this software. It tells us how our students are doing. It gives us a prediction on how they are going to do on the state testing. Why don’t we put this out and give it to the kids?
“To be quite honest, the people who have the software said no one has ever asked us to do that before.”
It’s said that once you leave the military, it never really leaves you. Jones confesses that’s true of him. Every day, he uses his Army experience and adapts it to the education field: developing young leaders, delegating, supervising, setting expectations, and most importantly, meeting or exceeding those expectations.
It boils down to a pithy phrase that he borrowed from the Army: “Mission first, people always.”
That’s not the only thing he borrowed.
When you get promoted in the Army, it is celebrated and you get pinned, whether it is your first PFC chevron or your last general’s stars.
After a teacher’s first year with the Bibbs County School District, they get pinned, too.
It’s a “VIP” pin – “Victory in Progress,” the school district’s mantra.
“After a year, they know who we are, we know who they are, and if you come back for that second year, it means that you want to be part of the team and you’re going to work with us,” Dr. Jones said.
In December 2018, Dr. Jones was named 2019 Georgia Superintendent of the Year by the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
He was then named one of four finalists for 2019 National Superintendent of the Year by The School Superintendents Association.
In February 2019, at the Association’s National Conference on Education, Dr. Jones was named 2019 National Superintendent of the Year.
You must wonder how things would have turned out if he had gotten an appointment to the Air Force or Naval Academy and flew airplanes.
Or if his French teacher had not been absent that day.
Dr. Jones is the keynote speaker at this year’s Craven County Schools Partners in Education luncheon on June 5.
This annual event supports and recognizes teachers who won PIE Grants during the 2019-20 school year. PIE awarded over $270,000 through a variety of grants and programs during the 2019-20 school year.
In lieu of a physical luncheon, Partners In Education is taking the luncheon virtual. Thanks to generous sponsors, PIE can make this a free “lunch in place” event, available through the PIE website and on social media.
To be a part of this event and hear Dr. Jones’ message, join them on Facebook, Twitter, or the PIE website, www.cravenpartners.com on June 5 noon.
If you cannot join at that time, the video link will remain available on PIE’s social media pages and website. Contact Darlene Brown, Executive Director, Craven County Partners In Education, at Darlene.Brown@Cravenk12.org to learn more.
Since 1989, PIE has been changing the lives of students and families in our community by providing our educators with financial resources that enhance and reward innovative approaches to educational excellence.