In the hills of Northeast Mississippi lies the New Albany School District, home to about 2,200 students whose share of accomplishments spearheaded by their Superintendent Lance Evans fall nothing short of amazing.
The district’s graduate rate has increased by 13.5% in the past four years to 95.5%, largely thanks to national certification attainment and its thriving dual enrollment programming.
New Albany is one of 57 schools in the state that have the privilege of being named an “A Rated School District” this year and is among the top 10% of school districts across Mississippi. Furthermore, Evans has helped the district maintain this rating since 2019, despite the pandemic.
New Albany has launched a robust workforce development program and received state honors for it in 2022. They’ve recently partnered with Toyota Mississippi to implement the 4T Academy, a two-year feeder program with a focus on advanced manufacturing, engineering, computer science, precision machining and other professional skills that aim to provide students with employment opportunities in Toyota Motor Mississippi.
These are but a mere sliver of the accomplishments and innovations New Albany has embarked on over the years. Now, they’re celebrating their latest achievement: Evans’ recognition as Mississippi’s Superintendent of the Year.
District Administration had the pleasure to sit down with the New Albany superintendent this week in celebration of this honor. We quickly learned that this award isn’t “a Lance award.” Yet, it’s a recognition of the hard work and dedication of his students and staff, because it truly takes a village to meet your district’s goals.
Meet Superintendent Lance Evans.
Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You took the helm in 2017. What was your vision for the district coming in?
To create a world-class educational opportunity for kids. But more so creating multiple pathways to success. I call it creating multiple pathways to success with no “dead ends” for our students.
It’s not just about getting that traditional diploma, right? That’s one route. You have kids going directly into the workforce. You have kids going to our very strong community college system in Mississippi and earning some type of postsecondary certification and going to work. Some will get an associate’s degree, transfer and then go to work. You’ll have those who attend a traditional university. And when you have kids that aren’t graduates, we’re still responsible for their success.
We have to put systems in place because life happens. And even though life happens, I feel responsible for that child and their success after their time with us.
It’s about creating multiple pathways for students because education is not a one-size-fits-all. It was when I was growing up. I graduated high school in 1996. And while a college diploma is still a definition of success, it’s not the end-all, be-all, right? That was my vision for the district.
Now, we’ve created a very robust paid internship system. We’ve put innovation labs at our elementary, middle and high schools. It’s all based on the workforce piece, but it’s getting students starting in elementary school thinking about these things.
Can you share how you’re setting students up for postsecondary success? What kinds of partnerships do you have in place for students on both the career side and the path to higher education?
A perfect example—five years ago we had zero business partners. Now, we have around 208 that are established business partners. They pour into our students through internships to help them get it right before they leave high school.
A big partnership we just announced is with Toyota Mississippi. We’re the only district in the state doing this. We’re implementing something called the 4T Academy. Our career technical center has fourteen programs in it. This is going to be a two-year program for juniors and seniors that’s basically a pathway to employment there.
We’re also a very large dual-enrollment school district. We don’t do AP classes here. The vast majority of our students leave here with six to nine hours of dual enrollment coursework. Some leave with as much as 30 to 40 hours.
We set it up so that a lot of our Carnegie units have been moved down to our middle school grades, grades six through eight. It created that opportunity for our high school juniors and seniors to take those dual enrollment courses while also participating in internship opportunities and career and technical courses. Our career and technical school has a little over 700 students a day that go through it across our 2,200 students.
So these are two huge avenues that are placing students en route to community colleges, to universities or into the workforce.
In addition to all this, we have eight career coaches who are county-wide and we’ve brought them down to our middle school grades. When a student leaves middle school, I want them to know what direction they want to take with their life. Are they going north, south, east or west? When that student reaches 11th or 12th grade, I want them to have a really good idea as to what they’re going to do in life for two reasons: One, they’re not wasting resources, right? Two, they’re not wasting their earning potential. It could mean the difference in promotions and the salary they make as an adult.
We also just hired a director of workforce development, and it’s not for our teacher workforce. It’s for the workforce development of our students, and that’s very unique. She says very busy. We have a workforce development curriculum as well as a workforce development plan. She helps ensure everything’s in place there and propels the initiative.
You’re now Mississippi’s Superintendent of the Year. Do you have any goals, either personally or for the district as a whole, that you still want to meet?
I’m a continuous improvement kind of guy. I’m never satisfied with where we are. I want to celebrate what we do, but as soon as we celebrate, I realize that that was yesterday. Now it’s today, right? It’s that whole idea where we can never be satisfied with our press clippings.
But I get fulfilled by seeing other people be successful. That’s what fills my heart. So that’s my goal. And one of my other primary objectives is to be that person who creates the systematic approach to get it done.
The thing is, having the opportunity to represent Mississippi as this person, it’s not a “Lance” award. It’s an award you accept on behalf of your district. It doesn’t matter what one person knows. What matters is what you can convince others to do. And when you bring those people in and you respect and appreciate their ideas and their input, then you can design.
We do a lot of what I call building the plane in flight. It makes people uncomfortable, so I have to have people that help keep each other grounded. And when you bring all those people to the table, they’re what make the plane fly.
I want us to be seen as not only the premier academic school district in Mississippi but also the premier workforce development school district. We have great people doing great things, and I would tell you that we’re very lucky because of the people we have. We’ve got a very diverse population of students. Our English learner population has grown tremendously over the years. We’re doing it all with a very diverse population, and that’s very fulfilling.
I can tell you that it’s all because of our teachers and our administrators who said, “I like building the plane in flight.” It’s going to be bumpy at times, but as long as you have that continuous growth mindset, you’re always going to be moving forward.