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Price looks ahead after bumpy year

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent James Price talks on a cell phone in his office at school district offices on Mission 66.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[5/23/04]Public school Superintendent James Price’s first year at the helm of the 9,000-student Vicksburg Warren School District has been a roller coaster.

“This year has been filled with every emotion you can experience,” Price said. “You can go from laughter to distress in 5 minutes and do it five times a day.”

From the beginning, his footing was on uneven ground.

A year ago, the board voted 3-2 to place him in the position Donald Oakes had held for three years. Others in the final running were Kim Stasney, a superintendent for a school district on the Gulf Coast, and then-assistant superintendent Agnes Lyles.

The day before Price officially took over, Lyles quit.

On the fourth day of school, a bomb threat at Vicksburg High School delayed the start of classes, and a month into the school year, a former student was killed on the VHS campus as students were leaving for the day. “If there were ever a trial by fire, I sure had that,” Price said.

Two weeks before students were recessed for Winter Break, District 1 trustee Chad Barrett filed a lawsuit against fellow members on behalf of his son, Tyler, after a drug probe at Warren Central High School.

The role of the superintendent is to make recommendations on issues to the board at monthly meetings. Those recommendations have not always been overwhelmingly approved.

“It’s hard sometimes to maintain your focus on the overall goal when you have so many things coming at you from so many different directions that temporarily cause you to have to redirect your focus,” Price, 52, said. Amid the turbulence, Price, who is paid $104,000 annually, brought about major changes within the district.

“The challenge is sticking to your focus.”

The biggest change, if approved by the U.S. Justice Department, will not been seen for more than a year. Beginning in the 2005 school year, Price’s community school plan will return all elementaries in the district to K-6 and require students to attend school closer to home unless a parent provides the transportation. Trustees approved the plan in April after Price sought backing from the community, teachers and administrators. Board members were split on the issue before Price took the issue to Washington.

Price, who is the fifth superintendent of the consolidated district, also created the Youth Court Assistance Center at the former Grove Street Elementary School. It’s a program that allows the Warren County Youth Court and the school district to work together to help misbehaving or at-risk students.

Price and administrators also reinstated a GED program and a vocational program in the district that focuses on overage students.

The district also now works with Warren-Yazoo Mental Health to provide counseling to at-risk kindergarten and first-grade students.

Price cites positives in his first year.

One is an enhancement of communication with teachers through weekly meetings he calls “Coffee with the Superintendent.” Faculty members meet with Price before school to vent or ask questions.

Another positive, he said, is the district’s new Web site. He said it’s easier to navigate than a previous version.

Price was also responsible for Bowmar Avenue Elementary School, the district’s oldest building, receiving a $300,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for restoration work.

Now Price is looking to the future.

He and administrators hope to begin a prekindergarten program by working with the existing Head Start program.

He also wants to begin an ungraded four-year program for students in kindergarten through the second graders that, he said, will ensure all students are reading at their grade level before the third grade.

There has also been discussion of making students attend classes throughout the year, and, he said, administrators are still studying the idea.

“We’re looking forward to a good year next year, and we don’t anticipate having as many issues arise,” he said. “I want every child to reach his or her fullest potential, not only academically, but socially and emotionally, so he or she can stay viable in this community.

“The success or failure of this community is directly proportionate to the success or failure of this public school system,” he has said repeatedly.

Price began his career in the district in 1991 and was a teacher, an assistant principal, an elementary and intermediate principal and an administrative assistant before being named suprintendent.

Bowmar Principal Barbara Burns said she’s known Price since his days as principal at Warrenton Elementary, and said he’s always been a visionary.

“I have a lot of respect for Dr. Price,” she said. “I feel like he is going to make a tremendous difference in the district if we follow his leadership.”

And Butch Newman, administrative assistant to the superintendent, said he believes Price is on the right track.

“I have never worked with a more honest man who has the best interest of children at heart,” Newman said.

Jan Daigre has been the District 4 trustee on the five-member school board since last year and was elected president last month.

“We all feel very positive about the steps Dr. Price has made,” she said. “And we’re certainly behind him in changes like the K-through-6 plan, and we think he’s headed in the right direction.”

Attending graduation ceremonies Thursday and Friday night got Price thinking about the essentials of his job. He shook hands with graduating seniors and presented diplomas.

“You can look into their eyes. You can see how successful the school system has been to them,” Price said. “It’s not reflected in their grades. It’s reflected in that poise; that sense of self-worth. You can see and feel it when they walk across that stage.”

He said in the coming year he’d like to be able to visit schools more often not to put out fires and tend to business but to sit in classes and get to know the students.

“I don’t need to be a curiosity. I think students and teachers need to know me,” Price said. “I want them to say Look, there’s a guy we can talk to.'”

Price summed up the past 10 months: “I think that I’ve done some things right and done some things not so right, but I can say with belief that all I’ve done, I honestly believe was the right thing for the students.”