Photo | Daniel Anderson

Chresal Threadgill will be the superintendent of the Mobile County Public School System begining July 1.

Incoming Mobile County Public School System Superintendent Chresal Threadgill’s career in public education has brought him back to the community he grew up in at a time when local schools are facing significant challenges both in and out of the classroom.

A Mobile native and LeFlore High School graduate, Threadgill has deep roots in the area and a family history in MCPSS. Last month, he was selected from a slate of candidates to replace outgoing Superintendent Martha Peek, who will officially retire at the end of June.  

For Threadgill, it’s a big deal. However, he told Lagniappe he pursued the job in Mobile not for a title or a higher salary, but to have a positive impact on a community that helped raise him.

“My hope is that I can bring my experiences and what I’ve learned — my failures and my successes — back to where I was born and raised, and for my hometown to benefit from that knowledge,” he said. “It’s huge for me. Hopefully, this will be where I retire.”

Throughout his career, Threadgill has served at most every level of public education. He was a teacher and a principal in Greenville City Schools before becoming an administrator and assistant superintendent with Troy City Schools.
Since last August, he’s been working as Peek’s chief of staff, but before that he spent four years as the superintendent of Elba City Schools, where he oversaw an improvement in system finances and student performance.

He took over the reins in Elba during a critical time for the 1A system, which was losing students and struggling with academics and finances. Mobile County School Board President Bill Foster said the turnaround at Elba was a big factor in why he saw Threadgill as the person for the job.

“The board [in Elba] was offering him a five-year contract when he took the job down here, and for somebody to have served — particularly in the superintendent’s seat — for four years and be offered a five-year contract said a lot about the way people up there felt about him,” Foster said.

Elba’s graduation rate was at 63 percent when Threadgill was hired and currently sits at 96 percent. Its overall system rating has also gone from a D to a B. While there, Threadgill was named District 3 superintendent of the year and was in the running for the statewide award.

In education circles, Foster said Threadgill is one of the “up-and-coming people” you hear about.

He will also be the first African-American superintendent in MCPSS’ 182-year history. While the significance of leading the state’s oldest school system isn’t lost on him, Threadgill has broken color barriers before. When asked, he said he’s more interested in being the best than the first.

“It is definitely an honor to be a role model for our young, African-American males, but as I have said before, I do not and will not accept being average or status quo,” he said. “My goal is not to be the first African-American superintendent, though it is truly an honor. My goal is to be the best superintendent MCPSS has had — male, female, black or white.”

Big system, big challenges

How do you take a recipe for success that worked for a 1A system and apply it to the largest school district in Alabama? According to Threadgill, “you don’t.”

He said education in general needs to “get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality,” and said if the success Elba saw during his tenure is to be repeated locally, it would be the result of a tailor-made approach targeting the specific issues that exist in Mobile County.

According to the state of Alabama, there are more than 53,000 students currently enrolled in more than 80 MCPSS schools, whereas Elba has two schools and roughly 700 students. It’s a big jump, but Threadgill said the same knowledge base is needed to lead large and small systems.

Not only that, he believes his experience in smaller school systems will serve him well at MCPSS.

“If I’m in a district that has half the students, do I need half the knowledge?” he asked. “No. I still have to know and understand the same functions, and to be quite honest with you, I think it’s to my advantage that I came from a small school district because I had to wear a lot of hats.”

Threadgill said his previous positions have required him to oversee everything from federal programs to special education and curriculum to student discipline. Given the size of MCPSS, he’ll have to delegate some of those functions to others, but Threadgill said he has a better understanding of how they should be performed because of his previous jobs.

Threadgill said there are many bright spots for MCPSS, but he has acknowledged the system faces challenges. Nine of its schools were deemed “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act this year and 23 received Ds or Fs on state school report cards.

Add to that the possibility of a city school system in Mobile, which is something city councilors and Mayor Sandy Stimpson have openly discussed studying further in recent weeks. Like Peek, Threadgill said he doesn’t believe splintering the system would be in students’ best interest.

However, he said he would welcome any opportunity to start a two-way dialog with city officials.

“I want to bring those people to the table and educate them on the challenges and obstacles we face, but I also want to hear from them and hear the perception of what they see the problems are,” he said. “We’ve got to sit down, communicate and work these things out because the only ones who are hurt when we don’t communicate are the students.”

However, Foster said Peek has already met with “every City Council member who will meet with her,” adding that he and other board members have extended a similar offer. He said he’d like city officials to discuss “exactly what it is they feel needs to be done that hasn’t been done already.”

If the city of Mobile were to break away to form its own school district, it would virtually halve MCPSS’ student population and state funding. While smaller cities such as Saraland, Chickasaw and Satsuma have previously left MCPSS, there are nearly 25,000 students in Mobile.

Threadgill said creating a new district that size would be a “massive task” for anyone and would likely affect taxpayers inside and outside the city. Foster agreed, and said creating a school system for that many students would require a substantial administrative staff from the start.
“All of sudden you wind up with two superintendents and lord knows how many assistant superintendents. Then you have to have directors for transportation, facilities and all of these others areas,” Foster said. “All that comes from local funding. That’s not state money.”

While there has been much talk about a city system, there’s been no official step toward creating one or even studying how feasible it would be. No matter what the city decides to do, though, Threadgill said his focus would remain on the schools that fall under his leadership.

“I’m still going to attempt to make Mobile County schools the best I possibly can, whether there are 500 students or 55,000,” he said.

State testing, “failing” schools

In general, Threadgill said he believes students are tested too much — not just in Mobile, but throughout public education. However, he said getting a true picture of where students are in the learning process is critical, and tests are still the most effective way to do that.

Aside from the standardized exams required by the state, MCPSS has previously used in-house tests — many created, administered and analyzed by classroom teachers — as an indicator of how well students are mastering curriculum.

Last year, several teachers complained of being overburdened by those paperwork requirements on top of their classroom duties. Speaking to those concerns, Threadgill said teachers are already asked to do a lot, adding he would try to avoid unnecessary paperwork when possible.

“State and federal requirements already put a lot of additional work on our teachers. Instead of getting good instruction time, they’re doing that extra stuff,” he said. “Now there are some things that we’re just going to have to do workwise, but as far as unnecessary paperwork, that’s something I want to try to stay away from.”

That said, the driving factor behind Mobile’s interest in a city school system has been a perception that schools in the city are performing poorly, and that perception is based almost entirely on how those schools perform on state standardized tests.

City officials have suggested school performance is adversely impacting business and industrial recruitment, and within MCPSS, ridding schools of that “failing” designation has been a priority for some time. In 2017, nearly $5.6 million of additional funding was put into those efforts.

In recent years, state test scores have come from the ACT Aspire, which the Department of Education stopped using last year after federal officials found it failed to properly align with the standards being taught in classrooms.

No matter what test the state ultimately selects to replace the Aspire, Threadgill said getting schools off the failing list is a priority for him as well. Asked how he plans to accomplish that, Threadgill said it would require a proactive mindset and creating the right team at each school.

“We have to focus on getting and keeping the right personnel — people who understand the environment and have the knowledge base to hold these kids to very high expectations,” he said. “There are teachers out there who want to be in those challenging schools. We just have to recognize those teachers, put them in place and support them.”

He also emphasized a team-based approach when it comes to allocating funds in the best interest of students, saying it “should not be a single person’s decision, rather a group of people who thoroughly understand the needs of a particular school.”

Though the board doesn’t control day-to-day operations, Foster said he, too, wants to make sure money going to struggling schools is being spent where it yields the greatest result. Specifically, Foster said he’d like to focus on smaller class sizes in some schools.

In recent years, Peek has been critical of the “failing” label created by the Alabama Accountability Act, which is applied to all schools in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores. Threadgill shares those concerns and said a single test score “does not paint an accurate picture of our schools.”

He also said he doesn’t think lawmakers are “experienced enough in all areas to be able to determine what a holistic assessment measure” should be. However, he said standardized testing is important and, regardless of how educators feel about state requirements, they should still strive to meet them.

“Though we may question an assessment piece or even the entire accountability puzzle, we’re still obligated to be transparent,” he said. “We must take ownership of the data we receive from the state-mandated assessments and continue doing what needs to be done to move forward.”

Moving forward

Threadgill said he has the utmost respect for the 46 years Peek put into MCPSS and said he wants to build on some of her successes as superintendent. Specifically, he mentioned the First Class Pre-K program and Signature Academies, both of which Peek strongly supported.

Signature Academies allow students to transfer to any of the district’s 12 high schools to enroll in courses dedicated to a particular educational path or occupational interest. Built around community and industry partners, they provide hands-on experience tailored to what employers are looking for.

There are academies dedicated to health care, aerospace and aviation, manufacturing, engineering and more, but Threadgill said he’s entertained the idea of a full-fledged education academy as well as one focusing on sports management and athletic training. He said such programs help students become “a contender for jobs in the field,” instead of just exposing them to basic skills associated with a trade while they’re in school.

Alabama legislators just approved an $18.5 million expansion for pre-K programming, and Threadgill said he’s glad to see the state continuing to expand it to other families. There are currently 59 First Class Pre-K units in MCPSS. Threadgill said those are tomorrow’s students.

“It’s very important, but I think we need to take it a step further and start at the day care level because those are going to be our students, and we need to prepare day care teachers as well as students and parents,” he said. “We have to have a mindset to look 13 years down the road, see what they’re going to need when they graduate and start giving them those skills in pre-K.”

However, Threadgill has his own ideas to bring to the table, and in fact has already seen some implemented as Peek’s chief of staff. In February, the school board approved its first retirement incentive for high-earning administrative employees. Threadgill said he pitched that behind the scenes.

The plan offered a $20,000 retirement bonus to administrators making more than $75,000 a year. The application period is still active, but if enough employees accept it, it could save MCPSS hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salary expenses.

“I think we need to align our personnel to the number of students that we have,” Threadgill said. “That’s what I’m trying to get back to, so this may not be the last retirement initiative.”

Before he assumes his new position in July, Threadgill said he wants to focus on building relationships with teachers, students and parents. Throughout April, he said he’ll be attempting to visit every school he will be overseeing starting in July.

“I’ll have to do five or six per day, but I plan to have a lunch with a student every day,” he said. “That’s very important for me. I need to build relationships and a rapport with them, because that’s who I’m getting up every morning to be an advocate for.”

He can’t speak for all members, but Foster is excited about the school board’s pick. He said Threadgill is, first and foremost, “a good person” and the type he wants to be visible to students and teachers in the schools and in the community representing MCPSS.

“I want us to be successful, and I believe if we get behind this young man and promote and push the kinds of things that he wants to do, we’re going to have success,” he said. “I truly believe we will.”