Edney up to the task

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Challenges are huge for the few who are charged with serving on the local school board. For Dr. Norris Allen Edney, chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Public School Board, the rewards are huge, as well.

And, in a community looking for ways to create more jobs and entice new business and industry, every resident participates in the challenge and benefits from the rewards of improving the public schools.

&uot;We have schools that are overcrowded and a budget that is dramatically cut,&uot; Edney said. &uot;But at our last meeting, you’d have seen no less enthusiasm for preparing for the next school year.&uot;

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Test scores are rising, and teachers are better prepared. &uot;Our performance is going up. Our teachers are more highly certified.&uot;

He suggests anyone who might want to get a feel for the positive things happening in the schools should go to McLaurin School as one example.

&uot;You feel the heat when you come through the door,&uot; he said, describing the fiery leadership at that school.

Teachers and administrators are stepping up to take the challenge thrown out to them. &uot;We don’t give them everything they need, but they are doing a wonderful job,&uot; Edney said.

In his third year as chairman, Edney said the board has unified not because of him but because the five people work well together with a common goal of improving the school system.

&uot;We are all different and all strong. No one is afraid to say what they think,&uot; he said. &uot;And we’re very certain the superintendent we have is the right one. He’s quiet, a peaceful-looking man. He presents his ideas. He keeps his perspectives on the goals we have set.&uot;

Anthony Morris is superintendent of the system, completing his first year in that position, overseeing a student population of about 4,300 and employees, including teachers, numbering about 750.

A native of Natchez, Edney grew up in what was called Buckman’s Bottom, a northwest section of the city in the area of Sadie V. Thompson School.

&uot;There were some wonderful people there. We were relatively poor, but I probably thought we were rich,&uot; he said. &uot;The streets were pure dust.&uot;

The streets were filled with children, too. And the four-block area Edney called his neighborhood was a good place to learn about life and set goals. He played sports and he thrived under the mentoring of Professor Peter C. Rucker. &uot;I don’t know anyone who taught me so much that stayed so valuable for me for so long.&uot;

Edney went on to Tougaloo College to study biology. He returned to Natchez College to teach general biology and physics for about five years before returning to complete a master’s degree at Antioch College and to complete research in botany and cell biology for a year following that.

&uot;I started back toward Natchez College but got a call from Alcorn,&uot; he said. &uot;I taught there for three years and then went to Michigan State University for a Ph.D. in mycology, a stretch-out of biology, and then I went back to Alcorn.&uot;

He went on to become chairman of the biology department, then dean of arts and sciences and, when the university added a graduate school, dean of the graduate school.

&uot;The nursing program came out of the graduate school, and I came here to Natchez to help start the program. I handled it through the first accreditation and handled all the hiring of the first faculty,&uot; he said.

The experience was eye-opening, he said. &uot;A nurse from the University of Southern Mississippi spread her wings over me and took us through that first year.&uot;

One not accustomed to being in the public eye, Edney had been retired for three years when he received the call to serve on the education board.

&uot;This is a challenging system, and I don’t see any of the challenges as negative,&uot; he said.

First, he found a lack of trust in the school system. He wanted to set that straight. &uot;How do you get people to trust you and tell you what they want and don’t want and then weave those things into production?&uot;

Next, he looked at things being said about the school system &045;&045; even being written about the school system and disseminated among prospective Natchez-area businesses and industries. &uot;I couldn’t conceive of anyone reading that and wanting to bring their children into the system. I wanted to change that,&uot; he said. &uot;If we don’t get behind the schools and improve the quality, you won’t get economic development.&uot;

The school board organized tours, inviting groups to look at the public schools and what programs, materials and equipment were in the classrooms. That worked, Edney said.

&uot;The next challenge was to get the board to pull together, to make the children and the system he paramount reasons for being there,&uot; he said.

The school board does not run the school system day to day, Edney said. Members are available to talk to anyone with problems or questions but not to micro-manage operations.

&uot;We want to run a strong, legally sound, productive system,&uot; he said.

Edney recalled the style of the late Dr. Walter Washington, a long-time president of Alcorn State University and another important influence in his life.

&uot;He always said to start out, be friendly. Then you’ve got to be fair and you’ve got to be firm. And you have to remember that someday someone is going to come along and count your money.&uot;

Edney thinks of Washington and how he would handle certain situations. And he falls back on advice learned from him.

He also falls back on what he has learned at church. &uot;Early on, my parents decided they would cause Norris Allen to go to church. And that has been an internal strength,&uot; he said. &uot;Now I have a pastor who helps me to keep my emotions in check. He tells me, ‘just stay right there and do right and it will work itself out.’&uot;