New superintendent ready to tackle district’s challenges

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 15, 2012

Frederick Hill is the new superintendent for the Natchez-Adams County School District. He started the job on July 2. Hill moved to Natchez from Tupelo. (Photo by Lauren Wood / The Natchez Democrat)

Frederick Hill, the public schools’ new superintendent, said he owes his drive in part to the inspirational words of his seventh-grade math teacher.

“She said I would never be ready to take Algebra I, and (she asked me) why in the world would I think about taking it,” Hill said.

Those words of discouragement have stuck with Hill, 37, but the effect of them was likely the opposite of his teacher’s intent.

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Hill said he’s a guy who likes a good challenge.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” he said.

But stakeholders of the Natchez-Adams School District, the largest school system and one of the largest employers in town, are ready to extend that challenge to Hill to improve the district, most agree.

Hill made the switch from a business administration major to education as a sophomore in college after spending the previous summer tutoring children at the YMCA.

“(Education) was my interest from that point on,” Hill said. “And that’s been my story ever since.”

During that summer after his freshman year, Hill helped students from second through fifth grade learn how to read, and some of them had leaps to go to catch up with their peers.

Hill said he’s passionate about every child’s education, but he has a tendency to target those students at risk of not earning their diploma for one reason or another.

Through programs like teenage mother tracks, online courses and flexible schedules, he said his career shows a history of finding innovative ways to keep students in school.

It may be unorthodox and he might receive criticism for it, Hill said, but he also has a history of making house calls at the doors of dropouts.

“I’ve been called crazy for doing it…but I (think it’s) a very important responsibility to find out why (students) are not going to school,” Hill said.

Armed with information from his home visits, Hill said he learns what schools can do to better accommodate other at risk students as well as try to get the dropouts in the classroom.

“It’s my goal early on to put a face in with every dropout we’ve had over the last year,” Hill said.

In doing so, Hill said he hopes to achieve buy-in from all types of students when it comes to their education.

Hill said he might be called naïve, but he doesn’t understand why the goal for the graduation rate shouldn’t be 100 percent.

“If we have room to (improve), why not shoot for that?”

In addition to challenging dropouts to get back to school, Hill also likes programs that challenge students to do better than the baseline.

He said he would like to explore the possibility of offering Algebra I to middle school students, so other seventh graders might have a chance to prove doubters wrong the way he did.

Additionally, he said he wants to look into offering Advanced Placement courses to any student who wants to take them, as well as pre-AP courses for middle school students to expose them to the material before high school.

A native of Emporia, Va., which Hill said is a quarter the size of Natchez, Hill most recently worked as assistant superintendent at the Tupelo Public School District. He has also worked as a math and business teacher and as an assistant principal in the Carolinas.

He recently moved into a house in Natchez with his wife, Pamela, a guidance counselor who will work in the district, and daughter Kyah, 9. His other daughter, Ta-Bria, 18, graduated from high school in May.

Rather than sit at his desk at Braden, Hill said he plans to be a regular fixture in the schools hallways.

Though he prefers the role of administrator, where every day brings new and different challenges, he considers himself to also be head teacher of the district.

Rather than depend on monthly reports from principals, Hill said he wants to observe learning in the classroom.

“I want to get in and see for myself the strategies we all agreed on are (being implanted),” Hill said.

As far as his leadership style, Hill said he prefers to be “more participatory.”

He likes to involve all stakeholders when possible to allow everyone to feel their voice is at least heard, he said, regardless of the resulting decision.

Engaging all students, including those at risk of dropping out, aligns with Hill’s thirst for challenge as well as his two-fold educational philosophy.

“All students can learn,” Hill said, “though not necessarily at the same rate.”

Since every student is capable of learning, Hill said he demands that learning take place each day, no matter how far behind the child may be at the start.

His other philosophy centers on expectations.

“If we raise the level of expectation and set the bar high — performance will be much higher,” Hill said.

Hill said he is an example of setting high goals for himself, no thanks to — or perhaps because of — his seventh-grade math teacher. And he has seen it happen first hand in the educational field.

“You can take any type of negatively and lay in it and be sorry for yourself. Or you can take it as an opportunity, and it can be a foundation for good things.”

Hill said he’s keenly aware his decisions will impact approximately 4,000 students, and he’s up for inviting everyone below him — including the principals, teachers and students in the classrooms, to join in on the classroom challenge.

“I have no doubt…that we can do it,” Hill said.