John W. Jordan

His Mantra: 'You Get What You Ask For' by Jay Goldman

John Jordan doesn’t buy the common refrain about the slow pace of change in education. In Oxford, Miss., where he’s been superintendent since 1994, schools are decidedly on a fast track of reform.

Jordan, who is in his first superintendency, has guided the 2,900-student school system to Level 5 status, the highest available on the performance-based accreditation ladder erected by the Mississippi Department of Education. This means the district has attained 100 percent of the 39 standards relating to student performance and continuous improvement. Only 12 of Mississippi’s 151 districts reached Level 5 this year.

That Oxford has the highest poverty among the 12 districts (45 percent of Oxford’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches) and has held Level 3 status during the four previous years makes the rapid rise to the top that much more extraordinary. It also fulfills a lofty goal Jordan set when he became superintendent--only he targeted the year 2000 for doing so.

"We set it that far out because of my lack of experience knowing how quickly an organization can move forward," says Jordan, who spent seven years as assistant superintendent for human resources in Jackson, Miss., before coming to Oxford.

Jordan says he viewed the district early on as "a diamond in the rough that just needed some dusting off." Oxford, he argues, had all the right credentials for high achievement--a major center of higher learning (University of Mississippi), a highly supportive public (which hasn’t rejected a bond referendum in nearly 50 years) and faculty and administrators who aren’t afraid of hard work.

He went to work on raising the expectations for all students, especially those performing in the lowest quartile on the state’s standardized tests, as well as for professional staff. Yet the superintendent was careful, after one early misstep (see Bio Stats), to ensure the new emphasis on the bottom performers did not reduce support for the academic high-flyers.

"Without high expectations, you get what you ask for," says Jordan. "We went to the teachers first and then the public to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ We put a lot of pressure on people."

Oxford adopted a Reading Recovery program and stopped promoting 1st graders with inadequate reading skills. The district started an extended-day academic program for 300 struggling students and provided the after-school transportation to make their attendance possible. And even though the school district already had the highest average in the state on the ACT college-entry exam, the superintendent authorized Kaplan Test Centers to run a preparatory program at Oxford High School.

The systemwide improvements in student learning have caught the eye of outsiders. Last year the Marine Corps picked Oxford as one of three school districts nationwide to start a JROTC program--a distinction that Jordan believes will carry significant implications.

Three-fourths of the 90 cadets who are part of the inaugural JROTC program, he says, never previously participated in school-sponsored activities outside the school day. "That statistic is important because it supports our belief that the key to reducing dropouts is to promote students’ participation in at least one extracurricular activity," he says.

With a soccer-playing daughter in 1st grade, the superintendent has been especially attentive to providing gender equity in interscholastic athletics. During the last two years the district has added varsity teams in girls volleyball and girls softball and plans during the next two to add a girls soccer team, as well as a swimming program for boys and girls.

"Anyone who writes off the values of interscholastic sports is misguided, especially in small-town America," says Jordan. "A strong athletic program totally benefits a strong secondary academic program."

What may be most remarkable about Jordan’s steady drive for systemwide improvement is the apparent lack of disenchantment from any stakeholder groups, save for occasional griping by some teachers who feel pushed to the limit by the greater expectations. Jim Chambless, dean of the College of Education at University of Mississippi, believes that’s a credit to Jordan’s interpersonal skills.

"He’s always got a smile on his face, he remembers names, he recognizes people and gives credit to those who deserve it," says Chambless. "He’s not egocentric even though he’s the superintendent. He probably needs to blow his own horn more."

Another close observer describes Jordan as "the catalyst that unleashes the potential" of the Oxford schools. Adds Henriette Allen, head of the Mississippi Association of School Administrators: "As one who has watched and monitored the academic scene in Mississippi for 30 years plus, I can tell you that Oxford is achieving its potential and John deserves the credit."

Shortly after a whopping 90 percent of the Oxford community voted last fall in favor of an $8 million bond referendum to build a new middle school, someone asked Jordan if he would consider that a hearty endorsement for the job he is doing. He demurred.

"I’ve never worked from the standpoint of personal approval, of taking personal credit in a district that involves 350 adults."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: