2-Minute Tuesday – Superintendent John Aitken

Welcome to another installment of Tour Collierville’s 2-Minute Tuesday! This week, Keith sits down with John Aitken, Superintendent of Collierville Schools to talk about education, the new school, and Collierville.

Watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

Superintendent John Aitken Video Transcript

Keith: Hi, I’m Keith with Tour Collierville, and we are here today for our 2-Minute Tuesday with John Aitken. John is the Superintendent of Collierville Schools.  Did I say that right?

John: You said it perfect.

KE: (laughs) Well thank you for being here.

JA: Thank you for having us.

KE: Yeah, absolutely.  We always like to start off with just tell us a little bit of…  I think most people know you but tell us a little bit about you personally how you got to Collierville.  You live in Collierville?

JA: Gosh, yes.  I moved to Collierville in 1983.  We laugh  that we had one elementary, one middle, and one high school then.  I started teaching and coaching in Shelby County at Collierville High, then coached basketball, taught geometry and advanced math (precal).

KE: Oh, I can’t do anything of that.  I can hardly add.

JA: (laughs) Well I spent nine years there coaching, and then I moved into administration.  They had just built Houston High School in Germantown.  So I became an Assistant Principal there.  Did that five years and then became Principal at Houston high school for eleven.  So from that point on I moved to Central Office.  They twisted my arm, and little did I know what was about to happen to me, but I went to Shelby County Schools Central Office when we were all one big district.  Did that for a little over six months.  The superintendent took a medical leave; I was made acting superintendent, so I was thrown into the fire.  And then he retired when he came back, and I was named Superintendent in 2009.

JA: So had a couple of years of fun and then Memphis City Schools decided to go out of business, and I was superintendent Shelby County Schools at the time so the next couple of years for me were spent in federal court during all that litigation.  Worked through that fun, but then actually retired, started consulting with four of the six municipalities as they tried to form their own school districts, even that far back.  As you mentioned, I’ve lived in Collierville for now, since ‘83.

JA: I decided to stay home.  My kids went school here, raised my family here, just really appreciating what the town brings.  So came out of retirement and started the school district, and we’re now in our fifth year, believe it or not.  It’s blown by crazy, and a lot has happened in our school district during that time.  Just personally, I’m a husband to Jody, who just recently retired as a neonatal intensive care nurse.  We have three kids—two boys, Bruce and Shay, and a daughter Halley.  Halley he teaches at the high school, and then she has blessed us with two three-year-old boy/girl twins, Swayze and Truitt.  So that’s where I spend any spare time.  So glad to be here and glad to have the job I do.

KE: Yeah that’s awesome so I think Collierville, and just knowing Collierville, a lot of people move to Collierville because of the schools.  That’s one of the biggest reasons they move here.  So you sure may, arguably have the most important job in Collierville.  Since that’s why people move here.

(both laugh)

JA: That’s a lot of pressure.  The mayor and I, the police chief and fire chief… Because anybody will tell you that a safe community and great schools are what will bring people, for sure.

KE: So what does that look like, an important job?  What’s a day in the life of John Aitken?  What do you do as a superintendent?

JA: You know it’s interesting.  We laugh around the office that no one day is the same.  I typically I’m a high school guy.  I’ve taught and been involved in high school, so I’m an early riser.  I typically get to work at 6:00, 6:15 every morning.  And then start kind of going through emails.  Unfortunately that’s 24/7 now, so you know if one’s waiting on you when you get there.  But you start going through meetings, working with my secretary else.  And then go to a lot of meetings, go to a lot of civic organization meetings.

JA: And I like to brag on the school system, I do.  I like to go talk to anybody that wants to. You know, you handle parent conferences.  You handle anything involving school, the day-to-day minutia that sometimes happens.  But a lot of my job now is—for the last couple of years—has been wrapped up in the new high school, obviously.  So it’s changing a little bit as we’re kind of finalizing some things there.  I can kind of get back the thing I enjoy the most: going to schools and interacting with kids, especially the little ones,  When you’re having a bad day at office you go down to a kindergarten classroom and life’s good.

KE: Oh yeah, everything, yeah.  There’s a different mindset for sure, yeah.  That’s awesome.  So like you said, a lot of your time’s been caught up in the new school.  How’s it going now that everything’s open?

JA: It’s going well.  Well you know we’ve got the academic part open, but we’re still pushing some of the athletic pieces.  And that was done purposefully.  We knew when we ran out of room out there at what was—what’s now West Collierville Middle—the old high school on Byhalia.  Our priority was getting in the academic building.  So we know.  We scheduled that first.  And then the rainy season got us a little bit this past spring, kind of on some of our grading things with some of the athletic fields.  So we’re trying to finalize those things now, get the turf to grow, and make sure that that’s ready before we can move in.  But it’s gone well.  You know a typical construction project; you have little bitty things that happen that you have to fix.

KE: Oh yeah.  Keeping up.  Is there anything that you would have done different?  Are you happy with everything?

JA:  I’ve been extremely happy with everything.  If I’d had had about I had 50 more million dollars, who knows what I would have done.  A lot of… You know, we laughed earlier.  A hundred million dollars doesn’t get you everything that you want.

KE: It’s crazy, isn’t it?

JA: It is.  And we built it big, but we’ve got 2,800 students, almost, in the building right now.  We built it where we could comfortably handle 3,200 – 3,300.  So as Collierville grows, we’ve got to watch that a little bit.

KE: Do you see it going there pretty quickly?

JA: Not during my tenure.  If the economy stays like it is and people keep moving out this way, I think 10 or 12 years you’d have to look at some expansion.  And we put some of those plans in mind.  You’ve got some wings that you could expand.  We bought 156 acres, so we’ve got a lot of room if we needed to build some separate buildings, like a ninth grade academy.  Some of those things are things we’ve discussed, so you know.  I think we’re comfortable for a lot of years, and moving the high school out and then making the old high school West Collierville Middle, then changing Shilling Farms Middle to Shilling Farms Elementary gave us a lot of elementary room, particularly on the south side of where we’re growing to.  So I feel very comfortable the way we’ve designed things.

KE:  Gotcha.  So any expansion, it would be a while.  But still, any expansion would happen at that same facility.

JA: Absolutely.  That’s the plan. The talks we’ve had so far, yes.

KE: Got you, got you.  So if I were if I were a parent, what would be the main reason I would want to see my kids at Collierville schools?

JA: Well I think you’ve got…  All schools are good.  We have six elementary, two middle, and then one high school.  All of our test scores ranked right at the top of the state.  You’ve got a…  We’ve got a nice parent support at all of our schools.  You have safe schools, and you’ve got facilities.  You know, besides building a new high school, we’ve been converting some schools, keeping up to date with the latest safety technologies.  But the main thing is…  You know, it’s kind of a family atmosphere.  I’ve always liked the community of Collierville because it is rallying behind all of our schools, particularly reforming our old school system.  So I mean, you’re gonna get state-of-the-art curriculum, state-of-the-art facilities. You’ve got good administrators and teachers in every school.  So I mean, my gosh I raised my kids here; what better endorsement can you give than putting them in these schools?

KE: So if I look at it from a student perspective, what are they most excited about?

JA: Well, at the high school, they’re actually excited about the facility.  But I’m equally excited about the facility and its expansion.  We had some opportunities.  We’re able to now offer some programs.  I like to laugh that the pendulum has kind of swung back where we’re now putting…  We have great academic programs.  We have every AP class, dual enrollment class known to man, pretty much, that you offer so our kids can get college credit at school.  But now we’re offering some college and career classes and some of the old vocational classes that you used to talk about: welding, culinary arts, shop, all those things are coming back.  Started a nursing program where so you can go through and come out with college credit and a certified nursing assistant certification when they leave.

JA: So a lot of those programs are partnership, are in a partnership with the TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology), Southwest, and Memphis.  So kids are getting dual enrollment also in those courses where they’ll get college credit, they get certifications, but they also get you know a leg up on some hours in college.  And it’s all through lottery money.  Dual enrollment, it doesn’t cost them anything other than the lottery.

KE: That’s awesome.  Are they taking to it?  Or you know…

JA: They blew up this first year we offered. I expect them to grow, yeah.  A lot of them.

KE: Yeah that’s great.  So well is there anything that you want to say?  I know that you had said, I’ll go back… You had said that there’s still some things to be open.  The academic part is open.  There’s still some things that you’re trying to get open.

JA: Right.  In athletics, you know, we’ve got a soccer football stadium, and we were delayed in opening it because just scheduling-wise, mainly, we’re just making sure it was right.  Fieldhouse bleachers, all the electronics and the a/v piece that had to go in there.  So we’re working that way around now from fall sports to spring sports.  We’ve got the indoor turf facility, the practice facility, which has weight rooms and offices.  We’re frantically trying to get that open as well for students.  And the next push will be our practice fields, which are grass.  So the spring sports right now are kind of in limbo, whether the grass is gonna be ready.  We’ll have grass, but do we want to run it through one season or let it get established and do the things you need to do, get it ready for the long term.  So that’s kind of a decision we still have left to make.

KE: Gotcha. But as far as basketball gymnasium all that?

JA: That’s up and ready.  They’ve been playing volleyball and practicing in there now.  We’ve had pep rallies.  The inside part of the school building is ready.

KE: Yeah, that’s awesome.  So how’s the… Is the energy pretty good during a pep rally?

JA: It’s great.  Almost 3,000 in there, so it was buzzing pretty good.  And the cool thing about—things that I forgot we put in the design—we’ve got the Dragon Walk to connects the academic gym out to the turf facility.  And it has speakers, so the same music that was piping into the pep rally was coming through the Dragon Walk speakers.  So when we have any kind of grand entrances or whatever out to the football stadium—you know, if you wanted to do graduation in the future, you could pipe in music.  The band practices there.  And it was a neat deal.  It was kind of neat to watch.

KE: That is cool.  So is there anything special planned for the first graduating class?

JA: We’re kind of talking about that, yeah.  We are having discussions about possibly having it on the turf at the football stadium because we do have the video board.  So we be able to… We’ve got to work with our TV crew a little bit more and kind of get them coached up a little bit.  But that’s always dependent on one thing, and that’s weather.  So when you’re talking about Memphis in May, you’re looking at rain or you’re looking at extreme heat, so you’ve got to have a back-up plan there, too.  But it would be exciting to stage and process the kids in through the Dragon Walk right in the stadium and you could see them on the video board, but a little more planning to do on that one before we can say, “Yes, we’re ready.”

KE: I’m sure it’s a special time for the school.

JA: It’s going to be neat.  It’s going to be neat.

KE: That’s awesome.  So, open mic: Is there anything that you want to say to anyone in Collierville about anything you do or the school?

JA: No, I just appreciate your patience, and I appreciate your commitment.  I mean everywhere I go, I go on the stump about the support of the town of Collierville, its government, and all of its departments.  Because we have worn them out with needing support from the Collierville Police Department, the fire department, the general services department as we were trying to ramp some things up.  But as importantly, the support from the town citizens.  Because it’s not often that you can start a school district and then a year and a half, two years later, say, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to build something, and I need $94 million.  And the Aldermen pulled it off.  And you know, I hope that their confidence has been, you know, has been seen by the looks of the facility.  Because everybody that I bring in outside when I walk them in the facility, and they see the complex, they go, “Wow.”

JA: And I’ve brought other superintendents in, and they say the same things.  But, more importantly, the kids.  You know, the kids getting what they are supposed to have: academics.  And I think they are.  And we’re offering everything under the sun for them to join anything, organizations… Because now we really have the room, so we’re really excited about all the programs.

KE: Yeah awesome.  Well, I’ll end with…  Rumor has it that you got a couple more years ,and then you’re going to retire.  Is that…?

JA: Not a rumor! (laughs)

KE: Yeah, that’s real now?

JA: Yeah, now they extended my contract last summer through June 30 2020, and I told them no more after.  This is this is year 39.  So I’ve been doing it a while.  So you figure if you can check off 40 years, that’s a pretty good career. I’ll be… I guess I’ll be 62 years old, so if I want to, I can start drawing Social Security, but you know the last couple of years is has been… pretty tough.  (laughs)  It’s been hectic, but very rewarding once we’ve got to the end of it.  But it’s been 24/7 for the last couple of years.  And I’ve missed some things with the grandkids, and I’ll be ready to… I’ll be ready to spend some time with them.  And I’ll have opportunities to do other things.  I mean I got a lot of interests, but I can do it on my own time.  Because it’s 24/7 job now.  It doesn’t go away.

KE: Yeah I can imagine it, yeah.

JA: But I appreciate y’all having me on here.

KE: Yeah absolutely and we appreciate all you do appreciate you giving that 24/7.  You’ve done a great job.

JA: I appreciate it.  Thank you.

KE: Yeah thank you.