Every person Teddi Jackson passed in the hallway got a smile, a handshake and a “welcome to Somerville Road” greeting.
The students each got a hug, too.
It’s her way, she said, of letting everyone know they are important and that she wants them to be part of the “Somerville Road Elementary family.”
Jackson, who joined the Decatur City School system as a physical education aide in 1997, became principal at the school a month ago.
This family of 450 students and 90 employees is facing a challenge its new leader didn’t realize existed until she arrived on campus.
“Our poverty rate is 93 percent, and many of our students will get their only warm meal of the day at school,” Jackson said. “But the teachers here go way beyond what is required to make sure the needs of all our students are met.”
The systemwide poverty rate is 62 percent, more than double the 27 percent of two decades ago.
Jackson, 48, is no stranger to coping with student poverty. She came to Somerville Road from Brookhaven Middle School, where the poverty rate is 95 percent, the highest in the system.
Jackson knows poverty presents additional challenges. Teachers often start their days ensuring that each student has socks, she said.
Superintendent Ed Nichols said he recommended Jackson for the job from more than 50 applicants. “From everything I have heard, she is doing an excellent job,” he said.
Jackson was the third person to hold the position in 60 days, and she faced apprehension among some faculty members who knew her only as the spouse of Decatur City Councilman Billy Jackson.
Third-grade teacher Amanda McCurry was among the skeptics when the board unanimously voted to transfer Jackson.
“We decided to open our arms, and she has been wonderful for this school,” McCurry said. “From day one, she has been about creating a family and a positive learning environment.”
Jackson, who was transferred a month after school started, said it was never her intent to “tear things upside down.”
That is not what good leaders do, she said.
With students as the priority, Jackson said, her role is to support the faculty, staff and parents. Her message to them has been if you have a problem, no matter how small, “Come to me.”
“They may not always get what they want, but they will always get a principal willing to listen,” she said.
“She has been that and much more,” McCurry said.
One of Jackson’s first steps after meeting with employees was to look at the school’s test scores. Somerville Road made adequate yearly progress under federal guidelines, but the reading scores alarmed her.
“The scores are in the negative and some of the lowest in the district,” she said. “Improving reading scores is the biggest challenge we face.”
Jackson said she feels the pressure to improve scores.
She doesn’t want to go through another Brookhaven situation, where students were allowed to transfer because the school didn’t meet all of its AYP goals. Jackson was an assistant principal when Brookhaven got the negative attention.
In some form, she’s been around standardized testing most of her life. She was born in Montgomery, the only daughter of four children to Robert and Patricia Smith. Her mother was a school teacher and her late father a mechanic.
She resisted her mother’s push to study education in college. After graduating from Jeff Davis High in 1982, she earned a degree in telecommunications and computer science from Alabama A&M.
She met her husband in college and the couple married 24 years ago. Jackson worked as a lending trainer for Redstone Federal Credit Union when she was pregnant with her first child.
During the 1996 Christmas holidays, some of her teacher friends spent time at home with their children, while she had to go back to work.
“I told my husband I was going back to school and get my teaching degree,” Jackson said.
She quit her job at Redstone and returned to college for two years, working as a physical education aide at Walter Jackson Elementary.
In 1999 after earning her master’s in education, she found a teaching job at Walter Jackson, where she taught until transferring to Brookhaven as assistant principal in July 2006.
After longtime Principal Larry Collier was promoted to the central office, Jackson wanted the principalship at Brookhaven, but her name never came up for a vote.
“I was a little disappointed,” she said.
Less than a month later, Somerville Road Principal Dee Dee Jones was transferred to secondary education and career tech coordinator at the central office.
Jackson’s mother said she wasn’t surprised when her daughter went back to get her degree in education.
“We always tried to let our children make their choices, but I knew teaching was for her,” Patricia Smith said.
She recalled the days when Jackson would put her pet cat on the steps and try to teach her.
“She was a small girl, but she was pretty good,” Smith said.
Jackson and her mother remain best friends and they talk daily.
“She’s worked hard to get where she is, and I’m confident she will do a good job because she is non-confrontational and wants everyone around her to succeed,” Smith said.
Jackson said that in addition to her mother’s support, she learned from her father-in-law, the late Lorenzo Jackson. He worked in education for more than 40 years and was the first black administrator in the Decatur City System.
“He always said when you allow professionals to do their job and support them, they will flourish,” she said.
Trying not to become emotional, Jackson paused and looked up for what she called the “right words” to describe a man remembered in Decatur simply as “Coach.”
“You know,” she said sternly, “I learned a lot from the way my father-in-law lived. He always tried to do what was right. He didn’t judge people, but he didn’t sugarcoat anything.”
In many ways, her parents were the same. The Smiths worked hard, preached education and encouraged independence.
Two of Jackson’s brothers own businesses and a third works at NASA.
Standing in front of a sign in the hall near her office that reads, “Everyone is a leader,” Jackson said: “I’m a leader by example, but I believe on some level, everybody can lead.”
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