CLEVELAND — Principals of the new consolidated high school and middle school here already are preparing for next school year — with the help of community input.

The Cleveland School District Board of Trustees named Randy Grierson, principal at East Side, as principal of Cleveland Central High School and L’Kenna Whitehead, principal of D.M. Smith Middle School, as principal of the new Cleveland Central Middle School at a Jan. 24 school board meeting.

Both say they are working closely with community groups to help shape programs and policies for the new schools.

Grierson said there is a leadership team composed of teachers from East Side and Cleveland High. He said it’s a big deal to have the voices of both schools in this equation as preparation is made for the consolidation.

In order to make sure this upcoming school year is successful, Grierson said he’s reaching out to as many people as he can. He said there has been a lot of communication through emails, text messages and phone calls.

“I think at this point it’s just getting people to stop thinking about what they want and think about the kids and what’s best for them,” said Grierson. “We’re gonna provide a lot of opportunities for kids that other places will not. We have to remember that.”

Like Grierson, Whitehead has formed a leadership team that consists of parents and faculty from D.M. Smith and Margaret Green Junior High School to make the transition smoother for all.

“These people have been instrumental in putting the meat to what we have. I may lay out the skeleton, but they put the meat to it,” said Whitehead.

As inputs and suggestions are being heard, Whitehead said plans may change to suit the needs of parents and students.

“We change the plans interchangeably just by looking at what we can do and how much sense it makes for how much we want for our kids,” said Whitehead.

Whitehead said the middle school leadership team’s main focuses include culture, safety and organization, curriculum and teachers capacity, and attractiveness.

Whitehead said they are adding clubs and organizations from both schools and merging them, so that it can be available to all students at Cleveland Central Middle.

Whitehead said one thing they want to have small communities within the school to help monitor students. Students won’t be stationed far from their classes and there will be four lunch periods.

To secure the school’s safety and organization, Whitehead said there will be three assistant principals along with himself. He said they are currently brainstorming more on safety and organization.

Whitehead said they are looking at the level of teachers’ expertise to determine if they need professional development to provide an effective, quality education for students.

He noted that they will include data from the students about where their teachers need to improve to help educate students better.

Another addition to Cleveland Central Middle will be more instructional time for math, science, and English courses, he said.

Since a federal judge last May ordered the school district to desegregate its schools, there have been appeals filed by the district’s school board, and a stay granted by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ultimately, the school board decided to drop its appeal and follow the court order.

The board finally reached a settlement agreement in the case on Jan. 30, and Grierson said he is relieved now they have a sense of direction of where they are going.

“That’s what’s most important at this point, just knowing that we are going somewhere,” said Grierson. “Now the hard part begins where you have to start planning.”

Grierson mentioned if there is anyone concerned about anything pertaining the students or the school, he encourages them to talk to him one-on-one.

“It’s easy to assume based on what other people say. It’s easy to have perceptions about what you hear or what you think you know,” he said. “Until you address the problem and you find out firsthand, it’s an assumption, and I encourage anyone to just come to the school and watch what we do here everyday.”

Although there hasn’t been a mission statement or vision established yet, Whitehead said having a “safe and organized environment, student-centered environment, and an environment where students can grow” are his top goals for this upcoming school year at Cleveland Central Middle.

Because the community has been so vocal about the merger, Whitehead created an email address to allow more people to be involved in the process. He said community members, parents, and students have emailed suggestions about the school to him.

Since 2011, Grierson has been the principal at East Side. Whether he was chosen or not to continue as principal at Cleveland Central High, he said he wanted the people to make the decision.  “This is about kids and not about me,” said Grierson.

But Grierson wanted to keep his job because he’s competitive and loves it.

“I am very competitive, and I wanted it,” said Grierson. “I love what I do and that’s the big thing is I have a passion for what it is and I have a purpose for my passion. That’s why I wanted it.”

Grierson said he doesn’t get much sleep these days, but he said “that’s what its worth. That’s what it takes.” He said he understood what it would take when he took the position.

According to Grierson, teachers from East Side and Cleveland High School will have jobs at Cleveland Central High. He said it was his top priority, and he wanted to make sure their teachers were taken care of. Because the positions of athletic director and head football coach were announced  by the school board on Feb. 14, Grierson said the next positions on the list to be filled are assistant principals and more coaching positions for the other schools.

Whitehead said he wasn’t sure if he would get the job, but he’s always ready to take on another challenge. “I live for educational challenges throughout my career,” said Whitehead. “This is what fuels me to work.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.