By Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography courtesy of DeSoto County Schools
Superintendent Cory Uselton has an eye to the future for keeping DeSoto County Schools at the forefront.
Cory Uselton, superintendent of DeSoto County Schools, leads the school district in a way that is drawing notice nationally and forging pride among parents, teachers, and students.
For example, DeSoto is the only school district in Mississippi to be named to the AP District Honor Roll. Advanced Placement offers high school students college-level curricula and examinations.
“That’s a national award and this is our second year in a row on it,” Uselton says proudly. Explaining the prestigious accomplishment, Uselton says it recognizes “an increase in enrollment of the AP classes and an improved performance on AP tests on a national level.”
Characteristically, Uselton quickly commends the district’s teachers, students, and staff for their all-around hard work that contributed toward this recognition. With 34,000 students, DeSoto is the largest district in Mississippi.
Uselton, a man with a ready grin and an athletic build, grew up in Humboldt, Tennessee, a small town about an hour northeast of Memphis. Many happy memories surround his grandmother’s general store.
“A lot of teachers and coaches came to her store,” he recalls. “By the time I was in middle school and high school, I already had connections with them.”
These teachers influenced his life. Young Cory excelled in soccer, basketball, and baseball. In college he was a student manager of the University of Memphis’ basketball team. Uselton received a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Memphis in 1992 and a Specialist in Education degree in K-12 educational leadership from the University of Mississippi in 2003.
When asked about pursuing a Ph.D., he replies with a sigh, laugh, and shrug, “Not with this job. It’s 24/7.”
Others agree that he seems to work 24/7. One of them is Nick Fussell, a FedEx employee with two children in the county schools. The families were neighbors for 10 years. Fussell recalls that he and Uselton would get home about the same time. They’d sit on the porch and talk as their children played outside.
Fussell describes Uselton as both passionate and uncompromising. He says Uselton’s “life is the school. He eats, sleeps, breathes it. He has no time off but doesn’t complain. You have to be passionate in order to be that dedicated.”
Fussell also commends his friend’s integrity. “Cory will do the right thing even if it’s not the easy thing. He’s uncompromising in terms of values.”
Amy Benson teaches AP literature and senior English at DeSoto Central High School where Uselton served as principal before being elected superintendent in 2015. “He leads by example,” Benson says. “He’s a wonderful motivator and very dedicated to the job. He encourages you to do your best. He sees all the kids as his kids.”
Uselton points with pride to other district accomplishments like the five students who scored 36 on the difficult and all important ACT test. “That’s a perfect score,” he adds.
While a part of his job is praising current, outstanding work like this, another part is looking toward the future. Based on the data crossing his desk, Uselton sees a teacher shortage as an upcoming possibility, because college students are not enrolling in classes that prepare them to be teachers.
“If pay levels do not increase, it’s going to be more difficult to attract students to become teachers,” he predicts.
Consequently, with that eye to the future, he took a pro-active approach by organizing a job fair. “It brought 250 applicants to the system,” he says.
The district has eight high schools, eight middle schools, and 22 elementary schools; it employs 4,000 people.
As part of his philosophy, Uselton favors a team approach. Each school employee is important – starting with the bus driver who is the first person a child meets in the morning and the last one who says, “See you tomorrow!” when the day is over.
Uselton notes learning models have changed – and keep on changing rapidly – because of social media.
“The students grow up with electronics in their hands. They’re used to instant access to information,” he says. “The teachers have adjusted.”
When asked for tips other parents might use, he shares what works for him. First, he listens. He wants to hear the views of his sons, Will and Jackson, as they talk about the day’s doings. Uselton encourages parents to be involved in school activities by attending sports events, music concerts, theatre performances, debate contests. Sign up for all the communication a school offers.
Niki Flanagan, an involved parent, commends Uselton for doing “a really good job of keeping people on the same page.” She describes him as one “who cares deeply about people. He establishes relationships and keeps them going.”
She praises his ability “to create community.” Elaborating, she notes that “he makes a big deal about small things, and small things add up to making our county the best.”
That, she believes, translates into what all parents want: a safe, wonderful place to raise a family. “We’re all trying to connect what we’re doing so that it can pay off for the kids,” Flanagan says.