Community Champion: John Neal
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Community Champion John Neal is the Associate Superintendent of Community Relations and Dropout Prevention for the Hinds County School District. The district includes Raymond, Utica, Learned, Bolton, Edwards, Terry and part of Byram--encompassing most of western Hinds County. A Noxubee County native, John Neal came to Jackson, Mississippi in 1995 to attend Jackson State University. He completed his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Specialist degrees at Jackson State University. At Mississippi State University, he has continued his post-doctoral studies. Neal has spent his career teaching, coaching and providing administrative leadership. In 2007 he joined the Hinds County District Office as Director of Community Relations and Dropout Prevention. Since that time, he has been promoted to his current position.
The Community Relations Office provides information and services to parents, community members, staff, and students. Under Neal’s direction, the office develops, oversees, implements, and evaluates the district's community relations plan, maintaining effective ongoing communication with all internal and external stakeholders utilizing the latest in communication technology. Neal also works to establish trusting relationships with local media and with the people in the district.
Neal spoke more about his position saying, “I still have under my umbrella dropout prevention, parent involvement, truancy, and community outreach. My office goes out to bridge the distance between the schools and the community and business sector so that we can have complete support all the way around, community leaders, faith-based leaders, and the industry in our local area all working together for the children. “
“It will enhance what we can do for the kids when the parents are involved and the community is involved then the students are more successful,” Neal explained.
When asked about empowering children, Neal responded that empowerment came through “creating a safety net for children by providing employees who are not only interested in the classroom but take on that ownership of providing support to students when they are in their home area.”
He continued, “The children have to become a part of the decision process of the environment that they are in. That’s when you are really connecting with the children. Now we have for years as parents and educators sat down and talked about things and looked at what’s best for children but what we have always done is from an adult perspective.”
“What we (Hinds County School District) have done is try to involve the student in that process also as much as possible. When the kid has ownership in those initiatives, products and programs that you have for them, then they are going to work harder to make sure it is a successful venture. That is what we have pushed out across our district to principals and teachers--to get that student more involved in the entire process. “
John Neal has had an impact on many children throughout his career as an educator. In fact, there are about 18 students who look at him as a father because of his influence on their lives. They have gone on to be quite successful in spite of rough beginnings. Neal tells of one student specifically, “I remember a young man right off the top of my head that had a wealth of talent, but he was a little raw in terms of self-discipline and self-control. I have always tried to use self-discipline and self-control when I was coaching athletics as a tool to mold and shape a child. It’s just a transfer of knowledge. I helped this young man to understand that his skills and thinking that are needed on the basketball court are the same skills that are needed in the classroom. And over the course of working with him (over three years), I was able to get him transformed to see that. He was a little on the wild side—very rambunctious. He was probably a D student, barely making it. The guideline was you had to have a C+ or above. I worked with him. I gave him individual attention. I provided him some mentorship. I put him in some positions where he could meet successful men and introduced him to successful men and showed him that there was more to it than being prepared for athletics, basketball or football. You have to be prepared for life. So once he understood this, he started to transform. He went from low grades and skipping class to going to college and getting a degree. Now he is even a coach at the community college level. He is just one of many young men who turned out very successful who started out with a rugged start. “
There is a special program with Hinds County School District known as Restart. Restart is an alternative school but with a different philosophy. As its name communicates, Restart gives students a new start.
At Restart students in middle school who are two grade levels behind are put into the program to turn them around.
“They are provided with an extra dose of math, science and language and reading and writing skills. For one year, they are asked to give up all extracurricular activities to enter this program to work to get back on track. They probably get more enrichment and involvement from communities and businesses than the students in the regular school classes. This is a great change agent. These kids are academically sound when they leave. We monitor them for two years through ninth and tenth grade years. They have all been successful,” said Neal concerning Restart.
Neal speaks of his personal commitment to Restart, “All of this was accomplished with parents entrusting me with their child. I think that was because I also took a personal interest in a student’s family. If I had a child and they needed that extra support, I would go to the parents, the mother or father, and share information about myself. “
Community involvement is key. Neal commented, “It involves a lot of people. I have to give kudos to the community leaders, the business leaders. When I have gone to them and shared the things I try to do for students, they have willingly participated and given that extra support that was needed. You can’t do it all by yourself. I give kudos to them, some are elected officials, and some are community leaders, local bank representatives, pastors at the churches. It’s taken those folks helping. “
“We plan events through the year for the students and the parents, including luncheons for parents where a representative will come in and speak to the parents. At those events, we have students to perform so parents can see them performing. Local business leaders can see them performing. “
Another program at the Hinds County School District is called Reality Fair. In this event, children are taught what being an adult in the world is like. Neal says, “Having your work, your transportation, your home and a bank account for paying your bills. We tie that into a student’s GPA. They are given a salary based on their GPA so they can see the importance of good grades and pursuing them. We do this for all of our ninth graders and this year we are going to move it to one of our newer schools.”
“We are just trying to stay ahead of the curve,“ said Neal.