The New Normal and What it Means for Collierville Schools

An Interview with Superintendent Dr. Gary Lilly

Dr. Gary Lilly’s first full year as Superintendent of Collierville Schools was not what he expected when he accepted the job in July of 2019. Thankfully, over two decades of experience were on his side, preparing him to launch a hybrid learning model for thousands of kids across the community. 

The Collierville Chamber sat down with Dr.Lilly to discuss his career in education, advice for parents in the “new normal” and love for motorcycling.

Chamber: Before Collierville, you spent over ten years as the director of schools for the Bristol Tennessee City Schools district. What moved you to pursue a career in education?

Lilly: The field of education has always seemed like a calling. I enjoy learning new things and sharing that love of learning with others.  From an early age, my parents instilled in me the belief that it was important to get a good education. Given all of that, becoming an educator seemed like a perfect fit.

As much as I enjoyed interactions with students at the classroom level, I was drawn to administration by the prospect of helping students and teachers on a larger scale. I’ve held a variety of positions within school districts and loved every single one of them. Still, I am most energized by the accomplishments of our students and knowing that we are providing opportunities for them to be successful now and in the future.

Chamber: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. As a new school district, Collierville has seen much success over the last six years. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Lilly: I am confident that the success of our district is directly related to the support of our community. The level of engagement with parents, the community, the town administrators, and between the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and Board of Education is extraordinary. Truly, the success of the school system and town are inextricably tied together, which our community understands and promotes. We are blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents who take active roles in the educational success of their children, which is very evident. Our students are amazing!

Because of the exemplary level of support provided to our district, we are able to have nice schools, attract incredible teachers and provide a depth of programming that is beyond what is possible in many places. That is a draw for those businesses and families who value those opportunities, which fuels and further advances that momentum.

Chamber: In the past, school board members have expressed their belief that you will help grow Collierville Schools’ technical and vocational programs. How do you think greater technical and vocational training benefits the city of Collierville?

Lilly: As noted above, the support of our business community is essential to our overall success and is directly tied to the opportunities that we can provide.

Kudos to my predecessor, Mr. Aitken, and others who actively cultivated relationships with our partners in business and industry from the inception of the district. The Collierville Education Foundation has worked hard to provide annual classroom grants for teachers that allow them to do even more with students.

Our Partners In Education board provides support in a wide variety of ways for our district, including serving as an advisory panel to help us set up, refine and enhance educational programming to meet regional workforce development needs, which is a win-win for both our students and local employers.

We currently offer a wide variety of career/technical awareness and training opportunities for students that are directly aligned to local industry needs, such as automotive, construction, health, welding and more.

“It is our intent for students who graduate from Collierville High School to be prepared to succeed in whatever field or discipline they wish to pursue next.”

Chamber: Switching gears, Collierville Schools switched to a hybrid model this semester in response to the rise of COVID-19 cases. What are the greatest challenges or opportunities for this district as it works to adapt to the “new normal?”

Lilly: Where to begin? The pandemic has created unique challenges that schools have not faced for a century. A big complicating factor is the rate at which information about, guidance for and status of the virus changes, which makes it particularly difficult to plan and implement a single course of action. It is also understandable that families, faculty and staff have different perspectives and levels of concern based on their own circumstances. From a district perspective, we have worked hard to provide multiple modalities of learning and attempted to find a balance between students’ academic, social and emotional needs, virus rates and spread within our community and concern for the health and wellbeing of both our students and staff, among other things.

As for opportunities, those might best be described as “forced innovation.” Our district was an early adopter of one-to-one technology, which has actually been a huge blessing.  Although it has not been without challenges, we have been able to ramp-up virtual and remote learning at scale, which allows us to continue educating those who prefer or need to be home. In addition to implementing new ways of teaching and learning, we have also found alternative means to meet and collaborate. We have found new ways to feed students, even when schools were shut down last spring and through the summer. We’ve conducted rolling school parades and produced our first ever virtual graduation ceremony. We’ve put together individualized kits to address specific needs of our students with disabilities. We’ve assisted families who did not have an internet connection so their children could continue learning on remote days. We’ve welcomed the addition of a social worker to assist students and families in crisis and help connect them to other services.

“Our dedicated faculty, staff and administrators have persevered by thinking creatively and finding ways to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of our students.”

Chamber: Next year, if students can attend all their classes in-person, what will schools look like when they fully reopen? Do you think the pandemic has changed any aspect of education forever? 

Lilly: I love this question because I love the thought of things being back to normal next year. Even so, there are aspects of schooling that may be forever changed.

“While in-person learning is the best modality for the majority of students, some have not only survived, but thrived, in the virtual space. It will probably look different from what we are doing currently, but I anticipate that we will continue to offer a virtual option for those who prefer that modality of learning. In-person instruction will also benefit from the exposure and experience with various technological tools and strategies.”

Of course, I think we will continue to have an appreciation for keeping germs at bay through frequent handwashing and quick intervention. Some of the mitigation strategies that we have put into place to deal with the coronavirus will help us continue to control for other contagions moving forward, such as the flu.

Chamber: What advice do you have for parents who are helping their kids navigate virtual learning? 

Lilly: We’ve asked parents to ensure that a “learning coach” is available to assist our younger children with virtual learning, which might be a parent, grandparent, older sibling, friend or neighbor. The reason is because virtual classes require that students stay attentive in an environment that is typically full of distractions (their home) with less oversight or opportunity for correction directly from the teacher. It can easily lead to less engagement and/or frustration when questions arise. Having a vested learning coach nearby to require participation, answer questions and address glitches can be really helpful.

To the extent that parents understand the learning management system, it will help them better navigate the material to help their children. Should there be issues, it is important that parents reach out to the teacher. Parents need to engage with teachers if they don’t understand aspects of the system, lesson or requirements. Teachers are happy to help and prefer to address any problems with the system or content as soon as possible.

The one recipe for failure is to assume that children are fine on their own. Even with our older students, it is important that parents check-in now and again to see how things are going and ensure that learning is on-track.

Chamber: How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not working to juggle Collierville Schools and the “new normal?”

Lilly: My daughter is a senior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. My son is a freshman at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. As new empty nesters, my wife and I are rediscovering life without kids at the house. We have enjoyed exploring new bicycle paths, walking our three dogs together and finding new places to eat.

I also love motorcycling with no particular destination in mind when the leaves change colors and the air is just a bit crisp. As an amateur photographer, it is a lot of fun to capture and share great memories of people and places.

Join us at our next Monthly Meeting on November 18, 2020 to hear Dr. Lilly talk more about Collierville Schools and how it has adapted to the “new normal.” Find more information here. 

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