Two years ago, Dr. Germain McConnell was enjoying life with his family in Oxford, his ambition focused on a deanship at the University of Mississippi, where he had served as assistant dean since 2003.
He was polite but direct when he received the phone call from Dr. Charles Brown, executive director of Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. He wasn’t sure he was interested in leaving Ole Miss to take a position as the new director of academic affairs at MSMS.
Brown had an equally polite but direct request: Just come to campus for a visit.
“I knew once I got him to this campus that he would fall in love with my kids,” Brown said Friday.
His hunch was correct. McConnell took the job, and now, as Brown prepares to retire, McConnell is preparing to take his place at the school’s helm.
A passion for education
Though both men took different career paths, they are united in their love for children and their belief that MSMS holds the key to improving education in Mississippi.
Brown was so drawn to MSMS that he left and was lured back three times, coming out of retirement in 2007 to serve as interim director and becoming head of the school a year later.
Though Brown has spent the past 40 years in education, he has not lost his passion for the profession or his ability to be amazed by the achievements of his students and faculty.
“When I decided I was going to become a school teacher, I promised myself that if there ever came a point where I didn’t enjoy kids anymore, I would get out,” Brown said. “I don’t understand why anyone would get into this business if they didn’t enjoy kids.”
McConnell cared about children so much that after getting a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mississippi State, he decided engineering wasn’t his calling. He wanted to teach, and he wanted to put his talents and his time where he felt he could be most beneficial.
He ended up in the Mississippi Delta, fresh from the Mississippi Teacher Corps, working as a math teacher in the Tunica County School District.
He was not prepared for what he found. His students definitely needed him — half the pupils in his geometry, trigonometry and pre-calculus classes didn’t have basic algebra skills. Some tested at third-grade level, and others could barely multiply.
The district itself was struggling, too, entering its second year of conservatorship after being taken over by the state for poor academic performance.
Instead of being disillusioned, McConnell was motivated to change the inequities he saw in public school education. Believing he could serve more good at the administrative level, he accepted a position at Ole Miss as program manager of the Mississippi Teacher Corps.
But his heart remained in K-12, and even as he climbed the upper echelons of academia, he still felt the nagging desire to work with students in the lower grade levels.
When he stepped onto the MSMS campus, he realized he had stumbled upon something special.
“I started looking at the school and thinking about its mission to enhance the future of Mississippi — that kind of thing captured me right there,” McConnell said. “My whole objective is to do everything within my power to improve the state of public education in Mississippi.”
Striving for greatness
McConnell will begin his new role July 1, but he has already been busy transitioning, meeting with employees and sharing his vision of a collaborative workplace with shared decision-making.
Though MSMS was recently ranked by Newsweek as one of the top schools in the nation, the institution came in at 352, a number McConnell finds unacceptable.
“I know we can do better,” he said. “My goal is to break the top 100, and I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to do so. With the caliber of students and teachers that we have, there’s no reason we can’t.”
There are some challenges ahead, he acknowledged, particularly in funding and student recruitment. MSMS currently enrolls 226 students and could enroll more if the funding was available.
The school was founded in 1987 by the Mississippi Legislature to serve gifted juniors and seniors and is funded solely by the state. Last year, faced with a revenue drop of more than $1 million, MSMS turned to public and private fundraising.
McConnell wants to provide more professional development for teachers and improve the computer science program on campus, but these things will take money.
“We have to be on the cutting edge,” McConnell said. “We are the ones that have to set the tone in terms of our curriculum and how we teach math and science. We are a very good school right now, but we are striving to be great, and there is no other place in Mississippi that can provide even the tip of educational experience that we can.”
With that in mind, he plans to push the school’s presence more aggressively throughout the state,
“I am surprised more people don’t know about MSMS,” he said. “There are some opportunities for this place to get better. I’m always looking for challenges. I didn’t get into education for things to be easy.”
In his new role, McConnell will oversee 22 full-time faculty members, along with one part-time faculty member and four full-time staff members.
Brown will officially hand over the keys at the end of June.
“I’ll always miss the kids,” Brown said. “MSMS is the only thing I would have come out of state retirement to do. These five years have been a lot of fun. It’s kind of bittersweet leaving, but it’s time.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.