JACKSON — Tom Burnham had spent a couple of weeks as a student at Hinds Community College when he determined that college was just not for him. So, he packed his bags and hitchhiked back to his hometown of Puckett.
Though neither of his parents had gone to college, they had always told Burnham that he was going to continue his education. Upon returning home, his dad sat him down, explained why he could not quit, and drove him back to college. It proved a career move – Burnham went back to education, and he is still there today.
Earlier this month, Burnham was named to replace Dr. Hank Bounds as state superintendent of education, a position he held back in the 1990s. He left a tenured position at the University of Mississippi, where he served as Dean of the School of Education. Many questioned his decision to leave a lucrative post to go back to K-12. But, Burnham has a simple answer.
“I have a tremendous, genuine passion for education and making a difference in children’s lives,” he said.
Dr. John Jordan, interim state superintendent of education, said, “He is well liked by everyone and has served as state superintendent of education in the 1990s. We expect him to come in and not miss a beat in implementing the programs to help the (Board of Education) reach its goals.”
Interestingly, it seems education chose Burnham. He returned to Hinds Community College where he majored in business administration. He worked full-time for Chevron while in college, and planned on continuing with the company after school.
But, after leaving Hinds, Burnham attended Mississippi College, and during his senior year was encouraged by a counselor/mentor to look at teaching.
“He told me I needed to do my student teaching so I could get my teaching certificate,” said Burnham, 56. “I told him I didn’t want to teach. He said, ‘Well, everybody needs something to fall back on.'”
To his surprise, Burnham found he loved teaching, and spent the next three years in the classroom in Richland while also earning a master’s in school principal at Mississippi College. (He also holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from MC.) He followed that up with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Delta State University.
Burnham resume is extensive. He has served as superintendent of the Henderson County (N.C.) Public Schools, superintendent of Biloxi Public Schools, adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and assistant dean for continuing education at Delta State University.
Burnham joined the University of Mississippi as dean of the School of Education and professor of curriculum and instruction in 2004. There, he was responsible for the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Department of Leadership and Counselor Education as well as the Mississippi Teachers Corps, World Class Teaching Program, Mississippi Teacher Fellowship Program, Center for Educational Research and Evaluation and North Mississippi Education Consortium. During his tenure at Ole Miss, Burnham personally secured grants of more than $4.5 million and successfully led the School of Education through its National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) continuing education accreditation process.
Burnham is also a member of the American Association of School Administrators, and is a member of the Board of Examiners for the NCATE.
But, it is his former service as state superintendent of education that most know best. He led the state’s K-12 efforts from 1992-1997, including heading the difficult process of establishing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).
Burnham admits that the MAEP process forced his exit.
“It had been building up for 18 months, and I was just wiped out,” Burnham said. “I needed to step away and let others implement MAEP because I simply had nothing left.”
Burnham said he learned patience while in the higher education realm, and pointed out that the climate in Mississippi is different today than it was in the 1990s when he encountered the difficulties establishing MAEP. This, and the fact that he is familiar with the job and is closely aligned philosophically with Bounds, has Burnham confident that the second stint as superintendent will be less stressful.
While the Board was not looking for someone to come in and clean the slate, rather wanting someone to see through efforts already in place, Burnham does have some areas of interest. One is high school redesign. He said too many students, many academically gifted, are dropping out of school, and that changes need to be made to make schools more student-friendly. And, he wants to see renewed efforts to boost students’ literacy.
Burnham does not officially take the superintendent position until the beginning of the new year, but is already working behind the scenes. When not at work, he can often be found riding his tractor on his Puckett farm. He said that he and his wife, Terri, director of technology services for the Gulfport School District, will probably move to Brandon when he takes over full-time as state superintendent.