University School of Jackson: 1987+

The goal to make University School of Jackson a premier college preparatory school in West Tennessee was met with immediate issues. The new consolidated board of trustees named subcommittees to help address a number of tough decisions, and the new school emerged over the summer of 1987. Principles of faith, scholarship, and service became the backbone of the new institution.

Structures that once housed Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School underwent dramatic transformations. The decision was made to house preschool and the early grades in the two buildings on the EDS campus and use Old Hickory’s campus for older students. Each school was repainted with the newly chosen colors of Columbia blue and white. Red was chosen as a contrasting accent color. Generals and Gryphons were replaced with the Bruin and paw prints. The Bruin, a mythical bear, was chosen for its versatility. It could work with both girls’ and boys’ teams, young and old. Its image could be softened in the form of a teddy bear for preschoolers or be used as a ferocious bruin with bared teeth for high school athletics.

Kim Barton took on the difficult task as the new headmaster of USJ to consolidate the schools’ two staffs. His personality and strength in leadership grounded his decisions. The knowledge that he would be replaced in two years allowed him to make the best decisions – not necessarily the most popular decisions.

The new school began to take on a form of its own as students, faculty, staff, and parents moved in a unified direction. After two years, Verne Hawes replaced Kim Barton as headmaster. Hawes was challenged from the beginning as he replaced a respected predecessor, as well as having to continue the healing process from the consolidation. The school was in debt, largely associated with the structure EDS built before the consolidation. Hawes addressed teacher compensation as one of his central goals. Through his leadership, USJ continued to form its new identity and rise as an academic institution.

Teacher Rick Rudesill helps students
Brooke McLeary. Also pictures is Jessica Clark.

After four years of service from Hawes, USJ leadership began moving the school into a new direction. Parents previously had been heavily involved in influencing school decisions – a necessary component because of the inherent tension the consolidation created. Now, it was time for a more centralized leadership to take control. The board would hire the headmaster, ensure finances, and set long-term goals. The headmaster would hire and fire faculty and staff and lead the day-to-day operations of the school.

Danny Walker and Carolyn Epps chaired the headmaster search committee. James Vaught was brought in and eagerly accepted by the faculty. At the time, he was thought to be the school’s best option to lead USJ to the next level. After only a few months, though, Vaught’s leadership was wavering. The board, faculty, staff, parents, and students questioned the direction of the school and demanded that action be taken. The board of trustees decided it was time to replace Vaught.

Now, the school had to find a suitable replacement and do it quickly. Carolyn Epps was appointed interim headmaster. Met with suspicion in the beginning, Epps was able to convince the school community that she took the responsibility seriously and cared about the future of the school dearly. She was able to assume the role of headmaster in a truly unique position – as a current parent and board chairman. Epps identified issues and concerns of faculty, staff, and students that no previous board chairman could have. “Some of the problems were stunning,” says Epps. “One of them was the inequity in salaries – we were paying women so much less than men.”

At this point in University School of Jackson’s history, faculty became the top priority. It was understood that with a respected and happy faculty, education could then prosper. If the school’s faculty was taken care of, then USJ leadership could concentrate on the quality of education.

USJ operated as it should have. With the expertise of Vice Board Chairman Jim Campbell, the school was able to retire the $250,000 debt left from the school consolidation. Now, with the school free of debt, leadership was able to begin long-range planning. Epps was to remain headmaster for all of 1994. The school community was once again settled and comfortable.

In a short time, however, USJ leadership heard that a well-respected educator, Don Coffey, was retiring from a prominent Memphis public school. Known for his character and reputation with academics, Coffey was contacted, and Epps waited for a phone call in her home later the same night.

Don Coffey speaks with students Mary Jaco,
Andrew Levine, Constance McKee,
Allison Hamilton, and Courtney Rogers.

“I was determined not to let him hang up the phone until he agreed to meet with us,” explains Epps. Her strategy worked. Coffey agreed to meet with Epps and Campbell later that week.

The leadership of USJ did not want to miss the opportunity of recruiting one of the area’s well respected educators. Though Epps was slated to continue as headmaster, plans changed quickly. The two met Coffey at the Upper School campus on Hollywood Drive at dusk. “We didn’t want him to be able to see the condition of the school – the potholes in the drive,” says Epps. “The entire time we were thinking, ‘Why would he take this on?’”

After dinner that night, Coffey was convinced that this was exactly the type of job he wanted to take on. Epps and Campbell agreed to approach the board with the idea that the school needed to break from the comfortable situation they were currently in with Epps as headmaster and entrust the job to Coffey instead. After a dinner with board members and their families, Coffey’s clear concern for education won over USJ leadership. The board voted to hire Coffey in the summer of 1994 and take the needed next step to provide the highest quality education for its students. Coffey accepted the job with a distinct philosophy. His bottom line, he says, “is to get service to the kids.” Believing in empowering teachers, Coffey quickly gained the respect and trust of the USJ community.

With a headmaster in place and the school’s debt relieved, the board of trustees again looked at long-term goals. It established a five-year plan that included upgrading facilities, improving teacher compensation, and building a new Middle and Upper School to replace the metal building and overcrowded conditions on the Hollywood Drive campus.

Facilities were upgraded, but close care was paid to faculty as well. “From the time I was there,” Coffey explains, “I never felt that support wasn’t there for the teachers. With salaries and benefits, we addressed teachers first, then we were able to move on to bricks and mortar.” With each goal accomplished along the way, leadership asked the questions, “What’s next? Where can we go from here?”

USJ leadership understood that in order to continue the success of the school, major renovations of the properties on Hollywood Drive and Old Humboldt Road were necessary. In 1995, one year after Coffey agreed to become headmaster, USJ took a dramatic step and began raising money for a new campus on McClellan Road. Much like the beginning of OHA and EDS, it wasn’t hard to convince parents to pledge their financial support. Property was bought the same year, and with financing in place, the school broke ground in the spring of 1996 for a new Upper and Middle School to replace the Hollywood Drive property. Lower School students would continue to be taught on the Old Humboldt Road campus until funds were available for a new Lower School. In the fall of 1996, USJ’s enrollment reached 1,017 students from three-year-olds to high school seniors.

Board Member Richard Fite and his construction company, H+M Construction, used innovative methods to construct the new school. Over a weekend in October 1997, parents, faculty, and students moved from the Hollywood Drive Campus into the new building. The school featured separate Middle and Upper School wings, state-of-the-art science and computer labs, two gymnasiums, a 500-seat theater, and an extensive outdoor sports complex.

Lower School students were asked to help
with the groundbreaking for their new school.

Old Hickory Academy’s original metal building was deserted without hesitation. Its limitations were obvious during rainstorms when classes would stop due to the noise of falling rain blistering the metal roofing. Small, trailer-sized classrooms lined the perimeter of the campus to accommodate the growing enrollment numbers. Outdated desks and lab equipment were left behind for the new accommodations.

After seven years of service as University School of Jackson’s headmaster, Coffey made the decision to retire. To ensure a successful transition, he remained for the 2000-2001 school year as Steve Maloan eased into the Headmaster position.

Maloan came into the position with University School of Jackson as strong as ever. He oversaw the culmination of USJ’s most ambitious long-term goal. In 2004, Lower School students, from three-year-olds to fifth graders, moved into a new facility next to the Upper and Middle School on McClellan Road. The new Lower School featured state-of-the-art technology, a cafetorium, classrooms designed specifically for each grade level, two gymnasiums, and an eco-learning center. Three-year-olds in pre-school and college-bound seniors now shared one campus.

USJ students Anna Garrett, Madison Swart, and Austin
Morganti walk outside of the new Lower School building.

This realized goal of USJ in 2004 marked the end of years of planning and anticipation. For the first time, high school students were able to interact with and set examples for the lower school children. Enrollment rose to 1310 students. A sense of community was reestablished on the 125-acre campus. When the new Lower School opened, University School of Jackson implemented another major change: It adopted uniforms for students.