By SHERYE S. GREEN
Jason Walton’s educational career has taken him on a journey of almost two thousand miles over the past eighteen years, but none sweeter than those clocked most recently on the road home. From his upbringing in the Mississippi Delta to his formative years spent in the rolling hills of DeSoto County, Jackson Preparatory School’s sixth Head of School is elated to return to the state he loves.
Although in his first executive role, this native son is no stranger to educational leadership. Jason Lewis Walton is uniquely qualified to take the reins of Mississippi’s largest independent secondary school.
The Road Home
After completing a master’s degree in education, Jason and his wife, Laurie, moved to Nashville in 2001. Soon afterwards, Jason began his doctoral program at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. Upon receiving his Ph.D., Jason worked two years for the State of Tennessee as Assistant Director for the Office of Education Accountability.
An intriguing offer brought another move three years later when the couple relocated to sunny, southern Florida to the upscale community of Boca Raton. Jason’s excellent work in Tennessee had captured the attention of Kevin Ross, president of Lynn University, a small, private liberal arts college. Joining the Lynn team as Director of Strategic Initiatives, Jason spent his first year in collegiate management overseeing development of the school’s roadmap to the future, the Lynn 2020 strategic plan.
Twelve months later, Jason was promoted to Chief of Staff at Lynn. At the young age of thirty, he now served in the university’s number two position. “What I loved most was the fast-paced environment of an executive suite. Every day at Lynn was a Whitman sampler!”
The years spent in southern Florida proved a training ground for the call to move to Jackson. “There are many parallels between running a small college and running a premier prep school like Jackson Prep,” says Jason. Issues he encounters on a daily basis at Prep are similar to those he dealt with while at Lynn.
Although the years in Florida “were very professionally rewarding,” the Waltons lived hundreds of miles away from family and friends. The retirement in May 2014 of then-Head of School Susan Lindsay set in motion an exhaustive nine-month nationwide search. Shepherded by Carney, Sandoe & Associates, a leading educational recruitment firm, the quest culminated in an announcement made mid-February 2014 naming Jason as Prep’s new chief executive. Jackson Preparatory School, now forty-five years old, had a gifted visionary to lead them in the next phase of her storied history.
A Heritage of Education
The DNA of education is embedded in the lives of both Jason and Laurie Walton. Jason, a fourth-generation educator, is following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, John William Simpson. His paternal grandmother was a teacher in Slate Springs. She instructed Jason’s dad and “generations and generations of people.” Jason’s parents also had distinguished careers in education, prior to their retirement. The topic of conversation around the Walton dinner table usually centered on school as Jason’s mother and father “unpacked their day and shared shop talk.”
It was the promise of a fine public school system that drew Laurie’s parents, Jimmy and Evelyn Bearden, to settle in Nesbit in DeSoto County. Laurie’s earliest lesson plans were scribbled on a chalkboard received for her sixth Christmas. Her first students were her father’s hunting beagles. “I would line up those little red puppies and teach them.” Many fine teachers inspired Laurie. She, too, is a natural-born encourager
A Natural Bent to Lead
Energetic. Enthusiastic. Focused. These three words capture the spirit of Prep’s new leader. Jason Walton is a man always looking for ways to improve the quality of the culture around him and one never content with the status quo. God has excellently equipped Jason for this new role as Prep’s leading man.
Perhaps one of Jason’s most winsome, appealing character traits hidden between the lines of his impressive resume is his humble, servant heart. His leadership skills have been developed in the trenches while alongside others facing the same on-the-job difficulties.
Jason can empathize with struggles classroom teachers face as he spent the first four years of his career teaching English to freshmen and sophomores at Hernando High School. His work with the state of Tennessee allowed him to hone analytical skills regarding educational policy. In addition to administrative experience gained at Lynn, Jason served as liaison to the university’s Board of Trustees. He could now better understand this partnership crucial to the success of independent education.
The 2012 race to the White House offered Jason a leadership role beyond his wildest dreams. Lynn University would host the last debate of the presidential campaign in which President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney would square off. Jason would coordinate the entire event.
Not a task for the faint of heart, Jason and his team would ensure that the event site, Lynn’s Wold Performing Arts Center, would be ready to welcome both presidential candidates and some 3,000 media representatives. Jason shares, “There was never a more ‘high stakes’ moment than that experience. So much was on the line.” Foreign Affairs was the debate topic, and the conversation did not disappoint. Palm Beach County garnered $13.1 million in economic impact. Some 59.2 million viewers across the globe tuned in to watch history unfold.
How could Jason and Laurie have known almost nineteen years ago when they said “I do” how wonderfully God had equipped each of them to be the living embodiment of His loving will for the other. Many high school romances don’t last, but this special relationship would stand the test of time. A chance meeting one hot, muggy evening the summer before their senior year would change the course of their lives forever.
Laurie and a girlfriend had driven to Sonic to get a snack. Soon after the girls arrived, Jason and another guy from their class pulled up in the space next to the girls. Jason, on an errand of mercy, had just picked up his friend, who had no ride home from work. In his haste, however, Jason had left home without either his shoes or his wallet.
Once the orders were delivered, Jason realized his dilemma and called out to Laurie through the open car window to ask if she would mind paying the bill. Jason promised her a date the next evening if she would spot him the cash. He claims the order placed that night at Sonic “was the most expensive cherry limeade I ever bought!”
Jason and Laurie began their college experience at Northwest Community College. Before the beginning of their junior year, Jason headed north and graduated from the University of Mississippi. Laurie struck off southward and completed her undergraduate degree at Belhaven University. Both husband and wife are certified for K-12 educational service.
While in Boca Raton, Laurie completed a Master of Education degree at Lynn University. She has always been comfortable in the world Jason’s work world, an added benefit of their kinship. “We speak the same language.”
The Florida years afforded many opportunities for this couple to establish creative ways in which to support each other in their respective careers, while protecting their number one priority – family. Jason kept up with the frenetic pace of college life at Lynn. Laurie was involved in the life of The King’s Academy, a private Christian K-12 school, where she became a celebrated teacher of A.P. World History, World History, and eleventh grade English.
“Laurie and I used to joke,” Jason remembers, “that people in our respective work places thought we were both single, because we were rarely seen together.” If Jason had a Lynn-related evening event, he often went stag as Laurie was home taking care of their children. Laurie also had many command performances such as Back to School night or commencement. On those evenings, Jason was the parent who stayed home to babysit.
“While my husband has the high profile job of leading one of the best private schools,” Laurie remarks, “one of my greatest challenges is making sure his home life is balanced for the children and me.” Over the years, Jason and Laurie have worked hard to ensure equilibrium is maintained in their lives. Toward that end, they have established hedges designed to guard the inner sanctum of their home.
Jason and Laurie sit down weekly to discuss his calendar. This provides an opportunity for Laurie to pencil in dates and times when she may be needed at a Prep event. “It’s important to me to support Jason in the many functions and activities that he’s involved with as Prep’s Head of School.” Additionally, the Walton’s two children each have their own slate of activities. Some days engineering the family schedule is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Daughter Caroline and son John William have adjusted well to their new hometown. Both athletes, they have made many new friends at First Presbyterian Day School, where Caroline is a fifth grader and John William is in kindergarten.
Lessons in the School of Grief
Neither Jason nor Laurie could have ever imagined the tragedy that would unfold soon after their arrival in Jackson last summer. Jackson Prep junior Walker Wilbanks fell ill during a Friday night home football game and died three days later. The loss sent the school community reeling.
God had been preparing the Waltons for the deep valley they and the entire Prep community would traverse in the fall of 2014. This devoted husband and wife had walked through difficult times before. Now they would draw strength from those dark times in the days that followed Walker’s death.
Laurie’s first practice teaching experience in 1996 offered a rare object lesson. She taught a student at Pearl High School who would later go on to commit the first school shooting in America. Laurie’s take-away from that experience was to pay closer attention to students and to their behavior, to what they said and did not say.
Nine years later Laurie lost two young cousins and quickly learned, “This is not something you get over, but something you just get through.”
Five years later Jason faced the difficult task of helping his university cope with the heartbreaking deaths of four female students and two male faculty advisors killed in the January 2010 earthquake which struck Haiti. The group had traveled to the small nation for a winter short-term humanitarian project, Journey of Hope – Haiti. All six perished when the 7.0 quake crushed the Hotel Montana.
“God takes you through the fire in order to minister to others in need,” shares Laurie as she remembers those first days following Walker’s death. At home, she now had to explain some difficult life subjects to Caroline and John William. At work, Jason likewise was thrust into the same situation as he sought to console some eight hundred Prep students and his faculty.
“On more than one occasion,” Jason says, “Laurie and I have unfortunately had a front-row seat to sudden tragedy and loss. We understand, at least partially, the emotional free fall a family can experience. We have also seen first-hand how tragedy can bring a community together.”
Foundations of Faith
Weekends and summers spent visiting his grandparents in the Mississippi Delta provided Jason many exciting outdoor adventures including hunting and fishing. The main adventure on Sundays, however, was found at Interstate Baptist Church, where he often accompanied his grandmother. Although raised a Methodist by committed Christian parents, Jason relates that “Sundays spent in that small country church were deeply formative in shaping my faith as a young person.”
Once Jason started dating Laurie, he often attended church with her at Nesbit’s First Baptist Church. Jason found in this congregation the same authenticity and genuine Christlikeness he had seen in his home church and that of Interstate. Responding to the tug of the Holy Spirit, Jason accepted Christ and was baptized in the fall of 1991.
Years earlier, Laurie had attended revival services at First Baptist Church Nesbit, while a nine-year-old girl. John “Bull” Bramlett, a former professional football player now a minister, was leading the services. During this particular evening, Bramlett took to walking the aisles to share his message. When he reached the pew where Laurie’s family was seated, he asked them if they knew the Lord personally. Laurie looked over at her dad, whose face was now filled with tears. As Laurie’s believing mother watched, her prayers for her family were answered as Laurie, her sister Virginia, and Laurie’s dad were saved together. They have walked with the Lord since.
One of the driving forces influencing the move to Mississippi was the chance to be part of an independent educational environment “well positioned to talk about faith.” While southern Florida offered a rich, diverse culture Jason found appealing, “I realized for the first time in my life that it was not a foregone conclusion that my children were going to have the same faith experiences we had growing up.” The opportunity to personally impact that educational experience for his own children and those of others was very appealing.
The Waltons soon found a welcoming congregation at First Baptist Church Jackson. Yet while visitors, Laurie shares how their family found a church home, especially following fellow FBCJ member Walker Wilbanks’ death. “Our church family prayed for us, offered to help with our children, helped Jason to help Walker’s parents, and even delivered meals to us.”
The faith modeled by Jason and Laurie has made a life-changing impact in the lives of their children. Soon after joining FBCJ, Caroline and John William both made professions of faith and were baptized. Both have established great relationships through Sunday school and church athletic teams
The microcosm that is Jackson Prep demands a constant, prayerful vigil. “The things I worry about at night are the things I’m most prayerful about,” Jason shares. While he does see change in the culture around him, Jason says “it doesn’t make me bashful about being in the world as a person of faith. I hope my faith is evident to people who have interactions with me.”
“Excellence without Exception”
These words, unashamedly bold and forward thinking, sum up Jason’s theory of education. “The most important duty a head of school can fulfill is to broadly and consistently convey an expectation of excellence across all facets of institutional life.” Jason believes “independent schools enjoy significant freedom in pursuing their duties and ordering the academic lives of students trusted to their care.”
Philippians 4:8 is Jason’s scriptural definition of what excellence should look like—true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, worthy of praise. Toward this end, Prep is doubling down on leadership development through its Global Leadership Institute. The only one of its kind in Mississippi, this innovative program provides leadership and service opportunities to both junior high and senior high students.
Jason is committed to creating a “culture of innovation” at Prep. His goal for faculty and students alike is simple—that they would always know what is the mark on the wall. His personal goal is to be “a visible and accessible leader who will guide, sustain, and advance the institution.”
The Changing Landscape
The cultural landscape of secondary education has changed enormously since the Waltons’ high school years. Today’s teachers must master technology that changed almost as fast as it is developed. Twenty-first century educators now face a digital frontier.
Social media is one new communication method incredibly popular with younger generations. One of the first policies Jason initiated upon his arrival at Prep was to allow school faculty members to accept “friend” requests on Facebook and to follow students via Twitter and other social media platforms. “Social media,” Jason believes, “is a place where we ought to be modeling how you should be.” As social media is a medium through which students reveal much about themselves, it presents listening opportunities for teachers.
Walker’s death captured local and national headlines, catapulting the Prep family into uncharted territory. David and Sheila Wilbanks asked Jason to communicate with three audiences on their behalf – Prep’s student body, the greater community, and the media. Jason turned to social media. He knew from his Lynn experience how tight and strict media guidelines would be. The exponential power of social media provided a space for the Prep family to grieve and offered a mechanism by which a multitude would minister to the Wilbanks family in their greatest hour of need.
Prep’s Facebook and Twitter accounts “amplify all the good things that are going on here. Social media enables the school to reach prospective parents as it carves out a virtual shop window.” Although Jason is well aware of the negative aspects of social media, he is adamant when he says, “I couldn’t do what I do without it.”
The Road Ahead
Jason and Laurie, as educators and as parents of two younger children, are more than aware of the increasing demands placed on educational institutions. They also know that future Jackson Prep graduates, which may well include their own children, will need more than a diploma in their backpack when they head off to college. A short list of life skills includes adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, perseverance, and resourcefulness.
Jason has two keepsakes that belonged to his great-grandfather Simpson—his school bell and his lesson plan book. These artifacts are tangible reminders of the legacy of educational leadership now being lived out through his life. As Jason and Laurie look toward the future of both the Prep family and their own, they are reminded of God’s constant faithfulness in times past.
“Sometimes we feel like our hand is on the rudder,” reflects Jason, “but we must always remember that it is God who is the navigator.”
Sherye Green is a Jacksonian, a teacher at Hinds Community College, and a wife, mother, and grandmother. Sherye and her husband, Mark, are members of First Baptist Church Jackson.
She is also the author of Abandon Not My Soul.