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Paying It Forward


Michael Cormack

Michael Cormack

When Michael Cormack, Principal of Quitman County Elementary School in the Mississippi Delta, heard about the new SPA NOLA program, he immediately buttonholed Guyniesha Johnson and Sandra Wilborn and convinced them to go.

Cormack knew he was essentially saying goodbye to two of his best teachers. Johnson was a recent Teacher of the Year and Wilborn was a Quitman County native whose son had had been salutatorian at the local high school. But as a SPA graduate and longtime educator in the Deep South, Cormack was thinking about the need to build a school leadership pipeline in the region. 

“I would love to be able to hoard my best teachers here at my school forever,” Cormack says. “But the reality is, I won’t be here forever, nor should they. There are a lot of schools that need leaders here, and the challenges are huge. We need to put the best people in those jobs.”

Cormack knows all about those challenges. He previously served as Teach for America’s Managing Director for Program in Mississippi, overseeing a staff of seven with responsibility for 350 first- and second-year TFA teachers.  Then he took over at Quitman, where he soon realized that before he could improve students’ academic performance, he needed to focus on their physical health.  

“One of the things we face in an acute way at my particular school is the problem of obesity,” he says. “It’s such an interesting dichotomy — we’re one of the most malnourished places but we’re also one of the most obese.” In fact, Quitman County was rated 82nd out of 82 Mississippi counties by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in terms of overall health outcomes. “The work that the Summer Principals Academy does with self-awareness training made me mindful of my obligation to support all of my students’ health.”

So, in addition to garnering funds to set up a walking trail for students near the school, Cormack also secured a grant from the University of Mississippi for workout equipment for a new staff exercise room. He expanded the number of physical activity offerings to three courses weekly, including physical education, dance, and integrated science, introduced 20 minutes of daily recess, and implemented a “Move to Learn” program created by an educator from Clinton, Mississippi. He also engaged parents in Presidential Fitness Challenge goals and invited them to participate in the school’s Wellness Council to suggest changes to school lunches, curriculum and other practices. Now the school’s staff is   gearing up to participate in the Clarksdale “Juke Joint Festival” 5K run to model physical fitness for students.

Cormack clearly exemplifies the importance of a well-trained school leader to a community. He envisions the same kind of role for Johnson and Wilborn, as well as for current SPA student Chloe Kannan, whom he also coaches. “Impact starts in the classroom but then can go from a classroom to a school and from a school to a district,” Cormack says proudly. “When you think about the ripple effect of that, it’s incredibly exciting.”

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