Remarkable Rutherford Woman: Her teaching niche is at-risk students

Connie Esh, The Murfreesboro Post, June 26, 2017

More than 42 years as an educator are coming to an end for Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Student Services Paula Barnes – and her colleagues are going to miss her.

“That woman really knows her job,” says Rutherford Education Association President Deborah Hunt. “I’m sorry to see her leave.”

But Barnes says she feels it’s time to move on to the next challenge in her life. She’s retiring after 38 years working for Rutherford County Schools.

“I just want to rest, relax and rejuvenate,” she says. “I want to figure out how to live, learn to slow down and still continue to be challenged.”

She also plans to spend some time with her husband Jim Barnes, daughter Jackie Lee and her husband Hunter Lee, and son Brad Barnes and his wife Rachel Barnes.

‘Family tradition’

The children have followed the family tradition of working in education that Barnes started 42 years ago. Jackie teaches at Stewarts Creek Middle School, Hunter teaches science at Siegel Middle, and Brad’s an IT tech for the school system.

“I want to catch up with friends and family,” Barnes adds. “To go to Italy and Sicily where my parents came from.”

Barnes, born in Alabama, moved to Nashville with her parents – both second-generation Italian-Americans – when her dad was transferred to the city. Jack Deluca worked for the Nashville branch of Southern Leather, where he sold shoes and shoemaking supplies to retail stores.

But both Deluca and the former Adeline Scalici, Barnes’ mother, passed away in the 1970s and ’80s. Barnes was the youngest of their three daughters – Jean, Jackie and Paula.

Discovers teaching

Paula had planned on being a nurse, but that meant taking chemistry.

“And chemistry and I just didn’t dance,” she says. “So, I started exploring.”

Then her roommate at UT-Knoxville and “best friend since the second grade,” Sally Conrad, who later married and became Sally Clinard, started telling Barnes about the education classes she was taking.

“It really interested me because I’ve always been a people person, working with people and helping people,” she says. So, she took a few classes in the major and discovered her vocation.

But before Barnes came back to Middle Tennessee and ended up in Rutherford County, she taught in an inner-city New Orleans school. She says it was an eye-opening experience.

Navigating NOLA

Barnes learned first-hand what can be done in a high-poverty school, if the teachers and principal believe in the students.

Most of the students lived in a low-income housing project right across the street from the school. She recalls the New Orleans-style food served in the cafeteria was excellent, and she speculates it may have been part of what kept some of the kids coming to school.

“I realized how much we need to help our students,” says Barnes.

While she says she really enjoyed living in New Orleans, after five years she decided she missed her family, so she came back home.

Meets Jim at game

Not long after Barnes came back to her mother’s home, she met Jim Barnes. “I met him playing volleyball,” she says. “I ran into him again later – it was just luck. We’ll be married 39 years in July.”

When she was hired by Rutherford County, she used her New Orleans experience to help “at-risk” students succeed at what was then Thurman Francis Junior High School. “That was kind of my niche.”

At the school, Barnes learned the style of connecting and communicating that became a hallmark of her career.

It was also at the school that she met Donald Jernigan and Laura Harper, mentors who helped her become a better classroom teacher and also provided her with examples of good administrative skills.

Learns from mentors

The principal, Jernigan, was “kind, generous and a good listener,” according to Barnes, “but everyone knew he was managing the school.”

She also remembers Harper, who was the assistant principal, as “consistent, determined and holding students and staff to high expectations.”

Barnes adopted those same qualities in her administrative jobs, like her role as assistant principal at McFadden Elementary and, later, the principal.

She was still principal when McFadden became a magnet school.

Pilots first magnet program

“It was incredible to be able to research and build the first magnet program in the county,” says Barnes.

“At first, we thought we knew what we were doing,” she recalls. “But at the end of the first day, we realized we had completed five days’ lessons.”

But she adds the beauty of the program is in allowing students to learn and grow at their own speed, even when you have to really work to keep ahead of them.

Her role in the transition helped prepare her for her next challenge at the Central Office. She had a “knack for managing people and personalities,” according to a Rutherford County Schools profile of Barnes – and that “knack” impressed former Director of Schools Harry Gill, whom Barnes first met when they were students together in graduate school.

Serving all county schools

So, when she applied for the assistant superintendent position, Gill hired her. And while she loved her job at McFadden, she says she felt the new job would allow her to use what she had learned to help teachers in all the county schools.

In the recent profile of Barnes, Gill said the assistant superintendent position “was a huge job with enormous responsibility,” but added that he had been confident she was up to the job.

“It was evident to me she would make sage decisions and, at the same time, she brought character to the position.”

Director of Schools Don Odom agrees. “She’s a person who can navigate through changes,” he explains. “Some people have trouble with change – Paula doesn’t.”

Likewise, the state legislature expressed its appreciation of Barnes’ public service in recognition of her retirement, which will begin at the end of the day Thursday this week.

A surprise is presented

At the first county school board meeting in June, State Reps. Dawn White, Mike Sparks, Tim Rudd and Bryan Terry and State Sen. Bill Ketron surprised her with the framed joint resolution – quietly passed by both houses of the Tennessee legislature – signed by all five lawmakers plus State Sen. Jim Tracy and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Eyes shining with tears, Barnes hugged them all – including Board Member Lisa Moore, who orchestrated the surprise presentation.

Barnes says she’s proudest of having served the county for 38 years. “Staying with one district, affecting so many lives,” she says. “Staying here means I know so many people.”

This remarkable Rutherford woman is currently training her replacement, Dr. Andrea Armstrong. What next? “I’m not going to jump into anything,” Barnes says. “First, I’ll take time to know I have time – then decide what suits me.”

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