In some ways, you could say it’s taken Rockdale’s new superintendent Richard Autry more than four decades to travel 10 miles in from where he grew up.
The Newton County native still lives near where he grew up on the other side of the Georgia International Horse Park.
But in other ways, he has already gone worlds beyond where he started out and is set to bring Rockdale County Public Schools along with him.
"It’s a good thing to be close to the folks that raised you,” Autry said. “I remember when 138 was a dirt road. There’s been significant changes. But change is not a bad thing to me. Change is something that needs to be embraced but also planned for, and you to understand how to drive and shape that change.”
The eldest out of three brothers, Autry was born at Porterdale Hospital and grew up in the mill town and then near Oxford.
The family lived a modest life. His mother, Nancy, instilled in him the importance of education and getting good grades. He credits his father Gerald, who played on Coach Ron Bradley’s championship teams, with his athletic career, which helped the shy introvert blossom.
A crystallizing moment came for Autry when he was16-years-old cleaning hogs during the summer at his mother’s family’s meatpacking farm, Holifield Farm, in Covington.
“One day I walked in at 6 a.m. – and this is a meat packing plant – and I knew I was going to get a degree. No disrespect to my family, but that was not what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
It was a football scholarship that enabled Autry to go to college to East Carolina University and become a first generation college graduate. “Without that support, my parents wouldn’t have been able to send me to college,” he said. “I credit extracurricular.”
Autry studied business at first, aiming to get his MBA and one day be the CEO of his own business.
But a special education class and internship where he mentored one very special student changed the course of his career. “I really decided that was what life was all about and education was all about. Giving back.” Plus, he realized, he had a knack with young children and young adults.
He came back to teach at Newton in the high school where he graduated, and also taught and coached briefly at middle school in Clarke County and middle and high school in Rockdale.
But, it was his experience as assistant principal at Jackson Primary School that opened his eyes to the value of teaching practices and methods. He said he treasured his time in that system.
Autry said, “Now here I am working with 5-6 year olds and I’m this 6-foot, 5-inch giant to them. And that’s where I fell in love with pure teaching. That’s where I fell in love with best practices, pedagogy,” he said. “I watched in amazement of how those teachers taught these children to read, to add, to subtract. All the pure parts of education were there.”
Autry went on to be the principal at Hightower Trail Elementary for six years before going onto work in the RCPS administrative office as assistant superintendent of Support Services and then Teaching and Learning.
Autry credited his view of administrative office roles from previous superintendent Dr. Samuel King in that he felt administrative positions existed to support classroom teachers.
Former co-worker and past supervisor Charles Price was an assistant superintendent for RCPS when Autry was principal at Hightower Trail. Before that, Price was a fellow principal at Flat Shoals, Edwards Middle, and first principal for Lorraine Elementary.
“What I thought he was a master of was the way he worked with people and supported both his teachers and his students. Rich wasn’t one to say the teacher is always right. The student required support and the teacher required support.”
“His strength was solving a problem and going in a direction. Rich would pull people around him,” Price said. For instance, when technology specialists were being implemented in the schools, Autry got teachers around the table to discuss what their role would be and how to utilize them in the classroom and not be just an administrative slot.”
“We are notorious in education for wanting to implement a new strategy that’s going to save the world,” said Price. “Rich was not going to jump on a new bandwagon without thoroughly investigating it and thinking it through and reviewing the research on it.”
Dennis Fordham, who retired in 2006 and now lives in Covington, was superintendent in the tiny, four-school Butts County school system when Autry was hired as the assistant principal at the Jackson Primary School, a K-2 school.
“I was delighted from the beginning we were able to have him come to work for us. He was obviously a bright young man, very personable, good judgment – which is a crucial element, of course,” said Fordham. “His temperament fit well, calm with an air of he knows what he’s doing. Helped to make the teachers and students he worked with more confidence.”
Even back then Autry seemed to have the ingredients for superintendent potential, said Fordham. “Based on my experience of what’s required to be successful in that role, he’s exhibited those characteristics.”
As Chief Academic Officer since 2008, Autry was heavily involved in the driving the process for the school system’s strategic plan and its recent revision.
“Rich has an understanding of the direction we have been going,” said school board member Darlene Hotchkiss after Autry’s selection in June. “He was an integral person involved in our strategic plan. We don't have to get him up to date on where we see the school system going."
Autry often refers back to the strategic plan. “There’s a collective wisdom,” in the plan, he said.
“There’s some innovative ideas in our strategic plan, and if they manifest themselves, they will transform Rockdale County Public Schools into a world class public education.”
To compete on a global stage, “I’m afraid a good report card or just a good test score or just a college diploma won’t be enough,” he said.
Among those ideas are specialized schools and programs, such as a K-12 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) pathway of schools, a feeder of IB programs through all grades.
Schools and programs with intensive support centering on the arts as well as business schools are also among the ideas.
For Autry, one of the priorities in starting out this school year will be to provide a stable environment for teachers.
With so many major changes coming down the pike – Common Core Curriculum, evaluation changes, accountability changes – teachers are at “max capacity,” said Autry.
“While these changes may be on paper, these changes affect classroom teachers and building level leaders. These changes affect the operations of our schools. I want to be very deliberate on how and when we affect change.”
“My first order of business is to try to affect stability and create a sense of calm in our classrooms and allow our teachers to teach children. Not to worry about all the change that’s out of their control and our control, but focus on teaching and taking care of children… When you have all these things taking up one side of your thinking, that only leaves half to focus on teaching our children, and that’s not what I want. I want our teachers assured we’ll continue to shield them from any unnecessary change and any unnecessary commitment.”
He admitted that no one looks for data and research more than he does. However, “I don’t look at education just as test scores. I don’t look at education as just getting a diploma. I look at education as being able to change people’s lives. Regardless of whether you come from affluence or poverty, education can change your life. I am the perfect example of it. That’s the only thing that changed it… And when you change one life, you’ve changed generations.”
“That’s what I live by educationally. Everyone matters. When you reach one child, you’re changing generations after that child," he said.
“That’s why I do this.”