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‘I’m Just Little Old Me’: Mississippi’s ‘Parent of the Year’ Helped Heal ‘Brokenness’ at Gautier High School

Lisa S. Cusker - Mississippi Parent of the Year
Lisa S. McCusker and her sons, John-Micheal McCusker, 17 (left), Aidan McCusker, 16 (right). McCusker said she’s grateful for how her work with the Pascagoula-Gautier district has given her a window into her sons’ lives she wouldn’t have otherwise. Photo courtesy Lisa S. McCusker.

Lisa S. McCusker said she had been at the DMV for hours with her youngest son, Aidan McCusker, on June 11 before she finally returned home and noticed a missed call. “I quickly checked the voicemail, and the first thing the gentleman says is, ‘I’m with the state department,’” McCusker told the Mississippi Free Press.

“I froze for a minute and thought, ‘oh no, did I screw up something on my taxes?’”

Taxes were far from why the State Department of Education called McCusker. MDE had called to award McCusker the title of “2020 Parent of the Year” for her work with the Pascagoula-Gautier district on the Gulf Coast.

A Mississippi native and mother to two sons, Aidan,16, and John-Micheal McCusker,17, McCusker said she had to listen to the message twice before she completely understood the honor she was receiving.

“I’m just little old me,” she said. “I’m just trying to serve my community well, and I’m still a little tongue-tied about it, to be honest.”

A Middle-school Support Team

The Mississippi Department of Education’s news release on McCusker’s win highlights her work with the Gautier High School Band, for which she has served as president of the Gautier High School Band Parent Association for four years. However, McCusker’s work to strengthen parental involvement within her district began when she realized that her sons’ middle school, Gautier Middle School, didn’t have a parent-teacher organization.

Lisa S. McCusker, the Mississippi Department of Education “Parent of the Year,” helped rebuild trust among the Gautier High School Band’s parent association and the band’s directors when she first became involved. She is pictured here second from the right. Photo courtesy Lisa S. McCusker.

McCusker said a support system was in place when her sons were in elementary school, and it was easier for students and parents to have dialogues with the school/district. Middle school, McCusker believes, brings different challenges for children that require a support system that her sons’ school didn’t have.

“The middle-school experience is very different because there are emotional changes, physical changes, and the curriculum gets harder,” she said. Recognizing that these challenges would require lines of communication between parents and the school, McCusker took matters into her own hands.

“I partnered with parents to create a middle-school support team that came alongside the administration and their strategic plans for improving communication and parental activity on campus,” she said.

The support team was divided into committees that allowed for every parent to find a role they were comfortable in whether it be providing snacks for after-school tutoring or helping plan teacher-appreciation days.

“We were able to cast a wide net to the parental group to be more transparent about the needs at the middle school,” McCusker said. “They were really struggling with how the way they had been communicating before wasn’t being received.”

Acting as a conduit between parents and administration, McCusker and the support team “took some of the weight off of their (parents’) shoulders” allowing them to focus on other parts of their children’s lives.

A Nephew’s Suicide

McCusker’s concern over student support at all educational levels, while organic to her as a mother, largely stems from the suicide of her nephew, Nicholas Kemp, three months after John-Micheal was born.

“That was a pivotal moment for me being a new mother,” McCusker said. “Walking through that with my sister and my family changed who I wanted to be going forward.

“I made a commitment to myself and Nicholas that I would love every child who came across my path regardless of where they were from, what they were doing or how they were behaving,” she said.

McCusker said that this commitment has brought her closer with her sons, but also the community around them. “I have this window into my children’s world that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t active, and I’m able to be there for their friends, so they know they have somebody who cares,” she said.

The ability to create community within McCusker’s district and have healthy relationships with teachers and administrators is not the case within all of Mississippi’s 86 districts where some administrators and teachers are not responsive to the needs of parents and students. McCusker said the strength of the Pascagoula-Gautier district starts “at the top.”

Pascagoula-Gautier’s superintendent Wayne V. Rodolfich “is huge on open communication, transparency” and “encouraging parents to get involved,” McCusker said. “Our district worked really hard in providing an open door policy to enable parents, even if they don’t feel up to task, to have someone and somewhere to go to ask for help.

“Honestly, if an administrator or teacher is not passionate about loving kids who come to their door, they don’t need to be there,” McCusker said. “It saddens me to think that there are districts in our state who don’t have incredible relationships, but I know in our district they care about the students, and it’s ultimately about the students and their future.”

Rebuilding A Culture of Trust

While there was a smoothness in the relationship between the distinct and parents, McCusker said she felt a “brokenness” between the Gautier High School band’s parent association and the band’s directors when she first became involved.

“There had been real struggle in the executive board in years prior, and there was a lot of trust broken between leadership and parent,” McCusker said.

McCusker (left) and Leeja Humber (right), Gautier High School’s vice president of the parent band association described the beginning of their relationship as “yin and yang.” Photo courtesy Lisa S. McCusker.

Parent participation and support were low throughout McCusker’s first year on the band’s parent association. When, the board’s current president stepped down to pursue an official district job, McCusker was voted in and set out to “rebuild a culture of trust.”

McCusker said the beginning of her job started with “transparency and apology,” which allowed her to bring back a sense of togetherness to Gautier High School’s band community. Organizational fixes like using e-sign up for concession-stand shifts and asking parents their individual opinions on how the band could best be supported allowed for McCusker to ensure that her leadership was proactive and impactful.

“It’s all about communication, and perspective plays a huge role,” McCusker said. “Everybody has a different perspective from where they’re standing.”

McCusker’s leadership, alongside Gautier High School’s band director Brandon Wilson, eventually led to the creation of “The Swamp Classic,” the Pascagoula-Gautier district’s first marching-band competition in the area. Nine bands participated in the competition last year, and McCusker said the band generated a profit of $5,000, which she intends to double during the 2020 school year.

The transition between McCusker and the band’s parent board’s previous president did suffer some bumps in the road, however. McCusker said that her current vice president, Leeja Humber, was at first wary of McCusker’s “can do it” approach to leading the band’s parent association because of how different it was from how it used to operate. Humber even considered leaving the board.

Humber described her initial relationship with McCusker as “yin and yang.” After being a band parent for eight years and holding a position on the band board each of these years, Humber said it was easy to see McCusker’s big ideas as unprecedented for Gautier High School’s band.

“Lisa has always had a vision for things, and sometimes that’s scary,” Humber told the Mississippi Free Press. “I had to find a place of trust.”

Humber said McCusker’s spirit of determination quickly taught the board the value of change, though. “Her enthusiasm and ability to follow through with things motivated all of us to be better than we were,” she said.

After several conversations, and McCusker making a commitment to listen to concerns from a team perspective, Humber chose to continue. McCusker recalled that after the two presented a Christmas gift to the superintendent, Humber turned to her and said, “I’m so glad that I stayed, and I can’t wait to see what next year looks like.”

Humber remembers that day with “feelings of excitement and things to come” that were inspired by what she describes as McCusker’s impactful leadership. “(Lisa) doesn’t take no for an answer, but in a good way. She’ll take the lead, and sometimes I’m just in awe,” she said.

“Those are the types of moments you live for in life,” McCusker said, reflecting on Humber’s kind words to her. “That’s what you want. You want people to feel like you’ve loved them through their hardest moment of the school year, and that you’ve pushed them to want to come back.”

McCusker, who received the honors of Gautier High School and Pascagoula-Gautier district parent of the year before her statewide win, said she hopes her win encourages other parents to be more involved at their schools.

“Keep doing what you’re doing, McCusker said about parents. “And if you’re not doing anything, get up and find something to do.”

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