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Dr. Linda Arms Gilbert's Maguum Opus

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By Lee Rennick

Expanding the minds of youth was Linda Gilbert’s mission in life. She believed with the right tools any child could learn. As Director of Murfreesboro City Schools, she touched the lives of many children in a positive way. She believed in reaching out to the whole child in a way that resonated with the individual child. When she died suddenly last year, she was still inspiring students, teachers and the community as she dealt with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on “her” kids. Gilbert was one of those rare people who inspired others to embrace her vision, while at the same time developing them to be the best person they can be.

Born and raised in Rutherford County, she graduated from Central High School in the late 1960s. She went on to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) where she received an education degree. She started as a music teacher for the city school district and won Teacher of the Year in 1997, shaking hands with President Bill Clinton at the White House. She went on to serve the school system as Community Relations Coordinator and Associate Director of Instruction. Eventually she left the system to become an Associate Professor at MTSU in their Educational Leadership Department. While there she received an honor from the Tennessee Education Association as its Distinguished Higher Education Faculty Member of the Year.
Becoming the Director of Schools was not on her radar, until she was approached by some members of the community to consider the position. In December of 2009, she was unanimously voted to become Director of Murfreesboro City Schools. She jumped in with both feet.

“In 2009 our Board was looking for a new Director and one of the applicants was Linda Gilbert,” said Butch Campbell, Chairman Murfreesboro City School Board. “I did not know Linda well, but after the interview process and the tremendous community support [she received,] I learned that Linda Gilbert was a quality person and we selected her as our new Director.”

As the Director, she spoke to many groups and organizations. When speaking to Youth Leadership Rutherford every year, she would tell the junior and senior high school students about how she saw her roll. She set up Murfreesboro City Schools to operate on an inverted pyramid, placing the children at the top and herself at the bottom. She felt her job was to give all the others above her the services, supplies and support needed to insure no child was left behind.

In an interview with the Murfreesboro Post several years ago she stated, “In order to lead people, they have to know you care about them. It’s my role to help others be successful so they can help the children succeed.” She worked hard to make the school system shine and in 2018, it was named Exemplary ACCESS for providing quality instruction and intervention to those who needed it. She also said that her toughest challenge was when she saw a child having a really tough time and the resources just aren’t there to help. She spent much of her time as Director of Schools developing partnerships and creating needed resources to insure “her children,” and the teachers who worked with them every day, had everything they needed to succeed.

One of the people she reached out to was Dr. Lana Seivers, Dean of the School of Education at MTSU. “Linda knew that the number of people going into teaching has been going down,” said Seivers. “She has been instrumental in bringing the 'Grow Your Own' program to Rutherford County and MTSU. The program allows a school system to develop current non-teachers who are good with children and have potential to turn into great teachers. It is a lot of work, and many of the results will be realized after she would have retired, but she was willing to invest the time to insure Murfreesboro City School System would have a supply of good teachers in the future. It is incredibly far sighted of her. And it will happen because of her, in spite of our loss of her continued vision.”

This is just one of the programs she spearheaded to insure teachers and children had the resources they needed to succeed. Beth Duffield, Senior Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, had similar experiences with Gilbert.

“Over the years we worked with City Schools on a number of initiatives,” said Duffield. “The earliest was the Afterschool Career Exploration project. We brought Junior Achievement volunteers and industry partners into the ESP programs at each Murfreesboro City School for monthly lessons and conversations about careers. I originally wanted to pilot the program with Boys & Girls Clubs in Murfreesboro and Smyrna. When Linda learned about it, she wanted to know why we weren’t including City Schools. My philosophy has always been to pilot an idea, work out the kinks and then scale it up. Not Linda. I think the word 'pilot' was a four- letter word to her. She wanted to help ALL her students, so we rolled up our sleeves and made it happen.”
Understanding that students have a lot of trouble with math, but it is an important need for success in our more technologically advanced world, and in the much-needed construction field, once again Gilbert jumped on board one of Duffield’s programs.

“In 2016, the Rutherford Works Construction Council helped Linda and Murfreesboro City Schools meet a long-term goal of launching a learning hands-on numeracy program called 'If I Had a Hammer.' Linda attended every Rutherford Works Construction Council meeting, and over the course of several conversations convinced our employer partners of the value of connecting with students in elementary school about the value of careers in construction. However, that meant they needed to be strong in math and also to understand how math was used in the real world. The employers… helped fund part of the program. They realized that despite a long-term return-on-investment of the proposition, there was great value to engage with elementary school students in order to help them to begin thinking about careers in construction seven to eight years into the future.”

Gilbert had also been working hard during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure that those children who depend on their schools for food were still being fed. Because to her taking care of the whole child includes making sure children have a healthy diet. She worked with Mayor Shane McFarland and the community to keep the program going in spite of increasing demands. The CHOW Bus, which has been providing food at 35 sites in the community and the Backpack Program, that provides food over the weekend to children from low income families, was running out of funding and food. Reaching out to McFarland, the city was able to connect her to the community, raising more than $20,000.

“The last time I was with Linda in person was at the end of February,” added Duffield, “during a visit with local government and education leaders to Overall Creek. She was so passionate about all of Murfreesboro City Schools becoming Tennessee STEM Innovation Network schools, because she understood that if students became immersed in problem solving and project-based and were exposed to high quality jobs - which are all STEM related - that our students would be set up for success and would help fill the jobs of the future. I’m thankful she was able to see the addition of Bradley Academy and Erma Siegel Elementary to those designations. She was so very proud.”

She worked hard to build a strong school system and built a strong base for the future. “Murfreesboro City is a standout district for many reasons,” said Trey Duke, new Director of Murfreesboro City Schools, “and the recognition and spotlights that often come to us are a direct result of the hard work, dedication and passion shown by every member of the MCS community. As I step into this new role, I am excited to continue and expand on the great foundation that was laid by Dr. Gilbert. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with Dr. Gilbert and see firsthand the difference that can be made when you are relentless in your pursuit of helping kids.”

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