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VIProfile: Trey Duke

By Lee Rennick

In the middle of the pandemic, Trey Duke took on the role of Director of Murfreesboro City Schools. Like his predecessor, the much-loved Dr. Linda Arms Gilbert, he jumped in with both feet to insure the children were getting the instruction they needed. Beginning his career as a teacher, he knew that there are few things as critical as making sure each child has every opportunity to learn in person each day. He is proud of all of the teachers and staff who stepped up to the plate to do whatever they could to maximize learning in these rough times. Despite all of the hardships caused by the pandemic, the system’s state academic growth scores from last year show that the herculean effort paid off.

“Teaching has always been a passion for me,” said Duke, “and the work has never let me down. I have always found teaching and education truly enjoyable. My dad used to tell us, ‘find something you love to do, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ That was teaching for me.”

Duke has obviously carried that love of teaching into his position as Director of Murfreesboro City Schools. He has always enjoyed getting to know the students he was responsible for whether that be as a teacher or as a principal, and also in his current position.

“There are few things as great as building relationships with students and seeing them grow and do great things,” added Duke. The students walking the halls of our schools today are the future of this community, and working with them and helping them to be their best is my favorite part of this job.”

When the opportunity to become the Director of Schools for Murfreesboro City School System (MCS) presented itself, Duke knew he wanted to be part of the next chapter of the system’s story. He wanted to build off the great things that this district is already known for thanks to the late Dr. Gilbert.

Dr. Gilbert 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. Much of her time as Director of Schools was spent developing partnerships and finding needed resources to ensure “her children,” and the teachers who worked with them every day, had everything they needed to succeed.

“…[She] committed her life to making this city a better place to raise a family,” Duke explained,“ and I knew this was something I wanted to continue. Since I took this job in March of 2021, I have been repeating a refrain that I hope becomes synonymous with our work: I want every student, teacher, bus driver, support staff, parent and employee of MCS to feel known, safe, challenged and empowered here.”

Creating these feelings of safety, challenge, acceptance and empowerment were something he learned for the first time from his fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Tonya Murphy. She created a classroom that “felt like the best place in the world.” She was kind, soft-spoken and she made the kids feel that she liked them as individuals.

“I am not 100 percent sure what all we learned that year,” said Duke, “but I can remember how her classroom made me feel. One of the greatest joys in my career was when I got my first assistant principal position at Smyrna Elementary. Shortly after being named, I found out Ms. Murphy – now Mrs. Tonya Hollandsworth – was still teaching…at my new school. On our first in-service day, she brought a scrap book that included things I had given her back when I was in her class. t proved to me that she really did like us as much as we thought she did.”

Going through the pandemic, Duke saw that like his former teacher, the local community really cares about the kids, too. While teachers collaborated, learned and kept students at the focus of their work, the community was ready to help in any way they could to help the teachers help the kids. The City Schools Foundation, made up of local community leaders, donated money for the purchase of technology so kids could learn from home. United Way volunteers brought in supplies for weekly food bags and school supplies. And others across the city asked how they could help, allowing the system to address the specific needs of many individual families.

“For kids [during the pandemic],” said Duke, “I learned they are some of the most resilient and adaptive citizens we have. I think about our current kindergarten through second graders who have never experienced a school year without COVID in the mix, and yet they still bring the joy of childhood to our buildings each day.”

When he is not working, Duke enjoys time with his “amazing wife and two boys.” For him, fun is any chance he gets to spend a lazy Saturday at home with them. He also loves to travel as a family. He and his wife, Leslie, are always thinking about the next great city or site they can take in together.

“[The boys] are growing up fast,” said Duke, “so we are both trying to take in every moment we have with them.”

Duke has lived in Rutherford County since he was four, when his family moved to the La  Vergne area from Nashville. He is one of four children from a very busy household filled with sports, church activities and a huge focus on family.

“My parents [also] put a lot of emphasis on our education,” explained Duke, “and were insistent we do our best and go to college. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and Middle Tennessee State University was my first choice for schools. I am True Blue and I am proud to say that I have received all three of my degrees from Middle.”

He met his wife at church when they were in fourth grade. They grew up together, and when she moved back to Rutherford County after college they reconnected. She grew up in Murfreesboro with her family, so that is where they bought their first home.

“We love this city,” added Duke, “and it is the only home our two boys, Neal (12) and Nathan (10), have ever known.”

As the end of his first full year as Director of Schools comes into view, Duke is looking to the future. He is focused on building off of the great things that have been done in the past to make sure MCS continues to be a leader in the state. He wants to build their STEM program so that every school earns the Tennessee STEM designation that five of their schools have already obtained. He wants the system to become known for the great things they are doing around literacy. And he wants every parent to know that when their child leaves MCS they will be fully prepared to meet the academic challenges of middle and high school.

“Ultimately,” noted Duke, “I want our district to be the pride of our city, and a reason more and more people want to call Murfreesboro their home.”

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