CARROLLTON, GA – Arguably no one has made a more significant impact on public education in Georgia than Tom Upchurch, former superintendent of Carrollton City Schools, who was honored April 15 as the 17th recipient of the Carrollton High School Distinguished Alumni Award.
Though technically not a Carrollton alumnus, “his influence on the quality of our school system – and public education as an institution – is unmatched,” said Dr. Mark Albertus, current superintendent, who presented Upchurch the award during the CHS Academic Achievement Awards Program held in the Mabry Center for the Arts.
Upchurch first joined Carrollton City Schools in 1977 as principal of CHS, a leadership post he held for four years. He then served the next 13 as superintendent where he became known across the state as a visionary leader who championed education reform, the emergence of computer technology for the classroom, and the desperate need for early-learning opportunities, especially for at-risk students. This latter passion put Carrollton City Schools on the map as the first public school district in Georgia to offer a free prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
“Georgia political and corporate leadership alike regularly sought his advice,” said Albertus during the presentation. “They valued his passion for public education and his willingness to take chances for the betterment of all children. They listened to him explain why a strong public education system was critical to not only make Georgia successful as a state, but to make Georgia equally successful in economic development pursuits.”
As superintendent, one strategic move he made created the 130-acre campus the community enjoys today. In 1986, he moved Carrollton Junior High School to its current location followed by Carrollton Elementary School in 1992 when three elementary schools scattered across town – Alabama Street, College Street, and Maple Street – were consolidated. These two newer schools now shared the same footprint with Carrollton High School, leaving plenty of room for later leadership to add another school and outstanding art and athletic facilities.
“As a result, visitors today marvel at how a public school campus boasts the feel of an elite private school experience, a distinction that can be credited to Mr. Upchurch’s forward thinking,” said Albertus.
Albertus also noted that through determination and charisma, Upchurch successfully nurtured community and business partnerships that produced millions of dollars in contributions to support academic, athletic, and technological endeavors for the district, including the formation of the Carrollton City Schools Education Foundation, a nonprofit that has grown from a $20,000 single fund in 1992 to a portfolio expected to surpass the $1 million mark this year. Upchurch also was instrumental in establishing the broader-focused Community Foundation of West Georgia, another nonprofit serving three counties that holds $100 million in total assets.
Over the years, Upchurch developed a statewide reputation as an educational leader whose vision was followed by savvy execution. He continued this focus as a member of the state Board of Education and served on numerous state education reform committees under Georgia Govs. Zell Miller and Roy Barnes that radically changed educational practices in the state, including an emphasis placed on what is now a standard goal of all school districts – closing the achievement gap.
In 1994 Upchurch left Carrollton City Schools to lead the statewide organization Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, where he used his political skills to guide efforts among business, government and education leaders who shared a commitment to improve education.
Those who are close to him say Upchurch’s passions have never waned, and even in retirement, he is a constant knowledge-seeker who seeks opportunities for the common good. Part of this includes philanthropic work for various causes, including KidsPeace, a therapeutic boarding school in Bowdon he has supported since its beginning that serves adolescents with behavioral and emotional disorders.
Active in the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, especially in Workforce Education, the chamber named a special award after Upchurch in 2012 as a tribute to his efforts to reform public education and create quality jobs for Carroll County citizens. He has been recognized countless other times for his impact on education by other local and state organizations, including the Georgia Council on Economic Education, Voices for Georgia’s Children, University of West Georgia, Mercer University, the Georgia School Boards Association, and the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. In 2018, he and his wife Patsy, also a lifelong educator, were presented the UWG Alumni Achievement Award for their community service efforts, which included the establishment of a foundation for schools in their hometown of Bowdon.
When Upchurch walked up to the podium to make closing remarks, he said he never expected Carrollton High School would honor him in this way, especially since he was not an official alum. But he did note his children, John Upchurch and Lisa Upchurch Moore, are alumni and assured this next crop that they, too, will leave CHS ready to take on the world.
“This experience at Carrollton High School, even during this pandemic year, has prepared you for that next step in this journey of life,” he said. “Your parents and grandparents and teachers – especially your teachers – they expected you to be good students. But you far exceeded any expectation.”
Upchurch quipped about older generations giving unsolicited advice to younger ones. “Most old people can’t resist giving advice and I’m no exception to that,” he said. “I encourage you to find mentors you respect and look at those things that made them who they are. I remember one person in particular who helped me develop that core set of beliefs that we all need to guide our daily lives. You know what they are – honesty, integrity and hard work.”
“Try hard things. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take a chance,” he continued. “Express your emotions especially to those you love and who love you. Listen to others, but make your own decisions.”
Upchurch closed with a key piece of advice especially poignant during these polarized times.
“Treat all with whom you come in contact with respect,” he told the students. “That means those you like as well as dislike. Those with whom you agree and those with whom you disagree. Look for the good and call attention to it whenever you have an opportunity.”
Upchurch joins an impressive list of distinguished alumni who have been recognized through this honor initiative. Launched in 2012, the program to date has honored 15 other exceptional CHS graduates: Edith Foster, Class of 1922; Albert Jones and J. Steward Martin, Class of 1930; J.Willis Hurst, Class of 1937; E.C. “Sonny” Bass, Class of 1938; Hollis Harris, Class of 1949; John H. Burson, Class of 1951; Richard M. Ingle, Class of 1964; D. Garvin Byrd, Class of 1969; Jane Crosson, Class of 1974; William Crosson, Class of 1976; Scott Deviney, Class of 1989; James C. Pope, Class of 1962; Shereta Williams, Class of 1992; and Jim Borders, Class of 1979. In addition to Upchurch, the slate includes another honorary alumnus W.W. Fitts, who was a founding member of the Carrollton Board of Education.