HUNTSVILLE — “Every challenge you face is really just an opportunity.”
This is the mindset of Huntsville City Schools’ newly minted Superintendent Dr. Clarence Sutton Jr. It defines his mode of thought and his everyday actions.
On Tuesday, the school board unanimously selected Dr. Sutton as Huntsville City Schools’ superintendent. While the local news media has covered the story, everyone deserves to know more about the man leading Huntsville City Schools into the 2023-2024 school year and beyond.
So who is the real Dr. Sutton? What motivates him to serve our city’s youth? What is his story?
This is an attempt to tell that story, a story that deserves telling.
A child of Civil Rights Era educators
Sutton’s parents, both born in the 1940s, grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights Era. They were in elementary school when the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision held that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. They witnessed through childhood eyes the aftermath in Alabama following the decision.
Sutton’s parents met at Alabama State University in Montgomery. While in college, they
joined the last leg of the famous march to the Capitol building led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
At their core, Sutton’s parents were advocates of equality and opportunity.
In addition to being a preacher, Sutton’s father began his career as a special education
teacher in the Tuscaloosa City School system during the 1960s. His mother was an English
teacher in the same school system. Sutton was born a few years later in the summer of 1970 and grew up attending Tuscaloosa City schools.
While he was a child, Sutton’s parents instilled in him the importance of loving your neighbor. According to him, the biggest lesson his parents taught him was “that love could
When asked what his motivating force has been throughout his rise in the educational arena, he was quick to respond: “To make my parents proud.”
Opportunity to make a difference
Sutton graduated from Central High School in Tuscaloosa. After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies, he eventually returned to the Tuscaloosa City School
At first, he worked for a middle school, where he excelled in turning around the struggling school as its assistant principal (as well as coaching the boys’ basketball team.)
In 2010, he was recruited to be the principal of Central High School. Initially, he had
his reservations. Central High struggled with issues of violence, poor attendance, and low test scores.
Despite its challenges, Sutton saw an opportunity to make a difference. He agreed to accept the position.
Over the next 10 years, Central High School did a 180-degree turnabout. After his work was done, Central had made itself off the dreaded “failing schools” list. Graduation rates skyrocketed and scholarship offers for students ticked significantly upward.
Under his leadership, the school established a magnet program, attracting a diverse array of students through its innovative educational programs. In addition, when he left at
the end of 2019, Central was one of the safest schools in all of Tuscaloosa.
His work at Central High School made Dr. Sutton a star in the eyes not only of the Tuscaloosa community, but also in the eyes of the Alabama State Department of Education and other city school systems.
Huntsville City Schools, always on the search for top talent, hired him away in late 2019. He began his position as the chief academic officer of Huntsville City Schools in January 2020 and he hasn’t looked back serving Huntsville’s youth since that time.
Sutton eventually took on more responsibilities, becoming the deputy superintendent of Learning Supports and the district’s chief of staff.
Accept blame, give the credit
Today, Sutton is the superintendent of the school system of the largest city in Alabama. He
has lofty goals for our city’s school system, but he always keeps one principle at the forefront of his mind that goes back to his basketball coaching days – “when you win, the players get the credit. When you lose, it’s your fault.”
Sutton is the definition of a leader. He is quick to accept blame for any shortcomings and also quick to deflect any praise onto the city’s teachers and administrative professionals.
His authenticity is glaring. He retains the same good-natured optimism at all times, with all
different types of people, in all different types of settings.
In addition to his intangible character traits, his colleagues admire his skill set, including his fortes of strategic planning and structural organization.
Living his parents’ legacy
Sutton’s father passed away last year. His father didn’t get to witness his son being selected as the leader of our city school system. Sutton’s mother is now almost blind, living in the Dallas, Texas, area.
While his parents may not have been able to physically see their son rise to his new position at the top of the school system of one of the best places to live in America, there can be no doubt that he has made his parents proud; that he is living their legacy of creating opportunity.
And while our city’s school system may face its challenges, under Dr. Sutton’s leadership, those challenges will assuredly be treated as opportunities.
His parents would expect nothing less.
Bart Siniard is a contributing writer to 256 Today. He is a personal injury attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Siniard Law.