Leaders matter

Memphis educator named Tennessee’s principal of the year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis.

A Shelby County Schools high school principal is Tennessee’s 2016-17 principal of the year.

Docia Generette-Walker, who leads Middle College High School in Memphis, received the honor Monday evening in Nashville at a statewide conference for educators. A popular selective school, Middle College High was recognized as a Tennessee reward school for academic performance and progress in 2015, as well as a National Blue Ribbon School.

“Under her five years of leadership at the school, expectations were raised across the board and now all students participate and succeed in high-level courses,” according to a news release from the State Department of Education.

That leadership also included embracing the push to give teachers in Memphis more frequent feedback. “If you needed a coach, it used to have a negative connotation,” she told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “Now, the teachers are getting used to having someone observing them every week. It’s a break in the isolation. We all need that support.”

The state also announced that a Middle Tennessee educator has been named Tennessee’s supervisor of the year.

Jennifer Brown, assistant director of instruction in Sumner County Schools, has led the district’s teacher leader work. Under her leadership, the school system achieved its highest graduation rate and is among 10 Tennessee districts recognized by the College Board on the National AP Honor Roll.

Generette-Walker and Brown were selected from a field of nine principals and nine district supervisors, respectively, after being nominated by their peers.

“Leaders matter. They have been critical to our children’s success in Tennessee, and both of these women represent excellence in how they lead our schools,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said.

The winners for Tennessee’s three grand divisions were also recognized Monday. In additional to Generette-Walker, principal-of-the-year honors for Middle Tennessee went to Robin Newell of Mitchell-Neilson Schools in Murfreesboro City Schools. For East Tennessee, the winner was Susan Trent of Surgoinsville Elementary School in Hawkins County.

For supervisor of the year, the winner for West Tennessee went to Michelle Elliott in the Trenton Special School District, while Phillip Swanson, supervisor for McMinn County Schools, won for East Tennessee.

Leaving

Ramirez resigns as academics chief for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Heidi Ramirez has resigned as chief of academics for Shelby County Schools, less than 2½  years after coming to Memphis to help turn around the fledgling district following a massive restructuring of the city’s education landscape.

In a letter emailed Tuesday morning to district principals and instructional leaders, Ramirez said she was leaving “to be closer to loved ones and take on new challenges.”

“I am so proud of the great work we have been able to accomplish together,” she wrote. “Together, we have accelerated implementation of both supports for struggling learners and good first teaching — especially in literacy, while also improving the overall climate for learning for both students and staff.”

Shelby County Schools confirmed Tuesday that her resignation is effective March 31, and Ramirez wrote that she would “ensure a successful transition process.”

Her resignation comes a little over a month after a restructuring of district leadership that included the promotion of Innovation Zone leader Sharon Griffin to chief of schools. Ramirez, who was hired as chief academic officer, became chief of academics. Meanwhile, Griffin took on some of the responsibilities previously shouldered by Ramirez and Brad Leon, now chief of strategy and performance management. All three serve on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet.

Ramirez came to Memphis from Milwaukee Public Schools. She previously was associate dean for the College of Education and director for Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University, and at one time served on Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.

When she arrived in Memphis in 2014, she was tasked with helping to increase the number of students reading on grade level, as well as the district’s graduation rate.

Those efforts may be starting to pay off.

She spearheaded a comprehensive literacy plan that pushed to improve reading skills across the curriculum. Last year, the district earned high marks for literacy growth for high school students who took the state’s TNReady test. However, overall growth scores were down, and the district is still far from its Destination 2025 goal of boosting third-grade reading proficiency to 90 percent by 2025.

Graduation rates have seen a slight bump, too. Some 78.7 percent of seniors received their diplomas in 2016, up from 75 percent the previous school year.

“I’m most proud of the work (we) have done to raise and reinforce expectations for our students,” she wrote, “and the continued evidence … that all of our children can achieve to high standards of career and college readiness…”

In her letter, Ramirez trumpets that student attendance is up and suspensions are down. She cites improvements in kindergarten readiness and student access to complex tests, and also notes that the growth in graduation rates extends to the district’s large population of black students, those with disabilities, and English language learners.

In a statement, Hopson praised Ramirez, especially for her work on Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan.

“(Her) vision has helped enhance planning and coordination across all of our academic departments and stakeholders — from teachers and coaches to school and district leaders,” he said.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that the district will look to tweak the job description in collaboration with Griffin before Ramirez leaves. “With all the work she’s done, I think we’re going to take it to the next level,” he said.

With approximately 105,000 students, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest school district, the result of a 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools, followed by the exit a year later of six suburban municipalities that started their own school system.

Correction, February 21, 2017: This article has been updated to include the correct percentages of graduation rates for Shelby County Schools. A previous version listed the state percentages instead of the district’s.

New Hire

Corporate leader tapped to handle facilities, business for Memphis schools

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Administrative offices for Tennessee's largest school district

Shelby County Schools has hired a corporate executive in Memphis to oversee its business operations.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Beth Phalen

In her new role with Tennessee’s largest district, Beth Phalen will oversee facilities planning and maintenance, nutrition services, district purchases and contracts, transportation and risk management.

She was most recently executive vice president of strategy and operations for ISS Facility Services and before that served as vice president of business operations at Memphis-based ServiceMaster.

Phalen fills a vacancy open since mid-2015 and rounds out Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s leadership team. Hopson took the helm in 2013 as the district’s first chief after the former Memphis City Schools merged with legacy Shelby County Schools.

The hire comes as Shelby County Schools is reshaping its facilities footprint and seeking to maintain a large number of aging buildings. The district also is seeking to diversify its business contracts to include more minority- and women-owned businesses.

Phalen replaces Hitesh Haria, now with Oakland Unified School District in California. Cerita Butler, the district’s director of business operations and procurement, has served as interim chief.