As Shelby County Schools prepares to grow its Innovation Zone for the fifth consecutive year, Regional Superintendent Sharon Griffin is expanding her leadership team that provides coaching for principals driving school turnaround work.

The charismatic chief of one of the school system’s most successful initiatives, Griffin will have three lieutenants next school year to help her oversee 22 schools, up from 18 this year.

Lionel Cable, a principal at one of the first iZone schools, is leaving Douglass K-8 to join the iZone leadership team as an instructional leadership director.

He joins Tonye Smith-McBride, a former principal at Treadwell Middle School, who came on board last May and has been coaching iZone principals with Griffin. A third director is expected to be hired for next school year. One will oversee elementary schools, another middle schools, and the third for high schools.

The new structure is necessary to support the steady growth of the iZone, which began in 2012 with seven schools and is in the process of adding four more.

“We want to grow leadership in the building,” said Smith-McBride. “We support principals just like our coaches support teachers.”

The iZone absorbs Memphis schools that are in the state’s bottom 5 percent and implements intensive turnaround strategies to improve student academic scores. Last year, most Memphis iZone schools saw gains in math and science on state TCAP exams, while more than a third bucked state and district trends and improved their scores in reading and language arts.

The district has been aggressively moving Memphis’ low-performing “priority” schools into the iZone, both to jumpstart improvement and to keep at bay the state-run Achievement School District. The ASD has authority under state law to remove priority schools from local control and implement school turnaround strategies, usually assigning them to established charter networks and providing support and flexibilities designed to foster improvement.

As the Innovation Zone enters its fifth year of operation next school year, leaders are rebranding the initiative from a “fix-it” zone to a long-term education improvement model, according to Griffin.

“We’re no longer just taking under-performing schools. We’ve taken them, but we’re also making sure that all of our students are reading on grade level and above. We’re going to be the new optional schools,” she said of the district’s higher-performing theme-based schools focusing on academic achievement.

Next school year, the district is moving Douglass, Mitchell and Westwood high schools and Westhaven Elementary School into the iZone. Westhaven, a newly constructed elementary school, will replace Fairley and Raineshaven elementary schools, which are closing this year.

The additions will complete several feeder patterns within iZone schools — a strategic move to create a consistent achievement pipeline for students, Griffin said.

Griffin also is in the process of hiring three content coaches for reading, math and science teachers for the upcoming iZone cohort.

Cable’s new job was effective March 1. The assistant principal will serve as the interim principal and Cable will continue to support the school.

Principal Lionel Cable (right) speaks last fall with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit last fall to Douglass K-8 school.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Principal Lionel Cable (right) speaks last fall with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit last fall to Douglass K-8 school.

“We’re not going to rush this decision. We want the iZone to continue to shine,” Cable told Chalkbeat. “Teachers have the most influence. Principals are a close second as far as who have the most influence on student achievement.”

Cable is completing his fifth year as principal at Douglass K-8 after four years at White Station Middle School as an assistant principal and five years as a band teacher at Ridgeway Middle School. Under Cable’s leadership in the turnaround model, Douglass K-8 saw testing score gains, moving from about 18 percent of students proficient or advanced in math in 2011 to more than 49 percent last year. In reading and language arts over the same period, the school went from 15 to almost 28 percent.

At Douglass, Cable hosted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last October during a visit to Memphis to discuss school turnaround work, among other things.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Cable would remain Douglass’s principal while working at the iZone until a replacement is found. District officials said the school’s assistant principal will become the interim principal, and Cable will support the school going forward.