Movers & shakers

The state-run Achievement Schools has a new academic leader. Here’s her vision for amplifying the district’s top teachers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD's chief of academics in August. She's now a finalist to lead schools in a Massachusetts district.

As the newly named chief academic officer for Tennessee’s turnaround district, Verna Ruffin said one of her first priorities will be investing in their top tier teachers.

“We know that we have critical work to do,” Ruffin said. “And we also know that investing in our classrooms is a sure way to move the needle on student achievement. We have teachers who are doing amazing work. We need to amplify them.”

Ruffin joins the state’s Achievement School District, known as the ASD, during a chaotic season of change. One month after she was hired as part of a major leadership team overhaul, the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, announced she was stepping down. Ruffin will work with the interim superintendent, Kathleen Airhart, until Anderson’s replacement is hired.

When the state-run district launched in 2011, it was with the aspiration to turn around schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state through new charter management. But results have lagged, and school leaders say turnaround work has been harder than expected in Memphis, where many of their students live in generational poverty and come to school behind grade level.

Ruffin’s role with the five-year-old district is a new one. She will oversee the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by the former executive director, Tim Ware. But her job description also includes raising the academic bar across all 32 ASD schools and promoting more collaboration among them.

The most recent round of state test scores show the district has work ahead to reach its visionaries’ original goal. The state’s growth scores, announced last week, rank the Achievement district as a level 1, the lowest possible score. And within the direct-run Achievement Schools, which Ruffin directly oversees, three of five schools scored a level 1.

Ruffin got her start in education more than 30 years ago as a band director in Louisiana before moving into school leadership roles. She was an assistant superintendent in Tulsa, Okla., where she specialized in working with low-performing schools, before becoming superintendent at Jackson-Madison County Schools in 2013. She will earn $115,000 a year with the Achievement Schools.

We sat down with Ruffin to hear about her game plan for improving the Achievement district’s academics in her new role. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Tennessee’s growth formula, known as TVAAS, ranked the ASD as a level 1 overall for academic growth. What is your initial read of those scores, and how do you plan to raise the bar?

I’m very proud of the schools that earned a rating of 5 and for their contributions for growing students beyond a typical year’s growth. Of the five schools in the direct-run Achievement Schools, we had one at a level 5 and one at a level 3.

But the other direct-run schools and a number of schools within the whole network received a level 1. There is an urgency to focus on instruction and strategies to help children become successful. I’m thinking through — what does this mean for individual schools?

A focus for me will be to look at staff members and their individual TVAAS scores. We have level 5 teachers, and we can get them to collaborate more and bring their strengths to their own campuses, but also to the ASD as a network. The TVAAS conversation is still challenging to understand. How do you measure growth? How can you determine that when the assessment has changed?  It can be hard to get people to subscribe to something you can’t explain, and we’re having ongoing conversations about what the data can tell us moving forward.

Talk to me more about your vision for investing in individual teachers to raise academic performance.

When I was superintendent in Jackson-Madison, we added instructional times in the afternoons at one of our lower performing schools. We sought level 4 and 5 teachers across the district and asked them: “Would you come teach at this school in the afternoons during their after-school program?” We asked the teachers to look at the data of students within that school and come up with a plan for what they were going to teach the children. We opened up an application process, and teachers came. That year, this school jumped from a level 1 to a level 5 in growth. We attribute that to the emphasis on instruction and the quality staff that was willing to work with the children in an after-school, purposeful, instructional model.

We think that this model, effectively implemented, is how you’re going to change learning for children. We do not have enough level 4 or 5 teachers across the district to just say, we’re going to take a level 5 teacher from this school and put them over in this school because then we’re going to create a deficit model. So, it’s about how to utilize the talent of your current staff and spread it out so they can influence children in another school in an acceptable way to teachers. This is something I would absolutely consider doing within the ASD.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the ASD as a whole?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that the ASD has existed with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and people are accustomed to that autonomy. And they may not quite embrace the fact that even if we have autonomy, we have a shared goal. And we have to meet that goal.

So, the autonomy of the ASD isn’t going away, but we have to better describe and define what an ASD education is. Our goal is the same for every school in the ASD, to raise student achievement. We have a moral responsibility working with the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee to not stay at the bottom 5 percent. And so, having said that, there are some things that we’ve got to do that are non-negotiable that will get us out of the bottom 5 percent of schools. We have to be better. We have to figure out what’s going to make the ASD stand out, and how we work together as a very diverse group of schools.

Part of your role is to foster more collaboration between the direct-run Achievement Schools and the other charter-run schools within the ASD. What is your vision for building cross-district collaboration?

First, is taking the time to make connections. We are doing this work together, and the only way we can do that is to know one another. It’s a very small, but a big step. I am planning on meeting with the other chief academic officers in the ASD to work in step with them on a vision for the future.

We’re also creating a new academic team, which we are still in the process of hiring for. This team will include content specialists in literacy and math that will work across the district. These specialists can help us zero in across the district on what effective instruction is.

Our focus — across all ASD schools — on kindergarten through third-grade literacy is also going to be very strong this year. I’m asking questions like, “What does a phonics lesson look like across the ASD? How can we learn from one another on how to better teach phonics?”

We’re no longer working in silos, but there’s going to be collaboration on what classroom instruction looks like. And then we’re going to better monitor that instruction and hold ourselves accountable to making the gains we have to make.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.