STAR LEADERSHIP

Seeking a new direction, this Memphis elementary school is turning to young black men for leadership

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Robert Harvey, Edward Stephens and James Johnson make up the new leadership team of STAR Academy Charter School in Memphis.

When principal James Johnson walks the hallways of STAR Academy Charter School in Memphis, students frequently reach out to give him a fist bump or a high five.

Johnson revels in such impromptu connections. As the new principal, he has worked quickly to create a new kind of culture at the mostly African-American elementary school, where he and two other young black males serve as the top leaders.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
James Johnson visits a classroom at STAR Academy, where he became principal last fall.

“We know it makes a difference if we’re excited to greet our students,” said Johnson, 29. “We want to be here, we want them to be here, and we want them to be excited about that.”

Opened in 2004, STAR is one of Memphis’ oldest charter schools but turned to new leadership to address static enrollment and academic performance. Johnson was recruited last fall by Robert Harvey, 28, who became STAR’s chief executive officer in 2016 and hired Edward Stephens, 31, as chief strategy officer.

The trio of young black male administrators stands out in the world of elementary education. Nationwide, only 2 percent of K-12 educators are black men. It’s slightly better in Shelby County Schools, which oversees more than 40 charter schools including STAR. Male educators of color comprise almost 10 percent of the workforce in the Memphis district.

Research shows that for students like those at STAR, where 94 percent of children are of color, the presence of an educator who looks like them can make a big difference, especially for boys. A recent study showed that black boys in Tennessee and North Carolina were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades.

But recruiting such educators continues to be a struggle for Tennessee districts, reflecting a nationwide challenge. Of the candidates who completed the state’s teacher programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of Tennessee’s student population.

Harvey came to Memphis by way of the East Coast, where he worked as an administrator with several private boarding schools. As a graduate student at Harvard University, he studied black male students, academic achievement and poverty in Memphis — research that he now calls “serendipitous” because of his arrival at STAR Academy.

Harvey is well aware that his own academic journey offers hope to his students, and boys in particular.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Students raise their hands during a lesson at STAR Academy.

“For young men in elementary school, we know a guiding factor for the prison pipeline is third-grade literacy,” Harvey said. “We’re going to offer a counter narrative through our leadership team. We’re here to shift the conversation with our students and show them that their futures are in no way pre-determined.”

That means rethinking school culture, parental engagement, and student discipline at STAR, which has an enrollment of 248. Last year, the school suspended 10 students. Harvey’s goal is to get that number to zero.

“When a student — in particular a black boy — is suspended, the chances of them graduating high school is reduced and the chances of them going to prison is increased,” Harvey said. “We have students sit with us for hours sometimes rather than sending them home. And we don’t believe in a compounding discipline model, either. Every day is a fresh start for a child.”

Toward that end, the school’s new “check system” for discipline gives each student four chances to improve behavior before experiencing a consequence. Building relationships are key, according to Johnson, himself a former elementary school teacher in Memphis.

“We’re working with our teachers on discipline training, but also in giving them support in the classroom so they can focus on instruction,” Johnson said. “We know many of our students don’t have a direct male presence at home. We’re trying to be a visible, positive influence. A handshake or hug can do a lot.”

Shelia Matthews, a longtime STAR teacher, said she’s already seeing a difference in school culture.

“Some are big changes, but some are little things, like leadership going out to greet the car line every morning during drop-off,” she said. “They’ve gained respect in a short amount of time.”

Charlie Tate, the father of a fifth-grader and active in the school’s basketball program, said he was nervous at first about the leadership change but now sees how Harvey and his team are building relationships that might have eluded other administrators.

“I can tell you because of my experience with the basketball team, a lot of children don’t have father figures in the house,” he said. “In their teachers, they’ve had positive role models and relationships with women, and that’s great. But seeing a man who looks like them in a role of principal or school leader or teacher while they’re so young, I’ve realized what a huge deal that is to these boys.”

names are in

Ten apply for vacant seat on the Memphis school board, but six live outside of seat’s district

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Former Shelby County Board of Education Chairwoman Teresa Jones confers with then Superintendent Dorsey Hopson during a 2015 school board meeting. Jones' seat is now up for an interim appointment.

Ten people have put their name in to become the next board member of Tennessee’s largest school district.

The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and would serve until the term expires in August 2020, not October as previously reported.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Jones’ district 2 serves neighborhoods including North Memphis, Binghampton, and Berclair. Chalkbeat found that six applicants live outside of the district. Shelby County Commissioner Michael Whaley said this would likely prevent them from an appointment, but the commission is seeking clarity from the state and election commission.

Whaley also said the interim appointment was extended to August 2020 because Tennessee law doesn’t specify that special elections are necessary for the school board, so the interim will finish out Jones’ term.

The county commission is scheduled to name a successor on Monday Feb. 25, a day before the school board’s meeting that month. The commission is slated to interview candidates Wednesday at 10 a.m., but Whaley said more names could be added by commissioners prior to the vote on Monday We’ve linked to their full applications below.

Applicants are:

Althea Greene

  • She is a retired teacher from Memphis City Schools and childcare supervisor with Shelby County Schools. She is currently Pastor of Real Life Ministries.

Arvelia Chambers

  • She is a senior certified pharmacy technician with Walgreens. She said she’s a “passionate aunt” of three children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Her listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Aubrey Howard

  • He works as the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office. He formerly worked for the City of Memphis, and said in his application that he previously ran for school board and lost.

Charles McKinney

  • He is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College. He is on the board of Crosstown High Charter School, and is the father of two Shelby County Schools students.

David Brown

  • He is the executive director of digital ministry at Brown Missionary Baptist Church and graduated from  Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly east of District 2.

Erskine Gillespie

  • Gillespie previously ran for City Council district 7 but lost. He is an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank. He said in his application that he was one of the first students to enter the optional schools program in the Memphis district.

Kenneth Whalum, Jr.

  • He is a pastor at The New Olivet Worship Center and previously served as a school board member for the former Memphis City Schools; he was first elected in 2006. He has vocally opposed the process behind the 2013 merger of the city school system with legacy Shelby County Schools.
  • Whalum ran against school board member Kevin Woods in 2012 and lost.
  • His listed address is near the University of Memphis, not in District 2.

Makeda Porter-Carr

  • She is a research administrator at St. Jude Research Hospital.
  • Her listed address is in southeast Memphis, not in District 2.

Michael Hoffmeyer Sr.

  • He is the director of the University of Memphis’ Crews Center for Entrepreneurship in which he works with college and high school students. He graduated from Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Tyree Daniels

  • He helped found Memphis College Prep charter school. He lost to Jones in a school board race in 2012. Daniels is now a part of Duncan-Williams Inc. — the firm handling public financing for the project Union Row.
  • His listed address is in east Memphis, not in District 2.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.