The architect of one of Shelby County Schools’ school improvement programs is out as its leader just as the program is set to double in size.
The Memphis district announced in a robocall to parents and staff of the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone that Vincent Hunter has “decided to no longer lead” the program and instead will “focus his talents on solely leading Whitehaven High School.”
Angela Whitelaw, the district’s interim chief of schools, will take over as the district searches for a new leader “with the knowledge and the connection to the Whitehaven community that’s necessary to continue the work that Dr. Hunter started,” according to the announcement.
Hunter did not respond to a request for comment.
The announcement is a blow to the three-year-old program, which started as a way to leverage Hunter’s leadership skills by positioning him to work with multiple schools.
This fall, the Empowerment Zone is set to add six schools, which would more than double the size of the program: Geeter Middle, Manor Lake Elementary (which will now be combined into Geeter K-8), Whitehaven Elementary, Oakshire Elementary, Robert R. Church Elementary, and John P. Freeman Elementary.
The two middle schools already in the program, Havenview and A. Maceo Walker, have seen significant gains in their state test scores under Hunter’s coaching. Holmes Road Elementary, the sole elementary in the zone, did not improve its scores in its first year, but leaders are optimistic there will be improvement as the school adjusts.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson tapped Hunter to lead the Empowerment Zone in 2016 as a neighborhood-centric approach to improving schools. The effort was meant to build off the successes of the district’s Innovation Zone, which has sustained student gains for some of the lowest performing schools in the state. It was also meant to shield a group of low-performing schools in Whitehaven from state takeover.
Hunter, a Whitehaven High alum who has led the school for 14 years, gathered teachers from all the schools in the zone to collaborate on lesson plans. He also brought in college students to act as tutors through a partnership with Peer Power and the University of Memphis.
Schools that are lagging the most behind in state test scores are usually “fresh started” when they enter the zone, meaning that the new principal can replace teachers, especially those with low evaluation scores. Teachers are offered signing bonuses and are coached by educators who specialize in their grade level.
Beverly Davis, a parent leader in the zone’s community council, said the announcement doesn’t tell the whole story, but declined to elaborate.
“There is no way Dr. Hunter would pull out of the Empowerment Zone on his own,” she told Chalkbeat. District officials did not immediately comment on if Hunter was forced out.